When President Obama took office in January 2009, the country was on edge, the economy in free-fall. The federal education law, known as No Child Left Behind, was also in need of an update after earning the ire of teachers, parents and politicians alike. In short, there was much to do.
In time, that update would come, but President Obama's education legacy begins, oddly enough, with his plan to bolster the faltering economy.
Race To The Top
In the summer of 2009, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that a small piece of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a. The Stimulus, would be used to create a competitive, $4.35 billion grant program for states. They would call it Race To The Top.
The administration used the money to encourage — Obama's critics would say coerce — states to embrace its education policies, including charter schools, college and career-ready standards and evaluations of teachers using student test scores.
The money arrived as many states had been brought to their knees by the Great Recession. Governors and state education agencies didn't just want the extra money — they needed it, and agreed to big changes in hopes of winning it. While the grant program was voluntary, forty-six states and the District of Columbia applied.
Race To The Top was a boon for the common standards movement and, specifically, for the controversial Common Core State Standards.
While the learning standards in English and math were not developed by the Obama administration, the Education Department made the adoption of new college and career-ready standards a key component of applying for the grant money. States didn't have to adopt, but they knew that doing so would help their cause. Obama didn't create the Core; he fast-tracked adoption.
His administration also used $350 million to bankroll two testing consortia, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, that would develop standardized tests aligned to these new standards. Initially, most states signed on to one or the other, but, after years of blowback from Common Core critics, the consortia have hemorrhaged members, with many states keeping the Core but choosing their own tests.
Today, the Common Core standards, or something very like them, are still used by the vast majority of states, though President-elect Trump has made clear he'll do all he can to short-circuit the standards once and for all.