Unlike years past, when Barack Obama delivers his fifth State of the Union address Tuesday night he’s not likely to spend much time talking about education. This year, aides have suggested the president is likely to mention education but focus on jobs.
Which might be politically smart — and yet a bitter concession. Very little of what Obama proposed in terms of education in past State of the Union addresses has come to fruition. Or captured the public’s imagination. He is likely to leave office with no significant education legacy.
During his speech, the president is expected to decry congressional gridlock. And it’s unarguably true that divisions inside the Beltway have meant that pretty much every education proposal the White House has put forward in recent years has stalled on arrival.
But a review of Obama’s speeches on the subject suggests that while he articulated a compelling vision for U.S. K-12 policy as a senator and presidential candidate, his public-education advocacy has fallen flat since his 2008 election.
Extolled stopgap funding
In 2010, in his first address to the joint houses of Congress Obama called for the rewriting of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), then already years overdue. Instead of articulating a vision for a new policy, however, he extolled his Race to the Top (RTTT) stimulus spending, which most people perceived as emergency stopgap funding to keep the lights on in schools.
Educators and ed policy types, it’s worth noting, are not crazy about the administration’s decision to steer policy via RTTT. Because they are competitive grants, states and districts must come up with proposals they believe will capture the attention of Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
It’s an enormous amount of paperwork that not all agencies are staffed to handle. And for the vast majority of locales — those that don’t win the targeted funds — it’s no substitute for adequate federal aid.
Nonetheless, the White House remains committed to the strategy. “Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that is more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids,” Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union address. “Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.”
In that speech, he called again for NCLB’s overhaul and vowed to train 100,000 teachers for hard-to-fill science, technology, engineering and math jobs. Neither the NCLB reform nor the teacher training came to be.
Instead, the U.S. Department of Education announced that states, and eventually districts, could apply for waivers from the federal law if they could prove they had their own school reform programs.
In 2012 the president, without articulating details, called for a RTTT-style grant to improve teaching and suggested tying federal college aid to student outcomes. Again, neither came to pass.
Last year Obama proposed spending $75 billion to expand access to preschool for low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds — and a RTTT-style grant competition to improve math and science instruction in high schools.
Impassioned as a senator
It was not always thus. In fact, with the exception of his insistence on adequate federal funding, Sen. Obama could articulate a vision for the nation’s schools that had both bipartisan and popular appeal.
In May of 2008, for instance, Obama delivered an impassioned speech at a Colorado high school that had, in three years, gone from having half its seniors accepted to college to having each accepted to at least one.
“I’m here to congratulate you on this achievement,” Obama said. “But also to hold up this school and these students as an example of what’s possible in education if we’re willing to break free from the tired thinking and political stalemate that’s dominated Washington for decades, if we’re willing to try new ideas and new reforms based not on ideology but on what works to give our children the best possible chance in life.”
What followed was Obama near his best: offering emotionally resonant depictions of the scope of the crisis, eloquent descriptions of specific solutions and an infectious sense of urgency.
“We don’t have to accept an America where we do nothing about 6 million students who are reading below their grade level,” he said. “We don’t have to accept an America where only 20 percent of our students are prepared to take college-level classes in English, math and science. Where barely one in 10 low-income students will ever graduate from college.
“We don’t have to accept an America where we do nothing about the fact that half of all teenagers are unable to understand basic fractions. Where nearly nine in 10 African-American and Latino eighth-graders are not proficient in math,” Obama continued. “We don’t have to accept an America where elementary school kids are only getting an average of 25 minutes of science each day when we know that over 80 percent of the fastest-growing jobs require a knowledge base in math and science.
“This kind of America is morally unacceptable for our children. It’s economically untenable for our future. And it’s not who we are as a nation.
“We are the nation that has always understood that our future is inextricably linked to the education of our children — all of them. We are the country that has always believed in Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that ‘talent and virtue, needed in a free society, should be educated regardless of wealth or birth.’”
Candidate Obama called for fewer standardized tests and a continued focus on accountability. And he proposed $4,000 tax credits to help underwrite the cost of college.
Promises aimed at teachers
But the bulk of his promises were aimed at teachers, who he called the single most important determinant of student achievement. The profession needed better recruitment, training, career pathways and pay, he said, describing several.
He promised to create 30,000 yearlong teaching residencies, in large part to help put career-changers in classrooms. And he talked about mechanisms for recruiting the top of each class to the profession.
“I will make this pledge as president to all who sign up,” Obama said. “If you commit your life to teaching, America will commit to paying for your college education.”
So what would it take to get the president to come out swinging Tuesday night? To address the achievement gap with the urgency and clarity that candidate Obama communicated?
There’s one more telling passage in his 2008 Colorado speech:
“A truly historic commitment to education — a real commitment — will require new resources and new reforms. It will require a willingness to move beyond the stale debates that have paralyzed Washington for decades: Democrat versus Republican; vouchers versus the status quo; more money versus more accountability. It will require leaders in Washington who are willing to learn a lesson from students and teachers in Thornton or Denver about what actually works. That’s the kind of president I intend to be, and that’s the kind of education plan I’ve proposed in this campaign.”