Parents, teachers and policymakers who listened to Tuesday night's State of the Union address heard an earful from President Barack Obama about his intentions to retool education's bookends by making community college free, expanding child care and increasing cybersecurity for students.
Obama mentioned few specifics about K-12 education, one of his administration's top priorities during his first term. Notably, the president mentioned not one word directly about one of his education secretary's priorities for 2015: rewriting the much-maligned No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush-era school accountability law. Obama also failed to mention the words teacher and testing.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a speech calling for overhauling No Child Left Behind. The speech marked a major policy shift for the administration, which had all but given up on a legislative fix.
No Child Left Behind, signed into law in 2002 by President George W. Bush, required that states regularly use standardized tests to measure the progress of public school students in reading and math, and to use those test results to reward or punish schools. The law included the aspirational goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014.
Even the law's original backers have acknowledged its flaws. Its use of raw test scores unfairly punished poorer schools, and provided perverse incentives for schools seeking high marks to exclude students with disabilities and to lower academic standards.
During his first presidential campaign, Obama promised to rewrite the law. Once he took office, he gave Congress a deadline of 2011 for rewriting the law. Despite fits and starts and the passage of a Republican version in the House, it didn't happen. Much to the chagrin of Congress, Obama and Duncan offered states waivers, giving them an escape from the law's increasing strictures in exchange for agreeing to implement Obama-preferred education reforms, such as test-based teacher evaluation.
Duncan last week told a crowd gathered at a Washington public school that the administration is seriously revisiting the idea of returning to a legislative fix, instead of waivers that could very well fade away the moment Obama leaves office.
"No Child Left Behind created dozens of ways for schools to fail and very few ways to help them succeed or to reward success," Duncan said. "We need to do exactly the opposite."
Duncan said the administration would call for boosting poor schools and streamlining standardized tests, but would still require them, because "parents and teachers and students have both the right and the absolute need to know how much progress all students are making each year."
Duncan is expected to reiterate this goal at a speech Wednesday to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Duncan's endorsement of a No Child Left Behind rewrite came as the new session of Congress swings into business. Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) will hold a hearing Wednesday on the role of standardized testing in the law. Alexander's office last week circulated draft legislation that would undo the law's key accountability provisions and lighten the standardized testing load.
Daria Hall, K-12 policy director at The Education Trust, an education advocacy and lobbying group that has supported No Child Left Behind's accountability provisions, said the group remains "unambiguous that the issues at stake in reauthorization are important to every student, parent, teacher, and community -- especially those that have too often been overlooked and underserved. And these issues need to be front and center in the national agenda."
Obama's failure to mention No Child Left Behind may have been because his administration focused its energy on K-12 education during his first term, said Anne Hyslop, a senior policy analyst at Bellwether Education Partners.
"K-12 has not been the focus of the president's state of the union proposals for several years. This is a recurring theme," Hyslop said. "So much of the push to reform K-12 came through the stimulus act through the first term with programs like Race to the Top. … All of those programs were dependent on that new money that was flowing to the department. The money has been cut off."
Others said they were pleased with the focus on different educational priorities.
“The president has laid out new plans to make college more affordable for all Americans, including a historic push to expand access to community college, improve some of our nation’s poorest performing schools, and protect our children’s privacy as we continue to introduce innovative new methods of learning," said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who has been active on education issues. "These initiatives, coupled with new resources for pre-K programs, will give lower and middle-class kids the tools to get ahead, no matter what their zip code."
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), in remarks prepared for her Republican rebuttal, had even less to say about education than Obama.
This article has been updated to include Daria Hall's comment.