"Waivers are not a pass on accountability, but a smarter, more focused and fair way to hold ourselves accountable," Duncan said in that speech.
In a sign of the uneven pace of progress, a major stimulus-funded grant program to turn around the worst performing schools showed mixed results in its first year, according to Education Department data released Monday.
Two-thirds of schools that received School Improvement Grants showed an uptick in math and reading scores, although most of those schools were already making progress before the grants were distributed. But scores declined at more than one in four schools that had been improving the year before grants started. Duncan said turning around failing schools is a long-term process and that a single year of scores paints an incomplete picture.
Lawmakers are also eager to reclaim control of Race to the Top, the multibillion-dollar grant competition program Obama created in 2009 to prod states into changing laws and raising standards. The administration opened the competition to school districts this year, but with stimulus funds exhausted, the size of the program shrank dramatically.
"With Race to the Top, and then these conditional waivers, it is bypassing Congress and the process we're supposed to have, adding to uncertainty," Republican Rep. John Kline, the House Education and the Workforce Committee chairman, said in an interview.
Teacher assessments are at the heart of another potential flashpoint. Chicago teachers walked off the job for more than a week in September, largely over demands that their evaluations be tied to student test scores. Teachers unions enthusiastically backed Obama's re-election, but Obama's Education Department stayed neutral on the strike, and his former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, led the fight against striking teachers.
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