State of the Education Union?

As is typical for this time of year, most of Washington is eagerly awaiting tomorrow evening’s State of the Union address, delivered by President Barack Obama.  (Of course, Eduflack will be in a school board meeting, discussing local school budgets, but I’ll be listening to the SOTU in spirit).  And just about every year, the education community eagerly awaits to see how big a role education policy will play in the SOTU.

Last year, we expected big things, but just about all of the ed discussion was focused on higher ed and student loans, not on P-12 issues.  In the lead-up to Tuesday, the White House has made clear that this year’s speech will focus on the five pillars to turn around our nation’s economy (not to be confused with EdSec Arne Duncan’s four pillars for turning around K-12 public education).  And go figure, education is expected to be one of those five pillars.
But in the Washington Post, in a graphic that accompanies today’s story on the SOTU, expects that the education focus will be on protecting funding for existing programs.  So if WaPo is right (and it hasn’t necessarily been lately), part of the great road to economic improvement is maintaining the status quo in K-12 education.
Yes, I realize that means continuing funding for new programs such as Race to the Top, with Duncan just last week calling for a third RttT round focused on school districts.  I’ll say it here and I’ll say it loudly.  If tomorrow’s education focus is simply about staying the course, the education sector will have missed a major opportunity.
Across the nation, we are asking states, districts, schools, and teachers to do more and more with less and less.  As those budgets have shrunk, some have even said it is a golden opportunity for schools and school improvement, as we can no longer the maintain that which we’ve had, and instead need to focus on that with the greatest impact or the highest return on investment.  We’re calling for virtually all schools to “reform” or “improve,” making clear that the way we used to do things isn’t going to cut it in the future.
So if President Obama comes out tomorrow and says we need to keep on keeping on, it will be a major step backward.  If we merely try to save the U.S. Department of Education from budget cuts, while protecting recent gains for Title I, RttT, teacher quality efforts, and student loans, we will have squandered a real chance at real improvement.  And if the goal is a true economic renaissance for the United States, status quo at a time when our international standing is slipping, our achievement gap is offensive, and our resources and lacking just isn’t going to cut it.
I recognize that tomorrow evening’s speech is likely already loaded into the teleprompter, but there are a few key items I’d like to see make the cut:
* Early childhood education — We need to honor the promises made with regard to ECE and begin to fund what the research tells us is needed.  Achievement gaps start before kids ever hit kindergarten.  We address that by confronting the problem from the start.  And that means real, academic-focused ECE efforts.  Babysitters and social adaptation programs need not apply.
* Teacher quality — First, we need to agree on the qualitative and quantitative measures of what makes an effective teacher.  Then we need to see what goes into the pre-service and in-service education of a teacher to get there.  Only then can we effective use teacher incentive programs to improve the schools.  We need real research that gets at the heart of the teacher quality issue.
* STEM — And I use this as a collective discussion.  We need to increase on investment in effective math and science education.  We need to put real resources behind the goals of America Competes.  It is the only way we start to move the needle when it comes to international competitiveness.
* Ed tech — We need to convert our 19th century classrooms into 21st century learning environments.  That means focusing on both how we teach and what we teach with.  Ed tech needs to be both at the heart of our ESEA discussions and of our school funding realities.
* Achievement gap — Let’s stop dancing around the issue.  If we are talking about righting our economy, we need to address the achievement gap.  Until black, Hispanic, and low-income students start gaining ground against white, wealthy students, our schools will always struggle.  With the gaps as astounding as they currently are now, it isn’t enough to applaud all groups for incremental gains.
* College prep — We need more opportunities to prepare students for postsecondary education.  More dual enrollment.  More opps to study at local community colleges.  More career-focused, relevant courses.  More exposure to the academic world beyond the high school.  A high school diploma isn’t going to cut it as we head deeper into the 21st century.  
* Parental engagement — We need a concerted, supported effort to better engage parents and families in the learning process.  The responsibility for student success does not rest solely with the classroom teacher.  Parents need to know what their role is, how to play it, and how to ask the questions to ensure their kids are getting the education they both need and deserve.  
* R&D — As we keep asking folks to do more with less, we need to ensure that what we are doing is proven effective and has a strong evidence base behind it.  For too long, educators have done what they thought worked or what they believed worked or what they hoped worked.  It is now time to invest in what we can prove works.  That starts with a robust R&D effort focused on the classroom.  And the “&D” is very important, particularly as we look translating good research into real practice.  
What I want to see if fairly simple.  I want the circle of educational life.  What are the conditions we need to start effective learning (teacher quality, parental engagement, ECE)?  What should all children know and be able to do (STEM, ed tech, college prep)?  What obstacles must be overcome (achievement gap, ed tech)?  And what is our intended destination (increased grad rates, increased college-going rates, and the economic success that we’ll hear about for more than an hour tomorrow)?
And I would NOT talk about ESEA.  How we get to these above points isn’t nearly as important as actually doing it.  ESEA is merely a process.  But it isn’t a required path for 2011.  And I’d stay away from issues like common core, charters, and AYP.  All those buzz words do is stoke the fires of the loyal opposition (whichever side on which they may be).
What am I missing?  What is necessary to tell the true state of our education union?

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