Obama hails flexibility in granting education waivers to 10 states

Seeking to reform No Child Left Behind, President Obama on Thursday offered waivers to 10 states in an effort to provide them the flexibility they need to set higher standards.

Speaking at the White House, Obama said he was giving some states “the green light” to continue making reforms that are best suited to them.

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“If we’re serious about helping our children reach their potential, the best ideas aren’t going to come from Washington alone,” Obama said. “Our job is to harness those ideas, and to hold states and schools accountable for making them work.”

The first 10 states are Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee. New Mexico, the only state to apply and not be granted a waiver, is still working with the administration on its application.

“Each of these states has set higher benchmarks for student achievement,” Obama said, adding that they have come up with ways to evaluate students based on more than test scores.

The George W. Bush-era legislation requires that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014, and would penalize those schools where the children failed to reach required standards.

Critics say it led to “teaching to the test” in classrooms.

Obama said the goals of No Child Left Behind were “the right ones.”

“Standards and accountability, those are the right goals … closing the achievement gap. That’s a good goal. That’s the right goal,” Obama said. “We’ve got to stay focused on those goals, but we’ve got to do it in a way that doesn’t force teachers to teach to the test or encourage schools to lower their standards to avoid being labeled as failures. That doesn’t help anybody. Certainly doesn’t help our children in the classroom.”

The president said a different approach was needed, one that required higher and more honest standards in exchange for flexibility.

“What might work in Minnesota may not work in Kentucky,” he said. “But every student should have the same opportunity to reach their potential.

According to the Center on Education Policy, nearly half of all schools failed to meet the program’s requirements in 2011, and the requirements become stricter every year.

There is broad support among both parties for reforming the legislation, which Obama has called admirable but flawed. However, Congress has been gridlocked over how to do so since it came up for renewal in 2007.

Still, critics of the president call the waivers an overreach of authority.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said as recently as this week that the administration “desperately” wants Congress to fix the law as an alternative to the waivers.

The states that will receive waivers on Thursday had to submit a viable alternative that sets new achievement targets, prepares children for college and careers and offers rewards to the best-performing schools.

A total of 28 other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico still intend to apply for the waivers.