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Every Student Succeeds Act

Obama White House Reflects on K-12 Legacy

By Alyson Klein — May 03, 2016 3 min read
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Just in time for National Teacher Appreciation Day, the White House is announcing that it’s halfway to a goal the president unveiled back in 2011: training 100,000 new science, math, engineering, and technology teachers. The progress is made possible through a web of public-private partnerships, called the “100kin10" initiative, which was founded with early support from the Carnegie Corporation, plus a pair of federal programs, the Teacher Incentive Fund, and the Teacher Quality Partnerships.

At an event today celebrating the national and state teachers of the year, the White House will also highlight work that foundations, advocacy organizations, businesses and others are doing that the administration believes dovetails with its goals on teacher quality. For instance, with an assist from the U.S. Department of Education, ASCD, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the Leona M and Harry B. Helmsley Foundation are working together on new grants of $5,000 to $15,000 to help support teachers. The program will be administered by ASCD and funded by the foundation.

“It all begins and ends with great teaching and we recognize—and the president has long recognized—the importance of the adult in the front of the classroom,” said Roberto Rodriguez, a senior White House aide on education issues in an interview previewing the event.

More broadly, the White House is taking stock of its legacy on K-12 issues, issuing a report on its progress which you can read here.

Anyone familiar with the Obama administration’s tenure on K-12 won’t be surprised by the report’s contents—it’s a victory lap of sorts on Race to the Top, the School Improvement Grant program, the Investing in Innovation program and more. Many of those programs—with the exception of i3—weren’t continued in the new Every Student Succeeds Act (although other Obama priorities, like Promise Neighborhoods and preschool development grants, are included in the new law.)

Does the Obama administration think the policies it pushed will have staying power, even though those initiatives aren’t continuing? Yes, Rodriguez said. He sees states focused on innovation and on ensuring that historically overlooked groups of students make progress and he thinks that will only continue under ESSA.

The report hits hard the data that the Obama administration is proud of, including rising graduation rates. (We fact checked here whether the administration played a role in this promsing outcome.) But the report does not make much mention of less favorable data points (the recent drop in scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

When asked why the report didn’t mention NAEP, Rodriguez said, “We’re going to see some of that variance in scores from year to year on NAEP,” and he added. “We need to set high standards and stay focused on the long game relative to the NAEP progress.”

One new factoid in the report: Since Obama placed a focus on the importance of early childhood education in his 2013 state-of-the-union address, 38 states have made new investments in the area. I asked Rodriguez whether the administration can really take credit for this—after all, early childhood education was already getting a lot more attention before the president took up the mantle.

In Rodriguez’s view, White House leadership has made a difference—both through drawing attention to the issue and through policies like the $250 million preschool development grants—even if the administration isn’t the only force out there on this. “We’re happy to be part of the dialogue,” he said.

And as for that sentiment on teachers—I asked Rodriguez if the Obama administration will likely be remembered by many as the administration that encouraged states to tie teacher evaluation to test scores in Race to the Top, and then required such evaluations for states seeking a waiver from the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act.

Rodriguez noted that the administration never insisted that growth on test scores be the only thing teachers are evaluated on, and he said that the evaluations were used for professional development, not just for hiring and firing. And he thinks that ESSA strikes the right balance in leaving evaluations up to states. The feds, he said, want to be able to continue to work with interested states on teacher performance reviews.

President Barack Obama waves to the crowd before leaving the Dec. 10 signing ceremony for the Every Student Succeeds Act.

-Evan Vucci/AP-File

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