More so than anything, the story of Barack Obama’s success is one in which education played a key role in determining his destiny. His parents were both the beneficiaries of an advanced college education, earning graduate degrees, and the pursuit of excellence was passed down to their son. He attended two universities that are considered among the nation’s elite institutions – Columbia University and Harvard Law School – and made his mark at the latter as the first Black editor of the school’s law review. As the first Black President, Mr. Obama carries a tradition of academic endeavor that is consistent with the ascendancy of Blacks in our nation. If there is any President that has legitimacy to speak to the nation about education, it’s the current occupant of the White House.
Mr. Obama’s speech before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce yesterday was his first attempt to articulate a new vision for American education. Though far from perfect and lacking in some details, the priorities outlined by the President are on target. We agree with the President on the need to invest in early childhood education. Head Start works, it has been evaluated as a successful program and has helped tens of thousands of Black children prepare for kindergarten and their elementary education. It is one of the “Great Society” programs that works and has long deserved full funding to reach every child who could benefit from it. Head Start and Early Head Start are also effective weapons to combat poverty.
The President also rightly focused on teachers and the need to reward quality instruction in the classroom. Teachers, good teachers, are some of our nation’s most underappreciated professionals. Many teachers who invest their lives to educating our children are paid too little for their efforts and their knowledge is not fully embraced by school districts. President Obama’s proposal for “merit pay” makes sense and should be embraced at the local level. Good teachers should be rewarded while at the same time given greater responsibility. Mr. Obama also called upon Americans to become teachers, noting the need for math and science instructors.
One issue that we are particularly pleased the President addressed is high school dropouts. While it is a national crisis that cuts across the regional and racial spectrums, it is particularly acute in urban America where many Blacks reside. Too many of our children are calling it quits and walking away from the one experience – education – that can have a profound effect on their lifelong economic security. We agree with Mr. Obama that underperforming schools have to be taken to task and turned around. The President’s message to students was also heartening, “Don’t even think about dropping out of school.” It was refreshing to hear the candor of the President in calling upon young people to take greater responsibility for their lives by being committed to their education.
With many Black students attending our nation’s college facing financial pressures, the President’s support for an increase in the maximum Pell Grant and a tuition tax credit for students from working families is much welcome. Just last week at the 65th anniversary dinner of the United Negro College Fund, its president, Dr. Michael Lomax, announced a fundraising campaign to help students make it through the current year. The need is tremendous but the investment in our young people is small in comparison to the payoff. We need to do more to ease the financial burdens on our college students.
Likewise, President Obama is correct in claiming that all Americans need to invest in lifelong learning. His support for career and technical training for young adults and older workers is appropriate and timely given the state of the nation’s economy. With job losses in the millions, many Americans will have to re-think their careers and reinvent themselves in order to stay relevant in an economy in transition. By calling universities and communities colleges into action for career training purposes, the President is marshalling the nation’s academic resources to retool the American workforce. It is a smart move and one that institutions across the country should get behind.
We look forward to the administration’s more detailed plan around these initiatives but, on first glance, are supportive of the direction in which Mr. Obama is moving.