Examining Obama's education legacy

From standards to accountability, the administration will be remembered for top-down reform approach

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. Duncan, who served as secretary of education for nearly seven years of Obama’s two terms, specifically advocated the use of Title I funding to aggressively push the administration’s school reform agenda.  

From a strong support of Common Core — which is actually a state-driven initiative many misinterpret as federally based — to even the backing of the Every Student Succeeds Act — which returned power to the states while simultaneously solidifying much of the administration’s agenda —  a strict emphasis on standards is one of the biggest marks of the administration.

While the heavy hand of the federal government has been hailed by many education reformers — especially those who have shaped its message — the substantial shift in power from DC to state capitals introduced by the Every Student Succeeds Act reflects the fallout of such tight centralized control.

Over the last eight years, the department’s Office of Civil Rights has been particularly aggressive and the administration has prioritized equity in and across schools. The strong focus on Civil Rights and equity started under Duncan’s leadership, but would become the hallmark of John King’s tenure at the helm of the agency.

The administration also supported charter school expansion, pushed STEM opportunities and called for better training for teachers. But just as strong of a mark of the administration will be what  many saw as an attack on teachers and an undermining of their authority. Though the focus on teacher development increasingly grew under King, softening the blows of the hard-lining towards standards and accountability, the emphasis on metrics did not die.

Below, we take a look at some of the biggest hits and misses of the Obama administration’s K-12 legacy.


No Child Left Behind officially expired in 2007, before Obama took office, but reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with ESSA didn’t happen until December of 2015, leaving a long gap during which time the Education Department used waivers to relieve states and districts from the most restrictive mandates of NCLB. The waiver process allowed the administration to force new accountability provisions, including measuring teacher effectiveness with student test scores.

In other accountability moves, the Department of Education prioritized greater data reporting. Under Obama, 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.

Standards and assessments

The Department of Education was an early supporter of the Common Core State Standards, rewarding states that adopted them with Race to the Top funding and offering financial support to PARCC and Smarter Balanced as they worked to develop new assessments to meet the college- and career-focused standards.

In response to the backlash over Common Core-aligned tests and the burgeoning opt-out movement, Obama announced a Testing Action Plan that would help schools and districts complete a self-assessment and then take steps to reduce unnecessary testing. The Education Department has advocated for better and fairer tests as well as fewer of them while maintaining a commitment to annual standardized tests for students in grades three through eight as well as once in high school for accountability purposes.


Arne Duncan, leaving charter-filled Chicago Public Schools to take his position as secretary of education under Obama, embraced the charter school movement as a strategy for school improvement. Race to the Top funding gave priority to states that made space for high-quality charter schools and Duncan explicitly called on states to use the charter school sector as a resource in turnaround efforts. The administration has also offered millions of dollars to high-performing charter networks interested in expanding their reach.

Teacher training

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 has also 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.


Access and equity

The Obama administration’s Office of Civil Rights was particularly aggressive, putting real pressure on schools to meet their obligations to protect students and create safe, inclusive learning environments. Under Obama, 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 dug deeper into educational inequities relating to funding, prompting a new battle over the “supplement not supplant” provision of Title I regulations. It 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.

STEM/Innovation and technology

The Department of Education has tried to be a leader in helping districts prepare students for 21st century careers with exposure to 21st century technology in classrooms. A commitment to ensuring every student has access to high-speed internet in their schools was reflected in the modernization of the E-Rate program and its related funding boost. Schools have qualified for million in discounts as they have expanded bandwidth and Wi-Fi.

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.


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Filed Under: K12 Policy & Regulation
Top image credit: Getty Images