Stressing the urgent need for education reform in the United States, President Barack Obama said that on Monday he would send Congress a blueprint for an updated Elementary and Secondary Education Act to overhaul the No Child Left Behind programme.

“What this plan recognises is that while the federal government can play a leading role in encouraging the reforms and high standards we need, the impetus for that change will come from states, and from local schools and school districts,” he said. This formulation of the policy sets a high bar but also provides educators the flexibility to reach it, he added.

Mr. Obama's comments come at a time when the school education sector is dogged by multiple controversies.

First Kansas City, Missouri, announced it would be shutting down almost half the schools in its inner city district — 28 out of 61 state schools — by the summer, owing to its inability to deal with a $50-million annual deficit. According to a report, “angry parents repeatedly disrupted the vote at the school board meeting on Wednesday night demanding to know where their children will go”. The move would also leave almost 300 teachers and 400 other staff jobless.

Meanwhile in Texas, the State Board of Education literally rewrote American history earlier this week. Revealing a partisan political split, the Republican-controlled Board pushed through a 10-5 vote to adopt the new 10-year curriculum for 4.7 million students that would teach a more conservative version of U.S. history.

Altering text books

Texas, one of the biggest and most influential markets for textbook publishers, will now replace the word “democratic” in reference to the U.S. government with “constitutional republic”. It will also add references to “laws of nature and nature's God”, reject lessons teaching the U.S.'s founding on the principle of religious freedom and remove references to “capitalism”, “capitalist” and “free market”, as they were said to have a “negative connotation”, instead using “free enterprise” when referring to the American economic system.

Indicating that many nations were passing the U.S. in education, Mr. Obama said: “Our competitors understand that the nation that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow. Yet, too often we have failed to make inroads in reforming and strengthening our public education system — the debate mired in worn arguments hurled across entrenched divides.” This both risks our leadership as a nation and consigns millions of Americans to a lesser future, he warned.

Under the guidelines of the reformed No Child Left Behind policy, schools that achieved excellence or show real progress will be rewarded and local districts will be encouraged to commit to change in schools that are clearly letting their students down. “For the majority of schools that fall in between — schools that do well but could do better — we will encourage continuous improvement to help keep our young people on track for a bright future: prepared for the jobs of the 21st century,” said Mr. Obama.

He explained that his plans for education reform would set an ambitious goal, that “all students should graduate from high school prepared for college and a career — no matter who you are or where you come from”.