It is always interesting how people see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. We all latch onto particular issues or ideas, believing that was the intent of a speech, a news story, or a television program. Some would say that the measure of a truly good advocacy speech is the speaker allows all audiences to find a little something in the text that rallies them to action, an idea or phrase that makes them believe the speaker understands their concerns and is doing something to solve the problem.
Case in point — President Obama’s lauded education speech delivered yesterday at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. USA Today led with the headline that Obama called for longer school days and longer school years. The Washington Post saw it as a critique of our current state of schools, a rebuke that called for rewarding good teachers, getting rid of bad teachers, and putting more money into the system. Education Week saw the call for teacher standards and tougher academic requirements. The U.S. House of Representatives’ top education Republican, Buck McKeon, saw it as an indictment of the education establishment and status quo. The U.S. Senate’s top Republican, Lamar Alexander, saw it as a call to arms for merit pay. NEA’s president saw it as rewarding teachers who were successful with children, but according to the Politics K-12 blog didn’t see anything in the speech about merit pay. The charter school folks were thrilled with what they saw as an endorsement of expansion of charter schools. Higher ed officials saw their concerns returning to the forefront. Even voucher advocates had to have a good feeling for a while, until the U.S. Senate ended the DC voucher program late last night.
The full text of the speech can be found here, so you can come to your own conclusions — <a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-of-the-President-to-the-Hispanic-Chamber-of-Commerce/.
Personally, Eduflack saw the speech as laying out two very important trains of thought for future activity, particularly the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind (which some still hope will happen later this year). First, it made clear that the status quo will not stand, and we need real solutions from a wide variety of sources if we are to truly improve our schools. More importantly, though, it was the start of a clarion call for national standards. With its focus on student achievement, school improvement, measuring teacher effectiveness, and ensuring our schools are preparing all students for the opportunities of the 21st century, the next logical step is national standards (that, and going along with NGA and CCSSO’s ideas on international benchmarking).
This was an important moment because it amplified the federal voice on education policy. For months now, we have clearly heard EdSec Arne Duncan and his plans for the future. The president’s address raised the ante, demonstrating that school improvement is a top priority, even in this economy. And doing it before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce signaled that this is not an issue that will be solved by the education establishment alone.
With all good policy addresses, the devil is in the details. There were a number of good lines, a lot of good promises, and heaps of great rhetoric in the speech. We expect no less from President Obama. The real challenge, though, is how that rhetoric is transformed into policies and initiatives. How will the Secretary’s Innovation Fund take shape? How will we measure success in the Race to the Top fund? What specific new programs will we put in place to close the achievement gap? How will we hold our SEAs more accountable for all of the economic stimulus funds headed into the states? How will we use the Teacher Incentive Fund to truly reward and incentivize good instruction? How will we address college costs in more ways than simply making more dollars available to aspiring students? How will we measure student achievement, particularly if we are to move beyond one “bubble test?” And yes, Eduflack fans, how are we to equip all students with proven instruction, particularly in the subject of reading?
For now, the folks down on Maryland Avenue are still busily working on the guidance and regs that are to accompany the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, determining the RFP process for the Race to the Top and trying to figure out how to disperse 40 some odd billion dollars to states without a system in place to cut some checks. And then they need to focus on staffing, actually getting senior leadership in place to administer our existing federal education infrastructure.
Currently, the EdSec is riding a wave of popularity from the stimulus money and a current national focus on public education. That wave can soon top off, though, if it isn’t backed up by new ideas, new policies, and new initiatives that move us from idea to action. We need specifics to rally behind, specifics that call key stakeholders to action and can be put into place in ways that demonstrate real results out of the box. Good speeches come and go. Strong programs that improve the way our schools operate and our children learn last forever (or at least until the next administration).
Otherwise, it is just empty rhetoric at a time when we need real action. The stimulus money was a start, but as every ED official reminds us, that is just a temporary, one-time thing. It is time for ED to put its long-term policy stake in the ground, moving from words to action.