CINCINNATI — Shrill presidential candidates and horrific terror threats overshadowed important news last week that will affect every child in public and charter schools throughout the country.
President Obama and a wide bipartisan coalition in Congress put aside their usual differences to undo key parts of No Child Left Behind, the education reform that President George W. Bush and Sen. Ted Kennedy created 14 years ago.
Politicians on the right and left -- along with countless teachers, students and parents -- came to disdain No Child's emphasis on testing.
Teachers and school administrators lamented the high-stakes exams that tied teacher job security and raises to student test scores and tied state and district funding and reputation to those scores. Teachers in opposition to No Child Left Behind said they felt compelled to scrap lesson plans they thought would be most effective for teaching and instead devote weeks to teaching to the standardized tests.
The solution? Every Child Succeeds, a new set of reforms drafted by a bipartisan coalition.
Every Child Succeeds was signed into law by Obama on Thursday, and backers promise the reform will return more power over schools to states and school districts.
“This bill makes long-overdue fixes to the last education law, replacing the one-size-fits-all approach to reform with a commitment to provide every student with a well-rounded education,” Obama said when he signed the bill.
What states do with the power will be the key to its success.
"I'm sure some states will reduce the stresses from testing and others will not," said Julie Sellers, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. "I'm looking forward to seeing the details as they roll out."
We analyzed what changed and what didn't under Every Child Succeeds and talked to Tri-State education professionals for their take.
Tests don't go away. In fact, Every Child Succeeds still requires children in grades 3-8 take annual math and English tests.
But the tests won't be so burdensome; states and districts that perform poorly on the tests will no longer be penalized for bad grades.
In addition, under Every Child Succeeds, states are encouraged to add other factors into the equation to determine how well schools and districts are faring. States can factor in graduation rates or rates of improvement, for example, when weighing success.
Kim Norris, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Education, said it's too early to say what changes might be made to Ohio's testing practices.
Additionally, rather than a one-size-fits-all reprimand for failing schools, states will be required to put improvement plans in place for schools in the bottom 5 percent of test results. Ideally, they'll have discretion on what those reforms look like.
No Child Left Behind was promoted as a means to close achievement gaps between higher-performing white students and African-American and Hispanic pupils, English-language learners and disabled students.
Some critics of the new reform fret that easing federal oversight and penalties for failing to close those gaps might hamper efforts to close those performance gaps.
Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at Fordham Institute, said those concerns might be justified if states don't keep seeking ways to boost achievement.
But Every Child Succeeds still requires states to break down test scores by race, gender, income and other categories, which Aldis hopes will keep the pressure on states and schools to keep improving.
"We need to make sure we know how they're doing, and when that achievement gap is big or growing, we find ways to improve achievement," he said. "But the real concern is the absolute achievement level. If we're improving everybody's scores by 5 percent next year, that would be fantastic.
"The gap would not have shrunk, but we want instruction to lift all boats."
The federal government never directly required states to adopt Common Core standards for teaching, but a series of incentives like Race to the Top grants enticed many states to adopt them. That sort of influence rankled many conservative lawmakers and opponents of Common Core standards.
The new law does away with the practice by explicitly barring the federal government from imposing academic standards.
That leaves the decision on whether to keep, repeal or reform Common Core standards solely in the hands of states.
Wyoming City Schools Superintendent Susan Lang said she hopes Ohio and states throughout the country continue to embrace Common Core standards so states can accurately compare how well their students are faring against others.
"I'm afraid it may cause states to do their own thing like we did before, and I think it's important to have alignment across the country so we can compare Ohio to California to Wyoming," Lang said. "I think common standards are important."
Groups opposed to Common Core standards are disappointed in the reform, including Operation Opt Ohio, for not doing more to do away with the standards.
Operation Opt Out Ohio posted in its Facebook page: "(No Child Left Behind) made all the same claims about local control and parental authority, so that goes to show you the kabuki theatre on display. DC never changes... Deceive, Spin, Repeat."
Whatever changes are made should be done cautiously, Aldis said.
"With these changes, what we shouldn't say is, 'Phew, we don’t have to do that any more.' We should be deliberate and thoughtful about any changes we make," he said.
He's hopeful Ohio will continue to reduce the time and emphasis of standardized tests as it did this year when it eliminated the two-part PARCC tests and replaced them with one test administered by the AIR testing group.
"We shouldn’t be teaching to the test. The more time spent teaching to the test instead of helping kids think critically and use the knowledge they’ve gained is more time lost," he said.
Lang said whatever changes Ohio makes with its newfound power have to be implemented without penalizing school districts while they're adjusting to changes.
"When you have a brand new system and brand new expectations you should give the districts a pass instead of reporting out on a brand new test we're not familiar with and making us look bad when we don't know the expectations," she said.