Obama Unlearns His Classroom Lesson

Slow clapping.

Photographer: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

As he approaches his last year in office, President Barack Obama seems weirdly passive about protecting one of his signature domestic achievements: education reform. It's a mistake that will undermine future efforts to help American students compete and succeed.

Obama once could claim to have one of the boldest education agendas of any president in recent history. Then, in October, he announced he would seek to limit testing. And now he's indicated he'll sign the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act, a bill that reflects Republicans' unhealthy suspicion of the federal government and Democrats' unhealthy trust of teachers' unions. In other words, the worst of both worlds.

The legislation would weaken or eliminate every major piece of Obama's education agenda. His five-year Race to the Top grant program, for example, was widely admired: It offered more than $4 billion in federal funding to states that took specific steps to improve student performance. Because of Race to the Top, more states set higher standards, allowed charter schools to expand, intervened in failing schools, and used data to evaluate teachers and principals.

The federal government is no longer distributing Race to the Top grants. Yet if Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act, his successor would be hard-pressed to create something similar, because the new law would make it very difficult to create a state-based incentive program. 

The legislation would also remove qualifications on some federal education funding, sharply reducing the Department of Education's ability to hold states accountable for student performance.

States would still be required to conduct annual tests and report results by race and income, and they would still be required to intervene in failing schools. But they could weigh factors other than test scores and student performance -- such as teacher engagement -- to determine whether schools are meeting standards. A state could determine that all its schools are succeeding even if they have low test scores and high dropout rates, and there wouldn't be much the Department of Education could do about it.

The legislation would also weaken the federal government's ability to encourage states to use data as part of evaluations for teachers and principals, a trend that unions have been fighting for years. Research shows that the best way to improve schools is to put effective teachers in classrooms. This bill would make it easier for schools to leave failing teachers in place without giving them assistance and insisting on improvement.

QuickTake Common Core

Of course, nothing prevents states from setting their own high standards and using data to evaluate teachers and principals -- and it would be great if all states did just that. Many Republicans insist that they largely support these reforms; they just don't want the federal government involved. But experience shows that without federal oversight and enforcement, many states tend to take the path of least resistance.

Instead of demanding changes to the bill, the White House seems content to praise its aims and the spirit of compromise that led to it. There's much to be said for bipartisanship. But not when both parties are wrong.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.