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Obama Aims to 'Renovate a Flawed Law'

There's a lot to analyze in the "blueprint" President Obama has just put forward to revamp the main federal law for K-12 education, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Certainly, front and center is a major rethinking of the key accountability mechanisms in the law, as well as the call for states to adopt college- and career-ready standards. See my colleague Alyson Klein's story for an overview.

In an introduction to the plan, Obama said his proposal "is not only a plan to renovate a flawed law, but also an outline for a re-envisioned federal role in education."

From the perspective of curriculum matters (pun intended!), the president's reauthorization plan for the ESEA—better known these days as the No Child Left Behind Act—could have some potentially significant implications, if Congress embraces its key tenets. Obviously, the push for college- and career-ready standards has ripple effects that presumably would reach into the classroom. The plan, which echoes Obama administration priorities in the Race to the Top program, also calls for supporting the "development and use of a new generation of assessments that are aligned with college- and career-ready standards, to better determine whether students have acquired the skills they need for success."

The proposed changes to the law's accountability framework—including handing states and districts more flexibility in intervening with many schools that are not meeting performance targets—may relieve some of the pressure that critics suggest has led to a near-obsessive emphasis on teaching to the test, and squeezing out time and attention for subjects other than reading and math, the areas in which assessment results drive accountability decisions.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has himself previously criticized the law for "narrowing the curriculum." In a speech last fall about the need to overhaul the ESEA, he said: "Let us build a law that discourages a narrowing of curriculum and promotes a well-rounded education that draws children into sciences and history, languages and the arts in order to build a society distinguished by both intellectual and economic prowess."

And the Obama plan, in what appears to be one nod toward this matter, says states "may include" statewide science assessments, "as well as statewide assessments in other subjects, such as history—in their accountability system."

In addition, the plan embraces the idea, first put forward in the president's budget request for the Department of Education in fiscal 2011, to promote a "complete education." It calls for "a new investment in improving teaching and learning in all content areas—from literacy to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to history, civics, foreign languages, the arts, financial literacy, environmental education, and other subjects—and in providing accelerated learning opportunities to more students to make postsecondary success more attainable."

As laid out in its budget request, this effort would involve consolidating more than a dozen existing federal programs into three larger, more flexible funds, focused on literacy, STEM education, and a third category called a "well-rounded education."

See my recent story for more details on what the administration has in mind.

In any case, there's plenty more to mine in the administration's request, but I wanted to quickly highlight a few things worthy of attention. As always with such matters, it's important to keep in mind that Congress will have a lot to say about the final shape of the reauthorized law. Indeed, in one example, the effort to consolidate programs is already running into significant opposition from key lawmakers. Also, as noted, the Obama plan at this point is a general "blueprint" for the direction the president hopes to take the law. The details of how such proposals are written into specific legislative language are critically important.

One final note: Here's the, yes, blueprint, for reauthorizing the ESEA put forward by the Bush administration in 2007.

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