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Obama: U.S. must reform "No Child Left Behind"

President Barack Obama gestures during his speech at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Va., Monday, March, 14, 2011. AP Photo

President Obama on Monday called for a major overhaul to the Bush-era education policy "No Child Left Behind," emphasizing the need for more effective measurement tools in assessing the success of teachers and schools, and pledging that "we cannot cut [funding for] education" despite the nation's economic woes.

In remarks at an Arlington, Virginia, middle school, Mr. Obama challenged Congress to send him an education bill to sign "before the next school year begins," and outlined a series of proposed reforms that he argued would make American students more competitive in the global arena.

"The best economic policy is one that produces more college graduates," he told the audience at Kenmore Middle School. "We need to make sure we're graduating students who are ready for college and ready for careers."

"We have to reform 'No Child Left Behind,'" he said, arguing that "the [program's] goals... were the right goals," but that the methodology of the legislation was not effective in actually producing them.

The current iteration of the law has been largely criticized for imposing inflexible federal guidelines on schools and teachers, and abandoning institutions determined as "failing."

"What hasn't worked is denying teachers, students and states what they need to meet these goals," he said.

Under the law as it currently stands, schools are graded on a pass-fail scale based on the results of standardized tests administered to students. Failing schools - many of which serve low-income communities - are punished, and often shut down altogether or turned over to a charter operator or private firm.

Presenting examples of schools that had successfully turned themselves around, Mr. Obama pledged his commitment to incentivizing improvement in schools, and announced the administration's decision to let local school districts apply to "Race to the Top" - a federal competition designed to reward states for major improvements in education.

"Race to the top has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching learning and student achievement," Mr. Obama said. "But we need to make sure we're reaching every child in America - not just those in states or districts that take place in Race to the Top."

Mr. Obama emphasized the need to move away from labeling schools as "failing" based on standardized test scores alone, and said the system needed to "fix how schools are labeled and identified."

Noting that he was "not talking about teaching to the test," Mr. Obama said "we do need to know whether [students are] making progress" - and reiterated the need for outstanding teachers, particularly in "some of our worst schools."

"Teachers are doing a heroic job for their kids," he said. "In South Korea, teachers are known as nation builders. I think it's time we treated our teachers with the same level of respect right here in the United States of America."

The president acknowledged that improving America's school system would require money, but argued that America couldn't afford to skimp on education.

"Fixing our failing schools costs money," he said. "We cannot cut education. We can't cut the things that will make America more competitive."

"A budget that sacrifices our commitment to education would be a budget that's sacrificing our country's future," he added. "And I will not let it happen."

"Yes, I am determined to cut our deficits - but I refuse to do it by telling the students here who are so full of promise that we were not willing to invest in your future," said Mr. Obama.

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