States are lining up to drop out of No Child Left Behind, the education initiative that was promoted as a historic achievement of the Bush administration.
Since President Barack Obama announced last month that he would sign an executive order allowing states to request waivers from mandatory participation in the program, at least 27 have signaled that they will ask to opt out, and most others are reviewing their options.
Obama said states could seek waivers as long as they adopt higher standards than those mandated under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as No Child Left Behind is formally titled. The Education Department said most states had already done that, presumably making them eligible for waivers.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan — who himself had to follow No Child Left Behind when he was chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools from 2001 to 2008 — isn't just offering the waivers. He's actively encouraging education officials to apply for them, he said, because "No Child Left Behind is fundamentally broken."
"It's far too punitive, far too prescriptive," Duncan said. The 2002 law "led to a narrowing of the curriculum. None of those things are good for children, for education or, ultimately, for our country."
In a letter to state education officials, Duncan cited "innovations and reforms" at the state and local level that "were not anticipated when the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was enacted nearly a decade ago."
That's why, he said in an interview with NBC News, "I'm actually giving away the power. ... We are giving the power to states and districts."
Critics — including many educators — have long said No Child Left Behind locked states into inflexible standards focused solely on reading and math, neglecting subjects like social studies, the arts, health and physical education.
"There's only two things that have been tested as it was, and we know that we want to produce students coming out of high school with a well-rounded education," said Lonny Lemon, school superintendent in Quincy, Ill.
Teach kids to be 'critical thinkers'
Reno Holler, a social studies teacher at Summit High School in Bend, Ore., said No Child Left Behind had created "a culture of 'we need to teach to the test,' rather than teaching to our children and teaching them to be critical thinkers."
Indicating the unpopularity of the testing standards, few critics of Obama's action have emerged, and their objections rest more on his decision to bypass Congress by issuing an executive order.
"The federal role in K-12 education is not working nearly as well as is needed. It must be seriously rethought and restructured," Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit policy institute, wrote Thursday. But, he added, "Congress is about this work" — not the executive branch.
Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, a nonprofit institution promoting higher public education standards, blamed "political problems," noting that Congress has ended its last three sessions without revamping the law to address educators' widespread concerns.
"On the House side, the Tea Party members don't believe there should be a federal role in education," Jenkins said. "But when the Democrats controlled both houses earlier in the Obama administration, the education problem slipped right off their radar screen."
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, agreed that there was "frustration with Congress, and with the Republicans in Congress particularly."
She said No Child Left Behind was a matter of "good intention and bad implementation," and that as a result, "we understand the need for doing the waivers."
What officials want to fix is the rigidity of the current law, which set standards so restrictive that entire schools are deemed to be failing if only a relative few students don't meet test standards.
Under current rules, a school's success is based on a statewide test that assesses 40 categories. If just one subcategory — such as students with disabilities or those who are economically disadvantaged — doesn't make its federal Adequate Yearly Progress benchmark, then the entire school fails.
That's what happened to two Roanoke County, Va., middle schools in 2008, when one subcategory of math didn't meet the standard. Both schools were categorized as failing overall.
Jack Padgett, a member of the Richmond County (Ga.) School Board, said the rule also led to some of his county's schools being branded as failures even though "we'd made 93.7 percent of all the criteria."
"It's kind of hard to tell a kid or school or teacher you're failing when you're making good improvement," Padgett said.
By doing away with the federal Adequate Yearly Progress standard, "You would not have one disaggregated group dragging an entire school down, which is what happened in No Child Left Behind," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who has unsuccessfully sought to pass legislation to do away with the test standards.
"Instead, the school would be evaluated in its totality," he said.
Public backs reform of law
Such complaints resonate loudly with the public.
In a Gallup poll in January, 53 percent of respondents said No Child Left Behind needed "major revisions," and 21 percent said it should be eliminated completely.
Those results were distributed fairly evenly across respondents who identified themselves as Democrats, Republicans and independents. (The poll of 1,032 adults reported a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.)
But the standards still have some defenders, among them Margaret Spellings, who administered No Child Left Behind as President George W. Bush's education secretary from 2005 to 2009.
She said waiving the requirements could lead state and local officials to try to "game the system" if they're allowed to measure their progress themselves.
"They talk a good game, but when it comes time to deliver for students, they rarely perform," Spellings said. "That's why we're in this mess in the first place."