Obama serious about using Federal Funds to drive up school standards

Charters seen as key drivers for change


In the States the law known as “No Child Left Behind” is the primary law governing the federal government’s role in education.

The Obama administration has proposed  a sweeping overhaul , calling for broad changes in how schools are judged to be succeeding or failing, as well as for the elimination of the law’s 2014 deadline for bringing every American child to academic proficiency.

The new measures include encouraging schools to compete for Federal funds.  Obama wants charter schools to play a key  role in driving up standards.   First passed during the Johnson administration as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it was rebranded as part of its last major overhaul in 2001, when Democrats joined with President Bush to make its focus the use of standardized test scores in schools, particularly those serving minority students. The  Law seeks to  close  the achievement gap between minority and white students and to encourage teacher quality. Succsesive administrations have been frustrated by how difficult it has been to improve outcomes and, for the richest nation,  the States performs relatively  poorly in international league tables despite being a world leader in Higher Education.

Currently the education law requires the nation’s 98,000 public schools to make “adequate yearly progress” as measured by student test scores. Schools that miss their targets in reading and maths must offer students the opportunity to transfer to other schools and free after-school tutoring. Schools that repeatedly miss targets face harsher sanctions, which can include staff dismissals and closings. All students are required to be proficient by 2014.   Educators have complained loudly in the eight years since the law was signed that it was branding tens of thousands of schools as failing but not forcing them to change.

The current law calls for every state to set standards in reading and maths, and for every student to be proficient at those subjects by 2014. Students in grades 3 through 8 are tested yearly, and reports are issued as to whether schools are making “adequate yearly progress” toward that goal. The scores of groups including for instance minorities, disabled and non-English speaking students, are broken out separately. Schools that fail to make the required annual progress, whether overall or for subgroups, face a mounting scale of sanctions, from being required to provide tutoring to students in poor-performing schools to the threat of state takeovers or the shutting down of individual schools.

The current system issues the equivalent of a pass-fail report card (the UK is currently introducing school report cards, loosely modelled on the US version) for every school each year. However administration officials say that the current evaluation fails to differentiate among chaotic schools in chronic failure, schools that are helping low-scoring students improve and high-performing suburban schools that nonetheless appear to be neglecting some low-scoring students.

Instead, under the administration’s proposals, a new accountability system would divide schools into more categories, offering recognition to those that are succeeding and providing large new amounts of money to help improve or close failing schools.

The administration has already made its mark on education through Race to the Top, a federal grant programme in which 40 states are competing for $4 billion in education money included in last year’s federal stimulus bill.

The competition has also encouraged states to open the door to more charter schools which receive public money but are run by independent groups. The Tories supply side reform proposals here  are heavily influenced by the Charter school model in particular the Knowledge is Power programme, a not for profit chain of  smallish schools that works closely with parentss, delivers personalised learning and is not shy about extending the school day to aid pastoral care.

Obama is keen for states to lift the cap on the number of charter schools allowed.   The education law has been praised on the one hand for focusing attention on achievement gaps, but it has also generated significant opposition, especially from educators and unions, who contend that it sets impossible goals for students and schools and humiliates students and educators when they fall short. The law has, to date, labelled some 30,000 schools as “in need of improvement,” a euphemism for failing, but states and districts have done little to change them.  The Federal system in which responsibility for education is highly devolved has always made centrally driven initiatives  problematic but the Obama administration is determined to drive this through and sees charter schools as important drivers for change.


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