Looking Back: The Obama Administration and Education

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA

As President Obama wraps up his eight years in office, it’s important to take an opportunity to look at his Administration’s impact on education. As President Obama wraps up his eight years in office, it’s important to take an opportunity to look at his Administration’s impact on education. I want to take time to look at both the success and the missed opportunities as I think both are informative for education policy going forward.

Investing in Innovation

Out of the gate, President Obama, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) linked education to national economic recovery and development. This was an important step from not only a practical policy perspective but also from a messaging standpoint. This functionally broke down into two buckets of funding. First the supplemental funding and expansion of Title I-A funds (for example) designed to assist states in fully funding education during the economic downturn as well as making sure that the most vulnerable populations within our public schools were fully supported. The other funding bucket focused on propelling the education system forward through innovation. Most prominently through investing in educational technology, Race to the Top (RTTT) and Investing in Innovation (i3).

RTTT, a state-focused program, gave significant funding to states to reshape their systems of education by focusing on standards and assessment, teachers and leaders (evaluation and PD), and innovation. RTTT was, at its core, a great idea. Invest in states to develop more innovative, responsive systems. The implementation became part of the issue and one that would frame the way the Administration thought about policy and the way the field reacted to the Administration’s policies.

RTTT became a prescriptive exercise of compliance and uniformity. Innovation was sacrificed for micromanagement and states playing follow the leader. RTTT could have become a state driven response with each state assessing their own assets and opportunities and coming up with varied and innovative approaches. Were there innovative ideas that came out of RTTT? Of course, but there could have been more. Too many states, with the Department’s urging, followed the lead of the first states funded. RTTT, for all of its fanfare, was in the end a missed opportunity.

Moving Towards Higher Standards

Tied to RTTT, was the Administration inserting itself into the Common Core movement. As a reminder, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were created by members of CCSSO and the NGA. It was developed by the states for the states as a way to raise standards for all students, to help defray some of the cost of developing standards (not cheap), and allow for more common, comparable students’ data. The Administration, through the RTTT application, jumped into the fray and strongly encouraged (some would say mandated) that states adopt the newly created CCSS. In the end, the Administration saw a good idea and jumped on the band-wagon. In doing so, an already political process (all national movements are inherently political) became hyper political and ultimately doomed the movement. That said, as a result of the CCSS, all states in the Union have higher standards (whether they are common or not) and that is a very good thing.

Transforming Our Lowest Performing Schools

Through ARRA and continued appropriations, the Administration advanced innovation through the i3 program and a renewed focus on turning around our lowest-performing schools through School Improvement Grants (SIG). These programs, which have their issues, fundamentally played an important role. i3 allowed public school districts and non-profits to lead efforts to innovate our education system. The expressed focus on innovation and the fact that our system of education is outmoded and outdated was an important step for the Administration and the education field in general. We needed, and continue to need, a more focused approach to research and development in education.

The Administration’s focus on the lowest-performing schools in the country was both right and admirable. For far too long, far too many students went to schools that chronically struggled to meet their needs. The focus was admirable and should be continued into the new Administration. That said, the four models (transformation, turnaround, restart and closure) were cumbersome and reeked of one-size-fits-all. The results of the SIG program are mixed as well.

Waivers and Increased Flexibility

One of the most significant moves by the Obama Administration came in September of 2011. The Administration, in a Rose Garden Ceremony, announced it would offer waivers to states to allow them to opt out of provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The Secretary began to build his argument (pursuant to the authority in section 9401 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965), for increased flexibility for states and outlining NCLB as barrier to the transition to “college-and career-ready standards and assessments; developing systems of differentiated recognition, accountability, and support; and evaluating and supporting teacher and principal effectiveness.”

Setting aside that waivers are a slippery slope, the Administration, once again, was too prescriptive in its implementation of the waivers. The waivers locked in many of the policies first advanced in RTTT but did not allow for the true flexibility for states to create a new, nimbler system of education. Case in point, the state of New Hampshire needed a “waiver to the waiver” to implement its competency-based system. Waivers could have been a launch pad for innovation and allow states to truly build new systems of education but like RTTT it was a missed opportunity.

Bold Ideas, Hits and Misses

Overall, the Obama Administration’s policies around education were a mixed bag of hits and misses. To be fair, the Administration made some big bets, put forth bold ideas, and created new vehicles that provide a playbook for future Administrations. As often is the case the ideas, intentions, and right-minded motivation sometimes missed the mark in implementation and burdensome regulations. The President and the Secretaries provided unprecedented support for transforming our nation’s lowest performing schools, invested in innovation, examined ways to provide states new flexibilities, invested in teachers and leaders and standards and assessments. They leave the next Administration the building blocks to transform our nation’s education system in strong partnership with states and local districts.