It’s too bad everyone seems to have agreed that this election isn’t going to be about issues, because Barack Obama’s been saying some interesting things about education reform. Kevin Carey has a good rundown of the specific points Obama hit in his education speech, but I think is holding it to a bit of an unrealistic standard of wonkery. Like Paul Tough, I thought the speech was noteworthy for using the power of rhetoric to elevate the conversation a bit above a zero-sum conflict between teachers and would-be structural reformers. To me, that’s both politically necessary and also actually necessary in practice — we need to change the way schools operate in this country, but you’re not going to recruit the volume of good teachers the country needs by making changes that, in the aggregate, turn teaching into a less attractive career.
One point where I agree with Kevin, however, is that pitching the case for educational improvements as part of a need to “compete” with China and India is a pretty annoying trend. I think it’s probably useful for the strict purposes of talking to people about education since it takes an issue that’s not pressing to most people and makes it seem dramatic. But there are a lot of other policy areas where China and India are, rightly, much more central to our thinking and it’s misleading in those contexts to think of Chinese and Indian efforts to increase living standards in their countries as somehow threatening to the United States. If the population of India were to magically become much better educated next week (only 61 percent of Indians are literate) that would be good for the United States. It would be an even bigger deal for India, but everyone benefits from living in a better-educated, more productive world.
But back to Obama. The speech was good, I think, at trying to shift the conversation back to the historical norm where progressives are on the side of bold improvements in the education system and conservatives are left, as they are in other areas of social policy, arguing that we should settle for doing less with less. The progressive coalition got kind of wrong-footed by the Bush administration’s education initiatives and has expended an extraordinary amount of energy over the past few years quibbling over exactly how much of the increase in inequality can be attributed to our failure to expand the proportion of college graduates in the country. It’s much better to be having the conversation about how to move the country forward in education terms; there’s no need to claim that this is the only important challenge the country faces to see that it’s an important challenge.