SOTU Disappointment

My name is Eduflack, and I am a captain of negativism.  I often like to tease that I’m not a glass half full or half empty sorta guy, I just want to know who took my damned water.  So last evening was a fascinating exercise for me.  As luck would have it, I had a three-and-a-half hour school board meeting last night, meaning I missed the State of the Union live.  But from all of the updates on Facebook and on Twitter, it seemed like President Obama had delivered a truly rousing state of the education union speech, fulfilling all of the hopes and dreams that ed reformers and status quoers alike have for education in the United States.  All those negative feelings I have, year in and year out, about how education gets short shrift in the SOTU would be replaced by an unnatural and unfamiliar sense of joy and happiness in dear ol’ Eduflack.

So I was excited to go and watch the tape of the SOTU.  I, too, wanted to feel that bliss.  Unfortunately, I’m just the same old grumpy Eduflack.
I know it isn’t popular, but I’ll say it.  I was disappointed by last night’s SOTU, particularly how it addressed education.  And I say this knowing that teachers loved his embrace of the teaching profession.  Reformers heard lots about the need for reform.  Local controllers heard what they needed.  The higher ed community heard its shout out.  And even the tough-lovers had the parental responsibility lines to hang their hat on.
So why am I disappointed in the speech?
* It was very inside baseball.  One of my greatest frustrations in education policy is we talk about the work to a broad audience as we do to a group of 12 folks who know how to talk the talk.  We all love teacher quality in a general sense, but it has a very specific meaning to an ed reformer, and very broad meaning to a regular parent.  Despite what those of us in the field think, most Americans don’t actually know what Race to the Top or No Child Left Behind actually is.  We say RttT is the greatest ed reform in a generation (which I wholeheartedly disagree with, as, like it or not, NCLB had a much greater impact, both good and bad) or that NCLB needs fixing, and folks will nod their heads in agreement because it is the President and he should know.  But head out to Main Street USA, ask them how RttT is reforming their classrooms, and you’ll get a blank stare.  Inside baseball.
* It was very much just a laundry list.  I realize that we were trying to group everything under the umbrella of competitiveness and economic improvement, but this just didn’t seem strategic.  Essentially, the speech is summarized as follows:  We all need college degrees.  Parents need to get involved.  Schools need to do a better job.  RttT and federal leadership are great.  So is local control.  We need to respect our teachers and be more like South Korea.  Need a job, become a teacher.  Raise expectations.  It is never too late for education.  Education is a gateway to talking about our immigration challenges.  This isn’t a strategic vision for P-20 education (forgetting that ECE was ignored), this is simply a Chinese menu of education issues.
* It was missing a call to action.  In identifying that laundry list of educational priorities, we were missing a true call to action.  The President spoke, very eloquently, about honoring teachers and encouraging kids and getting to (and graduating from) college.  But what was the big ask, reforming NCLB?  We needed more of an education vision so that the average parent, the average teacher, the average mayor, and the average taxpayer understands what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we get there.  What action do I, as a parent and local school board member, take to get us to to this grand vision?  Listening to the speech, it seems my responsibility is to turn off the TV, respect teachers, applaud the science fair (which as a former International Science and Engineering Fair award winner I already do), and believe in the feds to push the right policies.  But I still don’t know how this boosts student achievement or learning.  And I still don’t know how we are measuring these reforms and how we can one day have that “Mission Accomplished” moment.
I don’t mean to be so negative about this, but it is my way.  Last year, when the U.S. Department of Education released its ESEA Blueprint, that provided me the details and the call to action that I’m looking for.  And nearly a decade ago, we certainly saw it in the adoption of NCLB, as we told teachers and parents and business leaders and policymakers what they needed to do to enact the law with fidelity and improve student achievement.  
It is great that President Obama devoted nearly nine and a half minutes to education in this year’s SOTU, more than doubling the air time given to education last year.  But with all of the build up leading into tonight, the promise that education is a key pillar to improving our nation, and the excitement those in the know demonstrated last night, I just wanted more.  I want the rhetoric to connect to real policies.  I want to know how we measure success.  I want education discussed in a way that we can fill football stadiums, and not just cocktail parties, with supporters.  Is that really too much to ask for?

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