Presidential Rhetoric, Education-Style

The education game is on.  During last evening’s Presidential Address to Congress, President Obama dedicated significant time in his hour-long speech to the issue of education.  Such a commitment is typically unheard of in typical State of the Union addresses.  Often, a president will throw in a few sentences about education, one about the importance of teachers, one about the value of a college education, and then he will move onto to other issues more adept at capturing the hearts and minds of the American people.

Yes, Obama had a lot to say last night.  The economy, home ownership, energy, national security, healthcare.  All got their due.  And education was right in there as an A-list issue.  Clearly, the President sees the clear connect between an improved K-16 education system and an improved economy, how a strong education leads to good jobs and meaningful contribution.  He sees the next generation of the American workforce will require new levels of knowledge and skills that the generations before them never envisioned.  If anything, he made a clear and compassionate case for 21st century skills.
The full transcript from last night’s speech can be found here, though it is a much more impressive watch than it is a read: <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/documents/obama_address_022409.html?hpid=topnews
Of”>www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/documents/obama_address_022409.html?hpid=topnews
Of course, a significant potion of last night’s education segment was dedicated to higher education.  That should surprise no one.  For the past two years, Obama has spoken of postsecondary education as a primary pathway to life success.  He has pledged to get more kids to go to college, help them pay for it, and then use their talents in the community well after they earned that degree.  And in times of economic trouble, nothing hits the heart better than improving one’s lot in life through learning.  Challenging every American to seek at least one more year of education, whether it be in college or a vocational program, was a bold statement.  Stating that dropping out is never an option is always a crowd-pleaser.  And setting a goal of repositioning the United States as the nation with the highest percentage of postsecondary degree holders by 2020 is an interesting idea (though I’m curious to see how we are defining degrees and how we are equating simply earning the degree with effectively putting it to use).
A few points — some policy, some rhetoric — truly grabbed Eduflack’s attention.
On the policy front, the President made strong commitments to both charter schools and performance pay for teachers.  The latter should be no surprise.  Obama has long advocated for incentive pay, even during a tough primary knowing it may have cost him the support of teachers (or at least the teachers’ unions).  He hasn’t forgotten how important it can be to incentivize educators, particularly those in hard-to-staff communities facing real academic challenges.  By boosting funding for the Teacher Incentive Fund in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he has signaled that performance pay (and possibly differentiated pay scales) are on the horizon.  Perhaps he may even lean to newly minted U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado for some ideas on how to take Denver’s ProComp model to national scale.
On charters, the President put charter schools firmly in the center of his education improvement agenda.  Although he provided no specific details, just by singling them out he built a bridge to an important education community and showed his design for change, innovation, and improvement in our public schools.  It is almost hard to believe that a president or two ago, a Democrat couldn’t even utter the word charter without getting the ire of the education establishment.  For Eduflack, the question for the future is whether the Administration — particularly through the Office of Innovation and Improvement and the newly created Innovation Fund — will broadly define charter schools or whether they will take the new world view pushed by Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, limiting our commitment to charters to those that are run by not-for-profit organizations.
The final policy piece?  A renewed commitment to early childhood education.  The President made clear that student learning starts “from the day they are born to the day they begin a career,” and we need to redouble our efforts to deliver real instruction and real learning to children well before they hit kindergarten.  That got applause from Eduflack, but we probably need to retool the statement to address the reality that education continues well beyond the start of a career.  Just ask all of those most recently in the workforce who we are asking to retool, or those teachers for whom we are rightfully investing in improved, content-based professional development.  Learning should be a lifelong pursuit.
And the rhetoric?  As many pundits have already proclaimed, President Obama is clearly a master of the television medium.  He knows how to deliver a speech, and knows how to do it well with real impact.  In the education portion of our program, that was most clear in his articulation of the role of parents.  Again, this has been a key component of his stump speech, and a topic touched on during the Democratic Convention last summer.  He made crystal the job of educating our students is not just left to teachers, and that parents play an equally important role by being involved, taking an interest, and leading by example.  I still believe there is a real need for an Office of Family Involvement over at the U.S. Department of Education, an infrastructure that can harness the power of a wide range of communities and focus on how the home can supplement what is happening in the classroom.  If not an assistant secretary office someone at OESE, OPEPD, or OII needs to take it on as a priority cause.
In his remarks, it is also clear that Obama (and his speechwriters) are clear in their vision and passion for how one talks about higher education and its impact on the individual and the community.  What was interesting, though, is that the speechwriters still seem to be seeking and searching for that same confident voice on K-12 education.  Yes, there were applause line for things like charter schools and dropping out is never an option, but the passion and connectivity was lacking, at least compared with other sections of the speech.Obama didn’t sell the K-12 ideas as well as he did higher education or energy.  Maybe he wanted to stay away from NCLB, maybe he wants to give EdSec Arne Duncan a full latitude in establishing the agenda, or maybe he is still waiting to find that balance between the tried-and-true and innovation (or the status quoers and the reformers, as some prefer).  Over time, we have to hope that the K-12 section, particularly with regard to elementary grades and instructional building blocks becomes clear and a true rallying cry for school improvement.  To truly sell the vision, he needs to speak with confidence and authority on some of the details, particularly as it relates to instructional innovation.
What was missing?  In his discussion of how we can effectively use our educational infrastructure to improve our economy, I wish there was clear, specific mention of STEM education. When done well, STEM education is about well more than just 21st century skills.  It is exactly about equipping all students with the math, science, and technology knowledgebase they need to contribute to the economy and fill the very jobs Obama is looking to create.
I had also hoped to hear a call for national standards.  In talking about global economic competition, we not only need clear national academic standards, but we probably need to tie those to intern
ational benchmarks (as NGA, CCSSO, and Achieve have recently called for).  The Administration has been dipping its toe into the national standards pool, and the financial commitment to improve state data systems is a good step forward.  But the rhetorical nod to a single expectation for student achievement in the United States would have been a powerful, defining statement.
What fell flat?  The attempt to brand this new approach to P-16 as a “complete and competitive education.”  While I appreciate the attempt, I don’t think the concept holds the rhetorical power we both seek and need.  The Administration is looking for a way to improve on No Child Left Behind, both as a policy and as a rhetorical statement.  It may be a punchline to jokes now, but the phrase “no child left behind” wielded enormous power in the early days of the law. It meant something, particularly when combined with lines about the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Lines like “dropping out of high school is no longer an option” are good initial steps.  But we still need to capture an umbrella brand and a bumper sticker phrase to define what this new era of innovative public education really stands for.  Complete and competitive are nice attributes, but they aren’t the headline.  It may just be window dressing to some, but how we talk about federal policy and the labels we ascribe to it can be just as important — even more so — than what’s under the hood.  Obama captured much of the nation with his rhetoric of “Yes, we can.”  Now we need to move that into a “yes, we can educate all” mentality.

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