Some Ed Thoughts on the SOTU

Tonight is the State of the Union address.  Across the nation, folks are looking at this speech to either make or break President Obama’s Administration (no pressure there).  And while Eduflack continues to hear those in the education community expect that education reform will be front and center in tonight’s speech, I have my doubts.  With an hour-long time slot likely to be interrupted by applause (and hopefully no more “you lies”), there is a lot to talk about.  We have wars and national security.  Jobs and the economy.  Healthcare and Haiti.  At best, I suspect education will get a few paragraphs about two-thirds of the way through the address.

So what do we do with those few paragraphs?  We’ve already heard that Obama intends to freeze all discretionary non-security funding for the next three years.  And while many say there is wiggle room to exempt some of our new education funding streams, we need to be practical.  Any mention of education, no matter how small and large, is not likely to be about dollars.  It is going to be about vision, hope, and promise.  If past Administrations are any indication, staff is scurrying today to make final edits to the draft, ensuring that it reflects the latest news and the most promising ideas.
Eduflack can’t let such a time pass without offering a few of his own thoughts on the “education section” for tonight.  If I had my speechwriting shingle hanging in the West Wing these days, hears what deal ol’ Eduflack would be looking to get on the teleprompter for this evening:
“My fellow Americans, I know these are uncertain times wrought with worry and concern.  The value of our homes continues to slide.  For those fortunate enough to hold a job, wages are stagnant and benefits have likely been reduced.  For families who have weathered the economic rollercoaster of the past few years, many still wait for that steady climb back up, hoping beyond hope that the pains we, as a community, are struggling with now will not be felt by our children in years to come.
In times like this, it is often easy to overlook the most important asset Americans possess.  It is not real estate or 401Ks or any such material goods.  No, the greatest asset the United States offers is a strong public education.  It is a promise we make to all people, whether they be descendants of those who came over on the Mayflower or those just arriving on a boat from Haiti in the past weeks.  A strong education is with us for ever.  It continues to appreciate and gain value.  It is portable, and comes with us from job to job and residence to residence.  And it, more than anything else, is key to the opportunity and hope we promise each new generation.  Those with a strong educational foundation are on the path to success.  There is no question about it.
During the past year, my Administration has taken great steps to ensure that more students receive access to a truly strong public education.  States across the nation have improved their laws and enacted new policies to ensure more students gain access to an effective and equitable education.  Through Race to the Top, our nation is now focused on issues such as teacher quality and turning around low-performing schools.  The bold steps taken by state legislatures around the nation to address our educational priorities are to be applauded.  Ultimately, the success of Race to the Top is not be measured by the handful of states that win federal grants, but rather by the millions of American students who will now have better schools and more opportunities because of the commitments made by states and school districts over the past nine months.
With such a focus on Race to the Top and its grant program, let me make one thing abundantly clear.  Money alone does not improve our school systems.  More dollars do not guarantee that a student is taught by an effective teacher or does not have to attend a drop-out factory.  Even today, we see communities with some of the highest per-pupil expenditures with the lowest test scores, and towns with low expenditures turning out some of the most promising results.  Increased spending does not directly result in improved quality.  If we are truly committed to improving all of our public schools and giving all students, particularly those from historically disadvantaged groups, the chance to live the American dream, we must change our approach to and our expectations of public education.  I am not here today to announce new funding programs for education, no.  Instead, I am here to secure a national commitment to the issues that have a direct impact on whether our school systems can truly improve over the long term.  We need to invest our intellectual capital in school improvement, and not just our financial capital.
First, in the economically uncertain times, we must ensure that all students see the need for and the relevance of a strong education.  We must strengthen the linkages between school today and jobs tomorrow.  We must demonstrate how the classes taken today lead to the jobs of tomorrow.  And we must make clear that dropping out is never an option, no matter the situation.  In New York City, for instance, Chancellor Joel Klein has made real progress in improving the city’s high school graduation rates, and has done so while closing the graduation gaps between white and African-American and white and Hispanic students.  Those are the sorts of efforts all of our cities should be modeling.  Last year, we committed to having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.  We cannot get there if one-third of our students continue to drop out of high school and never have that option of college.  We must make clear that a high school diploma is the first step to true citizenship.  And it falls to every parent, every local business, every community leader, and every house of worship to make sure our kids value their education and gain that necessary diploma.  
Second, we must redouble our efforts to provide both a high-quality and an equitable education to all students.  For decades now, we have talked about the achievement gap while pumping more money into failing school systems.  In that time, we have done little to close the chasm between the haves and have nots.  Access to AP classes or veteran teachers should not be determined by one’s zip code or the color of one’s skin.  We need to take immediate steps to get our best teachers in the classrooms that need them the most.  We need to ensure that Title I and other funds from state and local governments are going to ensure that historically disadvantaged students have up-to-date textbooks and the latest instructional materials.  And we need to invest in early childhood education, particularly in our urban centers, so all students are equipped with the foundational skills to maximize their public educations.
Third, we must be committed to both high-quality teachers and high-quality teaching.  There are few jobs as challenging as teaching, and there are few that have the impact of educating young people.  Neither our schools nor our children can succeed without a well trained, well supported, and effective teacher standing in front of their classroom.  We need to make sure that every teacher goes through a rigorous training program that includes both clinical training and the demonstration of content knowledge.  We need to make sure that every one of our teachers gets the ongoing support, training, and mentoring to succeed in their classrooms.  We need to reward effective teaching, while having our exemplary teachers assist and support those who are struggl
ing.  We need to give our educators all of the tools for success, knowing that not everyone is cut out to be a teacher.  But if we expect our teachers to be held accountable for student achievement in their classrooms, we need to equip them with the skills and knowledge to manage their classes and deal with the challenges that cannot be planned for in a workshop, an institute, or a textbook.  We need to empower and cultivate our teachers, much like the TAP program in my hometown of Chicago does.
And finally we have the issue of accountability.  Let there be no mistake, my Administration is committed to educational accountability.  Working with Secretary Arne Duncan, I have made clear that we expect all students to learn.  We expect that learning to be measured.  I know that many of you have had concerns with accountability measures in the past.  Those worries were well-founded, but they do not justify scrapping our commitment to assessment and measurement.  Ultimately, our problems are with unequal measures of accountability.  Today, I am happy to report that our states are hard at work identifying common core standards for all grades.  Soon, proficiency in eighth grade math will mean the same thing in Massachusetts, Alabama, Wisconsin, and California.  We can, will, and must hold our teachers, schools, states, and even the federal government accountable for the quality and effectiveness of public education.  The task before us now is to improve on our current accountability measures, so they more accurately measure the effectiveness of our systems.  We need to do a better job of testing students, a better job of measuring what they are learning, and a better job of applying those results to improve classroom practice.  But we need accountability.  On this issue I will not bend.”
God bless and good night.

329 thoughts on “Some Ed Thoughts on the SOTU

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