WASHINGTON - President Obama and his team have alternated praise for the goals of President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law with criticism of its weaknesses, all the while keeping their own plans for the law a bit of a mystery.
But clues are now emerging, and they suggest that the Obama administration will use a Congressional rewriting of the federal law later this year to toughen requirements on topics like teacher quality and academic standards and to intensify its focus on helping failing schools. The law's testing requirements may evolve but will certainly not disappear. And the federal role in education policy, once a state and local matter, is likely to grow.
The administration appears to be preparing important fixes to what many see as some of the law's most serious defects. But its emerging plans are a disappointment to some critics of the No Child Left Behind law, who hoped Mr. Obama's campaign promises of change would mean a sharper break with the Bush-era law.
"Obama's fundamental strategy is the same as George Bush's: standardized tests, numbers-crunching; it's the N.C.L.B. approach with lots of money attached," Diane Ravitch, an education historian often critical of the education law, said in an interview.
In a recent blog Ms. Ravitch wrote, "Obama has given Bush a third term in education policy."
The clues emerge from the fine print of the economic stimulus law that Mr. Obama signed in February, which channels billions of dollars to public education. The key education provisions in the stimulus take the form of four "assurances" that governors must sign to receive billions in emergency education aid.
In one, governors must pledge to improve the quality of standardized tests and raise standards. In another, they promise to enforce a requirement of the education law that their state's most effective teachers will be assigned equitably to all students, rich and poor. A separate provision gives Education Secretary Arne Duncan control over $5 billion, which Mr. Duncan calls a "Race to the Top Fund," to reward states that make good on their pledges.
"With these assurances and the Race to the Top Fund, we are laying the foundation for where we want to go with N.C.L.B. reauthorization," Mr. Duncan said in an interview. "This will help us to get states lining up behind this agenda."
One fix the administration is preparing focuses on failing schools.
Currently 6,000 of the nation's 95,000 schools are labeled as needing corrective action or restructuring because they have fallen short of testing targets under the federal law, which nonetheless provided little financing to help them. Most states have let the targets languish. The stimulus law, in contrast, provides $3 billion for school turnarounds, and requires governors to pledge vigorous action.
The No Child Left Behind law allowed each state to set its own academic standards, with the result that many have dumbed down curriculums and tests. Colorado even opted to use its "partially proficient" level of academic performance as "proficient" for reporting purposes.
The stimulus requires governors to raise standards to a new benchmark: the point at which high school graduates can succeed - without remedial classes - in college, the workplace or the military. Mr. Duncan has gone further, saying he wants to be a catalyst for the development of national academic standards.
Cynthia Brown, vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress, said she believed that Mr. Duncan was the first top federal official to make such a call.
"They're putting money and ideas behind what they think are the changes needed in public education," Ms. Brown said. "That signals their seriousness about major reform."
So far, the administration has not described its plans for the education law's 2014 deadline for schools to bring 100 percent of American students to math and reading proficiency, which experts have likened to a certain date by which the police are to end all crime.
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The teachers unions, which in 2007 fought a bare-knuckle lobbying battle that scuttled Congress's last effort to rewrite the No Child Left Behind law, are voicing muted concern over a couple of provisions in the stimulus.
In one of the stimulus assurances, for instance, governors must pledge that their states are building sophisticated data systems. Among other functions, such systems would link teachers to students and test scores and thus, in theory, enable the authorities to distinguish between effective and ineffective teachers. In a March 10 speech, President Obama endorsed using such data systems "to tell us which students had which teachers so we can assess what's working and what's not."
In an interview, Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said he did not like that part of the president's speech.
"When he equates teachers with test scores, that's when we part company," Mr. Van Roekel said. But he added: "Over all, I just really support Obama's vision to strengthen public education."
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that her union also had concerns about the president's enthusiasm for data systems, which she said could be misused, but that she would give the new administration the benefit of the doubt.
"They have been consistent," Ms. Weingarten said. "They're trying to do reform with teachers, not to them."
Including education reform ideas in an economic stimulus bill was a policy improvisation made on the fly during the December transition, when Democratic governors were pleading for federal help to prevent government layoffs amid the economic crisis, aides to Mr. Duncan said.
In a Jan. 7 meeting with senior Democratic lawmakers, Mr. Duncan announced the administration's intention to channel billions of dollars to the states in exchange for governors' pledges to double down on education reform.
Representatives David R. Obey of Wisconsin and George Miller of California, the Democratic chairmen of the House appropriations and education committees, immediately saw the importance of extracting reform promises from the states, said a Democratic House staff member who attended the meeting but is barred from speaking on the record about committee business.
Rachel Racusen, a spokeswoman for the House education committee, said, "Chairman Miller said this couldn't just be free money, that we had to get something in return."
The administration's reform initiatives have thrust governors into an unusually prominent role in education policy, more often the province of state school chiefs and big-city mayors. Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland and several other governors met with Mr. Duncan during a National Governors Association meeting in February.
"In a nutshell," Mr. O'Malley said in an interview, "Arne Duncan's pitch was, ‘I want to partner with governors; I know you can be drivers for education reform.' He wants us to step up."
Mr. Duncan says that governors in Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and other states have also responded favorably.
"They are happy that we are pushing them to where they know they need to go," Mr. Duncan said.