* States would be allowed to seek waivers
* Education a key issue for Obama's Democratic base
* Divided Congress unable to agree on updating law
By Lisa Lambert
WASHINGTON, Sept 23 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday announced steps to roll back key provisions of "No Child Left Behind," calling the decade-old U.S. education law admirable but flawed.
The law, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, was intended to hold schools and states accountable for students' performance, as measured by annual testing.
But critics say the law is inflexible, requiring teachers to adhere to a narrow curriculum targeted mostly at ensuring that every student pass standardized tests. They also say it has placed too large a burden on states.
Under Obama's reforms, states would be allowed to seek waivers from many of No Child's key requirements. Teachers' unions have welcomed the move.
"We can't let another generation of young people fall behind because we didn't have the courage to recognize what doesn't work, admit it and replace it with something that does," Obama said at the White House.
The No Child law expired four years ago, and Congress has failed to agree on a new version amid partisan fights over other domestic issues such as deficit reduction and healthcare reform. Instead, it has passed temporary extensions each year.
With the 2012 campaign for the U.S. presidency heating up, Obama is pulling the country's focus back to education, a key issue for his Democratic base. His recently unveiled $447 billion job creation plan includes money for hiring teachers and school repairs.
"Experience has taught us that, in its implementation, No Child Left Behind had some serious flaws that are hurting our children instead of helping them," Obama said.
"Teachers too often are being forced to teach to the test. Subjects like history and science have been squeezed out. And in order to avoid having their schools labeled as failures some states perversely have had to actually lower their standards."
"THIS PLAN DELIVERS"
Since taking office in 2009, Obama has championed programs such as the "Race to the Top" grants intended to help states write new learning and teaching standards and foster semi-autonomous charter schools.
States can now apply for a waiver to opt out of a No Child requirement that all students must be "proficient" by 2014 and instead establish their own goals in reading, language and mathematics. The standards, though, must help students prepare for college or enter the workforce.
States will also no longer have to take part in a system that identified schools as "failing," and triggered penalties many critics said were crippling. States will also have more discretion over how to use federal funds.
But, in return, they must recognize high-achieving schools in low-income neighborhoods and help poorly performing schools.
States must apply for the waivers, which the Secretary of Education will approve, allowing Obama to bypass Congress to implement his changes.
"Educators want common-sense measures of student progress, freedom to implement local ideas, respect for their judgment and the right to be a part of critical decisions," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the large teachers union, National Education Association. "This plan delivers." (Editing by Xavier Briand)