Five Ways Obama's Budget Will Change Education Policy

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One hallmark of the president's new budget is a major overhaul of No Child Left Behind, the education law passed under President George W. Bush. President Obama and Education Sec. Arne Duncan have both said repeatedly that they appreciate the bright light NCLB shines on student achievement and the program's stated goal of closing the gap between minority and white students. But here are five ways the new administration might change education policy, based on both today's budget and the direction of the Education Department:


1. Drop "adequate yearly progress" for schools. NCLB grades schools by test scores to determine whether they are making "adequate yearly progress." If schools fail to hit their goals, they are forced to offer additional tutoring, allow students to transfer, or face even personnel cuts. As Sam Dillon writes in the NYT, this pass-or-fail approach to 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." A more nuanced approach would divide the schools into more categories that reflect their challenges.

2. Broaden the standardized testing system. One common critique of NCLB is that is narrowed the curriculum. By shining its harsh light on math and reading scores, it encouraged teachers to concentrate their energies in those two subjects, to the exclusion of sciences and arts. Duncan's logic is reasonable: Teachers will teach what the administration says it will test. So if you start measuring science achievement, teachers won't ignore the sciences. Moreover, the administration is likely to eliminate the 2014 deadline for every American child reaching academic proficiency. The quixotic goal probably isn't worth keeping around. The new goal will be to make every high graduate "college- and career-ready."

3. Encourage the states to set higher, stricter standards. Because NCLB allowed states to set their own test standards, many states, especially in the south, designed easy tests to achieve adequate yearly progress. So even as their students fell below the national median in national assessments, more of their schools would pass through the school system. I think we're going to see a push toward a national standardized test that won't allow individual states to design their own short-cuts to more government funding.

4. Develop new formulas for school funding. Typically most federal funds are allocated based to our 14,000 school district based on statistics like school size and income. Education analysts say the administration wants to reform the formulas to take into account school performance. In other words, much like Race to the Top -- the Education Dept.'s $5 billion sweepstakes program -- the administration would allocate more money to districts that demonstrate progress or pledge certain reforms.

5. Introduce merit pay, finally. For years the teachers union has rejected a raft of attempts to evaluate teachers based on student performance, but the tide may be shifting away from simple classroom check ups. Efforts to rewrite NCLB failed in 2007 because teachers unions refused to adopt merit pay. But Duncan's approach would dangle additional funds for school districts in exchange for pledges to evaluate teachers based on stats like chnages in test scores and improvements in graduation rates.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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