No Child Left Behind Reform: Will Obama's Waiver Plan Really Diminish 'Teaching To The Test'?

Standing among governors, teachers, superintendents and students in the White House's East Room Friday morning, President Barack Obama asserted his administration's reforms to the federal No Child Left Behind act would minimize the need for educators to "teach to the test."

"Is John Becker here?" Obama asked, referring to a fourth-grade charter-school teacher. "John teaches at one of the highest-performing middle schools in D.C., and now with these changes we're making he's going to be able to focus on teaching his fourth-graders math in a way that improves their performance instead of just teaching to a test."

But that promise, which echoes a campaign pledge Obama made in a 2008 speech, might not square with the new NCLB waiver requirements he outlined.

Obama used the White House speech to announce that he and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan would roll back certain accountability requirements of NCLB, a decade-old bipartisan education law that has been up for re-authorization since 2007. The law requires states to test their students regularly and disaggregate the resulting data. As Obama noted, many have criticized the law for its focus on high-stakes testing.

Obama's rollback comes in the form of a waiver package: States that seek relief from NCLB's provisions -- including the 100 percent proficiency requirement in reading and math by 2014, increasingly harsh sanctions against schools deemed as "failing" or the strictly dictated use of federal education money -- will have to adapt certain administration-mandated reforms. Those reforms include "college- and career-ready standards," targeted intervention in low-performing schools and new teacher and principal evaluations -- that include student test score data.

"Congress has not been able to fix these flaws so far," Obama said in his speech. "I've urged Congress for a while now, let's get a bipartisan effort, let's fix this. Congress hasn't been able to do it. So I will." Most states are expected to apply for waivers, with superintendents from Idaho, Minnesota and Wisconsin explicitly stating their commitment to do so on Friday. The first batch of applications is due Nov. 14.

The waiver package sparked a debate on the Education Department's policymaking limits, with Republican members of Congress calling the move a federal overreach. It has also led to conversations about the use of student testing data to evaluate teachers.

The Obama administration has long targeted data-inclusive teacher evaluations, setting them as a priority for the Race to the Top competition and its NCLB reauthorization blueprint. Union rules, they argue, grade all teachers based on seniority instead of ability or effectiveness. The Obama administration is careful to define ability as determined by "multiple measures," one of which is testing data.

Obama's -- and the Education Department's -- claim that NCLB will diminish teaching to the test because it will allow states to develop their own school accountability systems that measure students' growth, instead of the raw proficiency scores.

At the same time, though, the reforms encourage the reliance on tests by including them in teacher evaluations.

While American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten lauded the waiver package, she said she was disappointed with the teacher evaluation component.

"Evaluation needs to be more teaching-focused, not more testing-focused," Weingarten wrote in a statement. "Successful school districts in the United States and in the top-performing nations understand that teacher evaluation systems should be based on continuous improvement and support, not on simply sorting, and it's a missed opportunity not to follow their lead."

Mike Hladio, an eighth grade English Language Arts teacher in a suburb of Pittsburgh, noted Obama's mismatch regarding rhetoric and policy on testing.

"I don't think it's consistent," he said. "So much of education policy, we say one thing and we typically do something else. We say that we're preparing kids for a 21st-century economy. There is so much value placed on problem-solving, working collaboratively, creativity. None of those things are measured by bubble tests."

Hladio said he uses the second halves of April and May each year for test preparation and administration.

"We're saying, throw all the creativity we taught you out the window for these two weeks," he said. To Hladio, Obama's waiver package "feels like throwing things against the wall to see what sticks, especially in an election year."

But Becker, the teacher who stood behind Obama during his speech, doesn't see it that way.

"I don't think that it's really a mismatch," said Becker, who teaches at D.C. Prep. "It's just a matter of making the targets correct."

Either way, Becker said he enjoyed a pre-speech Blue Room conversation with Obama, Duncan and superintendents.

"These guys were big politicians and they treated me just like I was one of their own," he said.