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Will the GOP Roll Back Top Obama Priorities in Rewriting NCLB?

By Alyson Klein — January 08, 2015 4 min read
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The Obama administration spent its first six years—and much of its $100 billion in stimulus funds—pushing forward on aggressive school turnarounds, teacher-evaluation systems tied in part to student test scores, and new assessments linked to the Common Core State Standards.

Now as Congress gears up to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act—the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was signed into law thirteen years ago today—the administration may well lose a lot of the ground it’s gained in each of those areas, particularly if previous Republican NCLB rewrite bills form the starting point for discussion this time around.

Let’s take a look at each of them, one by one:

Teacher Evaluation

The history: This has been a top, if not the top, priority of the Obama administration. Way back in March of 2010, when the administration unveiled its “blueprint” for reauthorizing the law, it wanted to include a requirement for states to develop teacher-evaluation systems that took student test scores into account. And those evaluations had to be used for personnel decisions, like hiring and firing. Plus, teacher evaluation was a key requirement in the administration’s NCLB waivers and its Race to the Top program.

Where Congress stands: This idea faces long, long odds in any reauthorization bill. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, is a believer in the policy, but he had to strip out language tying teacher evaluation to tests in order to get his NCLB renewal bill through the House back in 2013, thanks to big-time conservative opposition. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., now the chairman of the Senate education committee, whose own 2013 reauthorization bill did not require educator evaluations tied to student outcomes, was thrilled that the provision came out of the House bill. He quickly put out a statement calling the measures “kissing cousins.”

And even Democrats didn’t go as far as the administration wanted. A bill to reauthorize the NCLB law by (now retired) Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, wouldn’t have called for new teacher evaluations based on outcomes to be used in personnel decisions (just for professional development and for teacher distribution, although certainly states could go further).

Possible consolation prize for the administration: Alexander’s 2013 bill allowed states to use their federal teacher-quality funds to develop evaluations based on test scores, but left it up to states to decide whether to go ahead with the policy or not. Ultimately, the House-passed GOP bill went the same route. And previous bills to officially authorize the Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides competitive grants for teacher-quality initiatives, have required applicants to come up with merit-pay programs that incorporate student data.

Aggressive School Turnarounds

The history: Back in 2009, the Obama administration got $3 billion to help states fix their lowest-performing schools through the School Improvement Grant program.The Education Department attached some serious strings to that money, requiring states to pick one of four models that called for dramatic action, like closing a school, turning it into a charter, or firing a principal and half the staff.

Where Congress stands: The four models were really unpopular with lawmakers from the jump. And iffy student achievement data from the first few years of the program didn’t help. Lawmakers have already included language in a budget bill that would essentially allow states to design their own models. Plus, Kline and Alexander’s 2013 ESEA reauthorization bills essentially eliminated SIG altogether.

Possible consolation prize for the administration: It will probably be good news for the administration if the SIG program, or any authorized pot of money to help with turnarounds, is left standing when all’s said and done (assuming ESEA makes it over the finish line). The administration may have help on that front. Groups representing practitioners like the extra resources for turnarounds, even if most aren’t fans of the models themselves.

Standards and Assessments

The history: The Obama administration made college- and career-ready standards (and assessments linked to them) a big part of its ESEA blueprint. And it gave states that adopted the common core a big edge in the Race to the Top competition. In fact, under its 2010 reauthorization proposal, the administration said it wanted to give grants for assessments only to states that had adopted the common core.

Where Congress stands: Republicans have introduced a flurry of bills that take aim at the common core. And both the Alexander and Kline reauthorization bills from 2013 include a smack-down for the Obama administration’s support of the standards.

Possible consolation prize for the administration: It’s hard to find one. The final legislation isn’t likely to include any sort of celebration of the common core (such as this bill by Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa.) Kline and House Speaker John Boehner were largely able to keep the common core out of the House floor debate on NCLB in 2013. Still, if reauthorization happens this Congress, under Republicans, there’s almost certain to be language chastising the U.S. Secretary of Education for linking the common core to competitive grants and NCLB waivers.