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What is Obama’s K-12 education legacy?

Thought leaders argue that the Obama administration’s K-12 legacy found its success in partly scaling back its initial metrics-heavy approach.

Common Core, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—just a few top-down, often-controversial, metrics-heavy K-12 reform initiatives favored by the Obama Administration that seemed to have a lot more traction during the President’s first-term with Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the helm than during the second term.

“President Barack Obama will perhaps be best remembered for what many considered a top-down approach to education reform, and Arne Duncan was the architect of that strategy,” writes Tara Garcia Mathewson for EducationDIVE. From a strong support of Common Core to even the ESSA, “a strict emphasis on standards is one of the biggest marks of the administration.”

[For the higher education version of this story, click here.]

Below, the editors of eSchool News have compiled a brief outline of the Obama administration’s most notable and/or controversial K-12 education initiatives pulled from reputable sources of information; but we’d like to know: What do you believe will be Obama’s legacy for K-12? Leave your comment in the section below and/or take our poll here:

(Next page: The Obama Administration’s legacy in K-12)


President Obama’s ConnectED initiative, launched in 2013, set forth the ambitious goal of connecting 99 percent of U.S. students to the internet via high-speed broadband and wireless in five years. [Source: eSchool News]

Buoyed by stakeholder support, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) later approved a historic modernization of the federal E-rate program, which provides discounts to help schools and libraries connect to the internet. The FCC’s vote increased the program’s funding by $1.5 billion, bumping the annual funding cap from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion. The modernization directly correlates with ConnectED’s goals. [Source: eSchool News]


“Under the Obama Administration, the department released state-by-state data about restraint and seclusion policies in schools as well as school-level graduation rates, which provided a first-ever national comparison opportunity. It also added categories to the Civil Rights Data Collection, including advanced course participation, teacher experience and absenteeism, and school discipline, all of which have highlighted educational inequities and created focus areas for school improvement.” [Source: EducationDIVE]


Under the Obama Administration, Congress replaced the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which gives state more authority and flexibility when it comes to closing achievement gaps. The law still requires periodic math and reading testing, but states have more freedom to define teaching and learning objectives and to outline accountability measures. Congress was finally inspired to replace NCLB because members of both parties wanted to stop the administration’s unprecedented exercise of federal power in education. “By exercising federal power in questionable ways, the administration gave an opening to Congress to send back a great deal of education of power to the states, many of which never covered themselves in glory in how they approached public education.” [Source: The Washington Post]


Obama signed into law the STEM Education Act of 2015, which focused on computer science education funding, included grants for informal STEM education occurring outside the classroom, and expanded a National Science Foundation (NSF) teaching program to include computer science educators. He also focused heavily on STEM education and programs to prepare educators to adequately teach traditionally hard-to-teach STEM subjects. [Source: eSchool News]

Obama also brought the importance of computer science education to the forefront, and in his final State of the Union address in January 2014, he set a goal for every U.S. student to learn computer science. Obama requested more than $4 billion in the FY 2017 budget to fund the Computer Science for All initiative. The three-year initiative would help train teachers, equip classrooms, and develop new class materials. [Editor’s note: As of press time, the FY 2017 budget had not been approved. Source: eSchool News.]

The Digital Promise Center has become a clearinghouse for educational technologies that work, the #GoOpen campaign has helped expand use of high-quality open educational resources, and the Investing in Innovation Fund has allowed flexibility for innovative, high-performing schools. At the same time, the Obama administration has urged schools to protect student data and privacy as they rely increasingly on digital devices and cloud-based technology. [Source: EducationDIVE]


Under the Obama Administration, “districts faced stronger compliance tests for providing girls access to sports, greater pressure to properly serve immigrant students and effectively communicate with their parents, and revised guidance about reducing racial isolation in schools, compared to expectations by President George W. Bush.” The Education Department also took a stand on protections for transgender students, arguing these students are a protected class in Title IX. “The Obama administration launched the first-ever Tribal Listening Tour to assess unique issues affecting this population, pushed for greater supports for students in foster care, and urged districts to address discipline policies that disproportionately impacted certain groups.” [Source: EducationDIVE]

(Next page: Charters, Common Core, teacher support)

Charter Schools

The growth of charter schools was a key priority in the Obama Administration’s overall school reform program. Promising to promote the expansion of charter schools was one of the ways that states could win some of the money in Obama’s signature $4.3 billion Race to the Top funding competition. Today, 6 percent of U.S. public school students attend charter schools, up from about 3 percent when President Obama took office in 2009 (It was 2 percent in 2004). [Source: The Washington Post]

Common Core

The Common Core State Standards initiative was another big priority for the administration during Duncan’s seven-year tenure running the Education Department. Adopting common standards was also on Race to the Top’s list of preferred reforms Duncan sought from applying states, and the administration spent some $360 million for two multi-state consortia to develop new Core-related standardized tests. However, “the tests were not as sophisticated as originally promoted and the rush to get them into schools led to computer troubles in some states, some of them severe. One of the tests, known as PARCC, was abandoned by most of the states that had agreed to use it, and the overall idea behind the standards and aligned testing—that test results would be comparable across states—has not been accomplished.” [Source: The Washington Post]

High School Completion

According to Department of Education data, the overall graduation rate rose 0.9 percentage points from the 2013-2014 school year to 2014-2015. Since 2011, when the department first started reporting graduation rates in a more reliable way, the increase is 4.2 points. State-by-state results also show graduation rates rising almost everywhere, with exceptions in Arizona and Wyoming, which were down a fraction of a point, and three states (Idaho, Kentucky and Oklahoma) that only recently began to release high school graduation rates in a way that could be compared to other states. [Source: USA Today]

Teacher Support

According to teachers, it felt as if they were being targeted by the Obama Administration. A 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher found that teacher job satisfaction had plummeted from 62 percent of teachers feeling “very satisfied” in 2008 to 39 percent by 2012. This was the lowest in the 25-year history of the survey. And the percentage of students who apply for teacher preparation programs has significantly dropped in recent years. [Source: The Washington Post]

“Duncan will not be remembered as being a champion of teachers. While the Obama administration has taken steps to invest in teacher training and elevate the teaching profession, Duncan made enemies among the teaching ranks by demanding test-based accountability of teacher performance and urging an end to seniority as a key factor in employment decision-making. [Source: EducationDIVE]

Funding/Early Education

“Equitable school funding wasn’t a priority of the administration in a country where funding is largely based on property taxes, leaving school systems in wealthy areas with more to spend on education than districts in poor areas, where kids need more support.” Obama has recently tried to tout the Administration’s interest in early childhood education, though he doesn’t mention that it became a priority only in his second term, by which time there was little surplus money to spend on it. [Source: The Washington Post]

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