Obama Outlines Five Top Education Priorities

The president’s education agenda includes a focus on early education, refusing to let certain states continue with low standards, rewarding successful teachers while pushing out ineffective ones, expanding the school day and year, and holding students and parents responsible for their education.

“Today, I am issuing a challenge to educators and lawmakers, parents and teachers alike – let us all make turning around our schools our collective responsibility as Americans,” the president said in a speech.

While some observers have questioned whether the president is tackling too broad of a policy agenda — when his priority should be fixing the ailing economy — Mr. Obama made the same argument that he has made about health care: “the relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy, and unacceptable for our children – and we cannot afford to let it continue.”

“Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us,” Mr. Obama said.

Many of the president’s ideas were outlined in the $767 billion stimulus bill passed by Congress last month. More than $100 billion will go toward education funding to be piped to states and school districts through the Department of Education.

In Tuesday’s address, the president reiterated his five pillars of education reform: early childhood; standards and testing; teacher quality; innovation; and higher education.

President Obama began with a call for early education initiatives such as pre-K and Head Start. “For every dollar we invest in these programs, we get nearly ten dollars back in reduced welfare rolls, fewer health costs, and less crime,” he said. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act contained $5 billion to help states enroll children in innovative programs and take care of young children.

The second priority, the president said, is ending “a race to the bottom in our schools and instead, spur a race to the top by encouraging better standards and assessments.”

America’s curriculum for eighth graders is two full years behind top performing countries, he said, adding that the system which allows states to create their own standards has resulted in “4th grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming – and getting the same grade.”

While Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has not directly stated that the administration seeks to develop national standards to replace the 50 sets of standards that currently exist, there is $15 billion in incentive-grants in the stimulus package to help states revamp their testing, data analysis and standards.

The third pillar set forward by the president was “recruiting, preparing, and rewarding outstanding teachers.”

While the Recovery Act sets aside $400 million for “teacher quality,” there is billions more in state aid to focus on improving classroom instruction.

“If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make the most of your talents and dedication; if you want to make your mark with a legacy that will endure – join the teaching profession. America needs you,” Mr. Obama said.

At the same time, the president said, “if a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences.”

In the fourth goal, President Obama called for innovation, drawing on concepts like charter schools and changes to the traditional school calendar. “I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas. Not in my family, and probably not in yours,” he said.

“We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day,” Mr. Obama said, pointing out that American children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea.

Some educators oppose charter schools because they shift tax dollars away from regular public schools. In addition, merit-based systems for teachers have long faced resistance from teachers’ unions, a powerful force in the Democratic Party.

Obama acknowledged these potential dividing lines in Tuesday’s remarks, according to the AP.

“Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom,” he said. “Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its importance.”

Outlining his final education goal, the president focused on higher education, and noted the availability of an additional $30 billion in support for Pell Grants and higher education tax credits. The Recovery Act raises the maximum Pell Grant to $5,550 a year and provides a $2,500 a year tuition tax credit for students from working families.

While many of the president’s education initiatives do not immediately create jobs, the Department of Education has tried to jump start the economy by making $44 billion of the stimulus funds available by the end of March.

“Spend funds quickly to save and create jobs,” urged a 5-page document emailed to governors, state education commissioners and school superintendents. Secretary Duncan told the 14,000 school districts in the nation to start spending the money, but keep detailed records, as accountability is a top priority.

Before the stimulus, school officials anticipated shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs due to growing state budget deficits caused by a steep drop in tax revenues.

Support PBS NewsHour: