President Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009 amid the wreckage of the Great Recession and with education high on his list of domestic priorities.
He scored some early game-changing policy victories on teacher quality, academic standards, and school turnarounds during his first term, but faced a big backlash in his second. That reaction threatened the longevity of his signature initiatives and made it virtually impossible to enact similarly sweeping change in new areas, including early-childhood education.
At the same time, Obama used the bully pulpit—and his historic perch as the nation’s first black president—to shine a spotlight on historically overlooked groups of students through such initiatives as My Brother’s Keeper, which considered how the federal government could better help young black men succeed.
Now many in the civil rights community are worried about the fate of black, Latino, and other minority students should President-elect Donald Trump’s administration take a less aggressive stance on civil rights enforcement in education. And it remains to be seen if the Trump administration will roll back Obama’s spending and accountability regulations for the, and gut or scrap programs he created.
Holding the Cards
Obama swept into office in an enviable position for pushing his school agenda. His education secretary, Arne Duncan, had fans on both sides of the partisan aisle. The Democrats had hefty majorities in both chambers of Congress, where lawmakers were itching to update the No Child Left Behind Act. Obama hadn’t gotten the teacher unions’ endorsements, but won the Democratic nomination anyway, freeing him up to push for policies the unions opposed, such as evaluations tied to test scores.
Best of all: On the new administration’s way in the door, Obama and Duncan were handed $100 billion for education, including more than $4 billion to push almost any K-12 policy they chose, thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which was crafted to jump-start the stalled economy.
Obama and Duncan took the money—which came with few congressional strings—and ran with it. They created the Race to the Top competition, which sought to reward states with grants of up to $700 million for embracing the president’s priorities on school turnarounds, tests, state data systems, and teacher evaluation based in part on student outcomes.
The competition also gave a leg up to states that pledged to adopt the, crafted under the leadership of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Ultimately, 46 states and the District of Columbia adopted the standards, in part to be competitive for the program. Nearly every state applied for a grant, and 11 states and the District of Columbia were awarded one. The administration also slapped the Race to the Top brand on other rounds of competitive grants, aimed at enticing districts to try a personalized approach to learning, or encouraging states to improve early-childhood education.
The administration funneled about $650 million in stimulus money to Investing in Innovation, a new grant program intended to test-drive and scale up promising practices in school districts. The stimulus also included $3 billion for school turnarounds, which the administration used to prod districts to try out dramatic interventions, such as closing a school down or firing its principal and half the staff, to revive the poorest-performing schools.
But states struggled to deliver on their Race to the Top promises, especially on tying teacher evaluations to students’ academic outcomes. Georgia, for instance, lost a nearly $10 million piece of its $400 million grant because of difficulties with educator evaluations.
Other big Obama initiatives met similar implementation challenges. Almost from the start, district officials complained that the School Improvement Grant program, which ultimately funneled more than $7 billion to low-performing schools, was too prescriptive. And the program yielded mixed results, with about two-thirds of schools improving, but another third sliding backward.
In 2011, when it appeared that partisan gridlock would continue to stymie a rewrite of the NCLB law, enacted under President George W. Bush, the Obama administration announced it would give states waivers of some of No Child Left Behind’s most-maligned mandates. In exchange, states would have to adopt the administration-favored policies on teachers, standards, and turnarounds.
Broad Reach—and Backlash
The waivers provided new momentum for Obama’s K-12 agenda, but they also demanded a lot of change from states, all at once, without the enticement of new federal aid.
That led to a major political backlash. Teachers’ unions lambasted the push for tying evaluations to student tests that hadn’t even been created or piloted. Civil rights groups were unhappy that waivers took the pressure off states to intervene in schools that might be doing well overall, but where some groups of students—such as English-language learners—were falling behind. Conservatives and state leaders thought the administration had overstepped its authority.
Congressional cooperation on education began to erode in 2011, when Republicans took over the U.S. House of Representatives. Obama pitched a big investment in early-childhood education in his 2013 State of the Union address, but lawmakers never seriously considered it.
What’s more, the challenges that Race to the Top and the waivers heaped on states and school districts fueled fervor against standardized testing, with thousands of parents choosing to opt their children out of state exams. In response, Obama encouraged states and districts to take a hard look at the number of tests they required. But he made it clear that he didn’t think any legislation to replace No Child Left Behind should back away from annual standardized testing.
Ultimately, the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act—signed by Obama in December 2015 as the latest version of the half-century-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act—was a mixed bag when it came to the president’s legacy. It embraced parts of his agenda, such as requiring states to turn around their bottom 5 percent of schools. But it also sought to permanently clip the federal government’s wings on setting education policy, through a long list of prohibitions on the U.S. secretary of education’s authority.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration was able to accomplish some of its other goals without congressional help, including ConnectEd, an initiative to dramatically revamp broadband access in K-12 schools. He also sought to make accessing college easier, particularly for minority students, non-traditional students, and first-generation collegegoers.
Eight years after Obama took office, it’s easy to see his fingerprints on elementary and secondary policy. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia have hung on to the common-core standards, even in the face of strong political opposition. Forty states now require some objective measure of student growth to be included in educator evaluations, compared with 15 in 2009, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. And thanks in part to federal funding and encouragement, states and districts are rethinking how they educate and assess students in special education and English-language learners.
The picture on student outcomes is mixed. Graduation rates are at an all-time high of 83.2 percent, and graduation gaps are closing between white and minority students. But in 2015, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation’s report card, fell in math and reading for the first time in more than two decades.
And it’s unclear what the long-term impact of many of Obama’s policies will be: Thanks to ESSA, the question of whether to continue them is now largely in the hands of state leaders.
A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 2017 edition of Education Week as Obama’s Complex Legacy on K-12: Bold Achievements, Fierce Blowback