With an agenda that Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, has described as a "quiet revolution," the Obama administration has pushed rigorous new standards for a majority of the nation's public schools as well as requirements that states and districts evaluate not just schools but individual teachers, in part by assessing their ability to improve student scores on standardized tests.
But some critics suggest that at the same time the administration has gotten tough on teachers and set higher standards, it could be allowing states to set new, unambitious goals for how quickly students must reach those standards, particularly poor and minority students.
"We repeatedly look for ways to game the system and fuzz up the fact that our kids aren't being educated to the standards that they need," said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs at the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that works to close achievement gaps.
One particularly controversial example emerged over the summer, when Virginia initially released new targets showing that the state would require 57 percent of black students to become proficient in math by 2017, compared with 78 percent of white students. Virginia's education department has since revised its goals, with a goal of making 73 percent of all students proficient in math within five years.
The administration has pushed its agenda through two programs: its Race to the Top grants, which it has awarded to 19 states, and the waivers to 33 states from central provisions of the Bush administration's signature No Child Left Behind education law. States that have qualified for the waivers are relieved from meeting the law's most controversial target: making all students proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014.
Although both President Obama and Mitt Romney addressed education during their debate on Wednesday, neither talked specifically about the changes to No Child Left Behind. But Mr. Duncan, in a telephone interview, addressed critics of the waiver policies. He said the administration had deliberately flipped the theory behind No Child Left Behind, which has been up for reauthorization since 2007.
That law prescribed consequences for schools that failed to meet annual goals, while allowing individual states to set goals that Mr. Duncan described as "dummied-down standards." He said that with its waivers, which the administration used to sidestep Congress after lawmakers failed repeatedly to reauthorize the No Child law, the policy was "tight on goals, loose on means."
So while the administration is requiring states that want waivers to set rigorous "college and career ready" standards, it is allowing them to design their own proposals for how -- and how quickly -- to get schools to meet those standards. "Going forward, we should be in the business of supporting states and holding them accountable," Mr. Duncan said, "and not treating every state and district the same."
Some advocacy groups worry that the waivers require few consequences if schools fail to meet their new targets, even as No Child Left Behind was criticized for requiring rigid interventions for low-performing schools, like forcing states to lay off a large portion of a school's staff or to close a school altogether.
The waivers allow states to design new interventions, and some critics worry that education officials now have too much leeway. "All of these states continue to significantly weaken the power and impact of goals by not using them to hold schools accountable," Jeremy Ayers, associate director of federal education programs at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, wrote in an e-mail.
With the waivers directing states to focus on the bottom 15 percent of schools, Mr. Ayers said, he was concerned that the remaining schools would do little more than report test results. "Describing the problem is not the same as fixing it," he said.
Teachers' unions and other education advocates have chafed at other conditions in the waivers and Race to the Top, which require new teacher evaluation systems that rely increasingly on students' standardized test performance. Such objections became a significant sticking point in the Chicago teachers' union strike last month.
According to the Education Commission of the States, 30 states have passed laws requiring districts to evaluate teachers using standardized test scores. Michael Griffith, senior policy analyst at the commission, said states had acted despite the fact that the $4.35 billion disbursed through the Race to the Top program is to be spread over five years and amounts to less than 1 percent of total education spending at the federal, state and local level in 2011-2012. Federal education financing is typically about 10 percent of total spending on public K-12 education.
It is not clear what could happen to the waivers if Mr. Romney is elected president. Congressional Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly failed to reauthorize the elementary and secondary education law as they have clashed on the proper role for the federal government in public schools. In the debate, Mr. Romney reiterated his support for a plan to distribute federal money so students can choose where they go to school, and surprised some educators and analysts when he said: "I'm not going to cut education funding. I don't have any plan to cut education funding."
Supporters of the Obama administration's approach say it is allowing states to accommodate differences between students, rather than entrapping schools with unattainable goals.
"A statement by a state that 'we're going to give low-income schools more time to reach proficiency than we're going to give high-income schools' is reasonable in the real world," said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education policy group in Washington. The adoption of the new college and career standards, he said, "is still ambitious, and says in the long run, it's the same standard we'd like them all to attain."
Civil rights groups said they would monitor states to make sure they were not watering down expectations for minority groups or poor students.
"Ultimately, fiddling around with the finish line or different heights of the hurdles is not how you get all students to succeed," said Beth Glenn, education director at the N.A.A.C.P. "You have to change what you do in the classroom."
Teachers worry that they are being asked to do too much at a time when money is so limited.
"You can continue to say you're accountable for x, y and z," said Freeda Pirillis, a first-grade teacher at Agassiz Elementary School in Chicago. "But if you don't support teachers and students in that work, then that's just an empty sort of thing." She noted, for example, that "we continue to have textbooks in our school that show that Bill Clinton was our last president."
Education officials say they feel the effect of the Obama administration's education agenda in their day-to-day lives.
"When you think about the impact of the federal government on our work, it's amazing," said David Fleishman, superintendent of the Newton Public Schools in Massachusetts. Every faculty meeting since the beginning of the school year, he said, has focused on the teacher evaluation system the district has introduced to meet federal criteria.
"I'm just hopeful and optimistic that it ends up improving student learning," Mr. Fleishman said, "and not being a bureaucratic checklist."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.