The Beginning of the End for No Child Left Behind

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Ben Garvin / For the Washington Post / Getty Images

Nora Hyduk, center, points to a friends work during class at Sunrise River Elementary School in North Branch, Minnesota, Oct. 19, 2011.

President Obama granted 10 states relief from the strictest requirements of No Child Left Behind on Thursday, in a move he said combines “greater freedom with greater responsibility.” That freedom is provided in the form of a waiver that releases the states from having to meet targets education officials have long complained are too rigid and impossible to meet, including one key provision that required all students at public schools to be proficient in math and reading by 2014.

“When it comes to fixing what’s wrong with No Child Left Behind, we’ve offered every state the same deal,” Obama said in a speech at the White House. “We’ve said, if you’re willing to set higher, more honest standards than the ones that were set by No Child Left Behind, then we’re going to give you the flexibility to meet those standards.”

The “more honest” standards Obama referred to are the education reforms his Administration prefers. In order to receive a waiver, states had to agree to adopt “college and career ready” standards, including the Common Core, a set of curriculum standards that have already been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. The states also had to develop new systems for evaluating teachers and principals, and come up with aggressive plans to turn around low-performing schools.

(MORE: Perspectives on No Child Left Behind, 10 Years After Its Signing)

Ten of the 11 states that applied for waivers in the first round were successful. Applications from Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee were approved, while New Mexico’s was not. In a call with reporters following the announcement, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said they were continuing to work with New Mexico to improve its application and that the state could be granted a waiver in a matter of weeks.

The fact that all but one of the states that applied for waivers were successful suggests the Obama Administration is serious about ending many of the federal education standards ushered into law by President George W. Bush in 2002. The applications states submitted varied greatly in what they set out to do. Obama said that was the point: let states decide for themselves what is best, as long as they are setting the bar high. “The best ideas aren’t going to just come from here in Washington,” he said. “They’re going to come from cities and towns from all across America.”

Obama highlighted some of the goals and plans states outlined in their waiver applications. Massachusetts is aiming to cut the number of under-performing students in half over the next six years. Florida has set a goal to have its test scores rank among the top five states in the country. New Jersey is developing an early warning system to help reduce the number of dropouts. Colorado launched a website to allow teachers and parents to track student progress. Tennessee is creating a statewide school district.

(MORE: Exclusive: George W. Bush Talks to TIME About No Child Left Behind)

These divergent plans signal an important shift in U.S. education policy. Before No Child Left Behind, education was essentially a state issue. As a result, some states did very well, while others fell behind. NCLB was designed to hold every state to the same standards, and in doing so, the law inserted the federal government into education in an unprecedented way.

Ten years later, the chorus of those who say it didn’t work—that the law is broken—has grown to a cacophony. The waivers are essentially the Obama Administration’s way of giving states another crack at it. If the feds couldn’t fix education, maybe the states can. Now that 10 of them have waivers — and with another 28 states (plus D.C. and Puerto Rico) set to apply on Feb. 21 — we’ll soon find out if they are up to the challenge.

Kayla Webley is a Staff Writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kaylawebley, on Facebook or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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