Obama’s Education Speech: Forward on All Fronts

The remarkable thing about the speech Barack Obama delivered earlier this morning on education was that at a time when he’s facing misguided pressure to curtail the overall ambition of his agenda, he’s not only moving forward boldly on the education front as well as on other issues, but that he’s moving forward across all major education fronts.

On early childhood education, I’ll mostly leave things to Sara Mead but the important point is that he not only called for more early childhood education, but also for better early childhood education. That’s something that often gets lost.

On K–12, Obama endorsed the logic of rigorous national standards and correctly pegged Massachusetts as a good model, but didn’t actually come out in favor of national standards. Instead, he called for states to raise and coordinate their standards and suggested that federal funds would be available to facilitate/incentive that kind of thing. He made a call for performance pay programs of some sort to be implemented in 150 school districts, and paired that with an extremely tough statement on firing bad teachers — “Let me be clear: if a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching.” This comes after a commitment to making more funds available for programs to recruit people into the teaching profession. And underlying this commitment to quality teaching is the not-so-exciting issue of getting better data on student performance. Obama rightly lamented the fact that relatively few states have state-of-the-art data and tracking programs in place even though at the end of the day it’s very hard to improve if you don’t have a mechanism for telling how kids are doing. One thing he left out was that some states have already started adopting laws that prevent the data they have from actually being used in a variety of circumstances. This is, obviously, a big problem for anyone interested in data-based school administration. The clear implication of everything Obama said was that states shouldn’t do this, but nobody was called out specifically.

He called for expanded learning time, which evidence suggests can do a lot to help disadvantaged kids. And he made an important statement on charter schools, calling on every state to get strict about shutting down low-performing charter schools and calling on every state to lift the “cap” on the number of allowable charters. This is hugely important. The idea of a charter system is that bad schools will be shut down, but that models that work will grow and expand. Unfortunately, in a number of states with some successful charter schools you see union-backed Democratic legislators getting very resistant to letting the number of charters expand. That’s perverse. What wasn’t totally clear from the speech is what levers the federal government will deploy to this end. The stimulus bill’s large quantities of education spending will give the Education Department and the White House a lot of potential leverage to lean on states to do this, and the president’s language suggests he’d like to do that, but we’ll have to see. The other thing the speech does, of course, is give enormous leverage to pro-charters state legislators insofar as they can quote a popular president as supporting their position.

On higher education, all that really jumped out at me was that Obama reiterated his administration call to stop wasting money on subsidizing quasi-private loans and just have the government loan the money directly.