Aug. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Although President Barack Obama is on the ropes, with even some Democratic allies describing him as weak and passive, this week he showed boldness and imagination in one vital area: education.

Obama backed Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s announcement that he will grant waivers to states that want to be excused from the punitive provisions of No Child Left Behind , Washington’s much-maligned 2002 overhaul of elementary and secondary education policy.

Republican lawmakers complain that the White House waivers run roughshod over the legislative branch -- and they’re right. But gridlock demands more robust use of presidential authority and, at least in this case, we’re getting it. Unless Duncan’s action is challenged and reversed on constitutional grounds, No Child Left Behind will be left behind for good.

Under Obama, education was supposed to be fertile ground for bipartisan compromise. That’s because Obama has executed a “Nixon to China” maneuver; only a Democratic president can successfully take on the teachers unions, and the president has done so in a shrewd way that avoids teacher bashing and keeps the lines of communication with the unions (big backers of Democrats) open.

Republican lawmakers broadly endorse Obama’s policies, but they’re philosophically committed to less federal involvement in education and politically committed to opposing the president whenever possible. So they’ve dragged their feet on reauthorizing NCLB, as have Senate Democrats who can’t agree on how to move a bill.

Duncan’s waivers, which are good for four years, actually enhance local control while ensuring greater accountability. But it’s a different kind of local control and a different vision of accountability than we’ve seen before.

Obama and Duncan are selling something ambitious --a new relationship between Washington and the states. The idea is to set high education standards, then let states figure out how to meet them. “We want to give them a lot more flexibility, get out of their way and let them hit that higher bar,” Duncan said last week.

Some Republican governors, such as Mitch Daniels of Indiana, joined Democratic governors in praising the plan. They and just about everyone else connected to American education are frustrated that so many schools are deemed “failing” under NCLB, even when they aren’t.

There’s a racial subtext to all this. The most common reason schools receive a failing grade is that minority students don’t perform well, dragging down a school’s scores. Duncan’s waivers will require continued focus on the achievement gap between whites and minorities, yet introduce more sophisticated accountability standards that set realistic goals for improvement.

While it deserves credit for bringing accountability into American education, NCLB inadvertently provided incentives to states to dumb down standards so that fewer schools would fail. Tennessee, for instance, was “lying to children, lying to parents,” as Duncan put it, in 2008 when state tests showed 91 percent of its children proficient in math. When Tennessee, under pressure from Washington, replaced those tests with legitimate ones the following year, only 34 percent of students proved proficient.

To underscore the urgent need for action, Duncan warned this spring that with NCLB’s standards, 80 percent of the nation’s 100,000 schools could soon be deemed failures under the law’s crude pass-fail system, which goes by the most dreaded acronym in American education: AYP -- Adequate Yearly Progress.

A more accurate assessment of schools suggests that about 40 percent are headed for a failing grade, but the point remains: NCLB isn’t working. It penalizes schools for circumstances beyond their control -- like the poor preparation of incoming students -- and sets standards that tens of thousands of schools cannot meet. Expecting all students to be proficient in reading and math by 2014, as the law dictates, is a fantasy.

Duncan and Obama rightly believe that there is middle ground between what President George W. Bush memorably called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and pie-in-the-sky demands for proficiency. They favor replacing AYP with more sensible evaluations of classroom teachers, who will be judged partly on whether their students have shown improvement -- even from a low baseline -- over the course of a school year.

Instead of being based entirely on student tests, new teacher evaluations will also require classroom observation, student ratings and other means of assessment. Colorado, Indiana and Florida are leading the pack in developing the sophisticated accountability standards necessary for better performance.

We won’t know until September exactly what Duncan will demand of states in exchange for granting them waivers, but the price is likely to resemble the requirements imposed by Race to the Top, the competition launched by the Department of Education in 2009 that has inspired a flowering of reform across the country.

This time, states won’t compete with each other for federal money. But they will probably have to meet many of the same accountability standards demanded by Race to the Top, including closing genuinely failed schools, incorporating student performance in teacher evaluations, and applying new “common core” academic standards that are more rigorous than those adopted in the past.

Steven Brill’s forthcoming book, “Class Warfare,” offers a compelling account of Race to the Top, which, for all of its success, has also been marred by the failure of some states to meet their commitments to more rigorous teacher evaluation.

For years, teachers unions have wanted their members to be considered professionals without being held accountable for performance like other professionals. The Obama policy goes a long way toward changing that. Not surprisingly, Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, told me this week that she opposes Duncan’s waivers because they shift too much accountability to teachers.

Duncan will need to use the power of the executive branch to enforce both the requirements of Race to the Top and whatever broad reforms he demands in exchange for state waivers. If that requires withholding federal funds from recalcitrant states -- good. If it means overriding a dilatory and dysfunctional Congress -- even better.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this article: Jonathan Alter at alterjonathan@gmail.com.

To contact the editor on this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.