President Barack Obama addressed the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce yesterday at the Washington Marriott Metro Center, and used the speech to outline his education agenda. During the presidential campaign the President frequently spoke about the need for improving educational outcomes among the nation’s secondary schools, and brought Chicago school chief Arne Duncan to Washington to lead the Department of Education. Mr. Obama’s speech yesterday marked the first time since assuming office that he spoke in detail about his education agenda.
In his speech President Obama declared, “The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens -- and my fellow Americans, we have everything we need to be that nation. We have the best universities, the most renowned scholars. We have innovative principals and passionate teachers and gifted students, and we have parents whose only priority is their child's education. We have a legacy of excellence, and an unwavering belief that our children should climb higher than we did.”
Mr. Obama pointed to the success of Head Start as an investment in early childhood education that has proven effective in preparing children for life. He said, “Studies show that children in early childhood education programs are more likely to score higher in reading and math, more likely to graduate from high school and attend college, more likely to hold a job, and more likely to earn more in that job. For every dollar we invest in these programs, we get nearly $10 back in reduced welfare rolls, fewer health care costs, and less crime.” President Obama noted that the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan of 2009” provides $5 billion for Early Head Start and Head Start programs. He announced a challenge grant program, an Early Learning Challenge Grant, to reward states that develop quality early childhood programs to better prepare children to enter kindergarten.
The President also called for maintaining high standards but making standards clear and consistent, and with proper assessment. He compared efforts elsewhere in the world to practices in the United States. “It's not that their kids are any smarter than ours -- it's that they are being smarter about how to educate their children. They're spending less time teaching things that don't matter, and more time teaching things that do. They're preparing their students not only for high school or college, but for a career. We are not,” charged Mr. Obama. The President said that his administration would work to reform the No Child Left Behind Act to make certain that schools that adhere to high standards and produce results would be rewarded financially. Mr. Obama also said that Education Secretary Arne Duncan would create a fund to invest in innovative programs in school districts.
Mr. Obama praised the nation’s teachers and pledged his support to assist professionals in the classroom. He called upon Americans to make a commitment to teaching. The President said, “I'm calling on a new generation of Americans to step forward and serve our country in our classrooms. If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation, if you want to make the most of your talents and dedication, if you want to make your mark with a legacy that will endure -- then join the teaching profession. America needs you. We need you in our suburbs. We need you in our small towns. We especially need you in our inner cities. We need you in classrooms all across our country.” Mr. Obama expressed his support for merit pay for individuals who choose to teach math and science, two areas where there is currently a shortage of teachers. He said good teachers would be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement, but also asked to accept more responsibility for the improvement of their schools. The President said he would target 150 school districts with his merit pay proposal.
The President also called for investments in innovative programs and noted the effectiveness of charter schools and his support for them while he served in the Illinois State Senate and as a United States Senator. He called for the expansion of charter schools but also for states to adopt more rigorous selection criteria and greater oversight and accountability. Mr. Obama called on states that have caps on the creation of charter schools to lift them and to reform their charter school systems. He also expressed support for the expansion of after school programs and encouraged states to re-think the school day. “We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed for when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day. That calendar may have once made sense, but today it puts us at a competitive disadvantage.”
Mr. Obama also challenged the nation’s students to do better and raise their standards. He said, “America cannot succeed unless our students take responsibility for their own education. That means showing up for school on time, paying attention in class, seeking out extra tutoring if it's needed, staying out of trouble. To any student who's watching, I say this: Don't even think about dropping out of school. Don't even think about it.” The President pointed out high dropout rates in some of the nation’s cities and challenged teachers, administrators and parents to work collectively to turnaround poor performing schools. He committed his administration to developing strategies to combat high dropout rates to help at-risk students stay in school and dropouts return to graduate.
The President also called for a renewed focus on higher education and highlighted the increase in the maximum Pell Grant and a $2,500 tuition tax credit for students from working families as examples of his commitment. Mr. Obama also called on Americans to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career and technical training. He said the administration would invest $2.5 billion to identify and support initiatives that help students enroll and graduate from college. He also referred to the need for increased efforts in job training for workers. The President called on the nation’s universities and community colleges to prepare workers for jobs in high-growth industries, as well as improve access to job training for young adults and older workers. He said that Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis would make lifelong learning for workers one of her priorities.
By taking a stand on education, President Obama has walked into an area of public policy that has proven to be not only difficult to confront but divisive. Over the last two decades, education has been caught in an ideological tug of war despite momentary flashes of bipartisan cooperation, such as the passing of the “No Child Left Behind Act.” Some of what Mr. Obama is proposing will be divisive. However, the current recession is turning the attention of many Americans back to education and the renewed focus could serve the President well in providing the backdrop for some of these reform measures. The decentralized nature of public education in the nation will also pose a unique challenge to efforts to enforce consistency of outcomes. States have largely been independent actors in public education, with each state enforcing their own standards, to varied results, and largely with no sense of developing a national consensus on what constitutes quality or expectations for results.
In tackling education, Mr. Obama must also take on entrenched interests in local education bureaucracies, including teachers unions, which may view some of his proposals as a threat to their authority. The responsibility for carrying out the President’s agenda will be hoisted upon Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who gained a reputation as a reformer when he led Chicago’s public school system.