Education reform is about to return to the headlines, if not the floor of Congress, if President Obama’s State of the Union is any indication. Obama built his feel-good speech Tuesday night around the uncontroversial theme of “winning the future” and nestled every major policy issue within this rhetorical frame. He put particular emphasis on education as the path to that victorious future. But the education agenda the president articulated contained no surprises. It’s the same one his administration’s been selling for the past two years—and it’s the same one many of his critics have been fretting about for just as long.
Education reform watchers offered Obama reserved praise for giving education such a prominent place in his speech. “One reaction I had was exactly that he spent a lot of time on education, which I think is a good thing,” said John Rogers, associate professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. But Rogers, like a handful of other educators I spoke with after the speech, added long caveats after this initial praise.
Obama touted his administration’s undeniable wins, including student aid reform, and championed the more questionable achievements of Race to the Top, which is a $4.35 billion competitive grants program for states that adopt the president’s reform agenda. Eleven states have won millions of dollars each as a reward for opening up their states to more charter schools and agreeing to make test scores a component of teacher evaluations and salaries.
Under Race to the Top, states were rewarded for forcing public schools that were designated as failing to undergo a total restructuring or a takeover from a charter school company. The program remains controversial, especially among teachers who oppose new evaluation systems that they feel unfairly punish individual educators for a systemic problem.
Obama also called for 100,000 more science and math teachers by the end of the decade and called on Congress to take up a No Child Left Behind reauthorization in the model of Race to the Top. He didn’t suggest how those teachers would get funded, and congressional watchers consider it unlikely that the new Congress will have the stomach for a major overhaul of any program, including No Child Left Behind.
Obama called Race to the Top “the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.” If success is measured by impact, Obama’s correct. The program circumvented Congress entirely and got 39 states to rewrite their education laws. But if success is measured in students’ improved performance and teachers’ increased retention rates, the jury’s still out.
In his speech, Obama tapped into the pain that many Americans are feeling right now as they wade through seemingly endless economic crisis, and tried to redirect that frustration toward global competitiveness. He warned that while America’s middle class has been dismantled over the course of a generation, other countries have been ascending, creeping onto the medal stands that the U.S. occupied alone for decades.
“Nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world,” Obama said. “And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies.”
But pitting the U.S. against other countries unsettled some educators.
“The line here is: ‘Yeah, they go to the sweatshops now and make stuff for us, but if they beat us they won’t be in the sweatshops making stuff anymore. They might dare to have a standard of living that’s better than us,’ ” said Rick Ayers, adjunct professor of education at the University of San Francisco and co-author of “Teaching the Taboo: Courage and Imagination in the Classroom.” “It’s all put out in a very polite, liberal veneer, but I would point out that it’s the dark, Asiatic other that is being called up.”
Ayers said that the true comparison between present-day America and Cold War America is “an extraordinary rise in income inequality that public policy could address separately, an extraordinary rise in incarceration rates that public policy could address. The presumption that education can act independently of economic inequality and incarceration is wrong.”
The United States is ninth globally in the percentage of undergraduate degree holders, Obama said. He wants the country to claw its way back to the top. As it is, more than a third of college students don’t graduate in six years, and that number is even higher for undergraduate students of color—something Obama pointed out in a speech he gave at UT Austin last year. The president seemingly knows that students of color are key to achieving his education goals.
Jackson said other countries’ educational success has been linked to the educational equity that the U.S. has not yet found. “All of the countries that are outcompeting us don’t deal with fringe structural issues,” he argued. “They provide all students access to early education. They hold teachers in high regard, and not in a punitive frame, and they have a much more equitable distribution of their resources.”
Jackson pointed out that there are over a million homeless children in the U.S., for instance.
“Yes, we want to ‘win the future,’ but for many the concern now is surviving the present,” Rogers echoed, adding that 22 percent of American children below the age of six are living below the poverty line. “How do young people who are growing up in families that are really facing difficult economic circumstances survive the present without a whole host of social supports that are being eroded or eliminated outright?”
There was a time not so long ago when Obama was willing to examine the structural factors that influence a kid’s education, Rogers said. “None of that was in the speech [Tuesday] night,” he complained. “Instead, all we get is that parents need to shut off the TV.”
Obama’s lone reference to the role that parents and communities play in the nation’s education effort was to declare, “Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done.”
That’s the narrow, individualized perspective that makes teachers and parents feel so besieged. Obama tried to soothe teachers—“Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect”—but critics say his policies don’t match that rhetoric. “The truth is I didn’t feel the sincerity in that,” said Jim Anderson, who serves on the statewide board of the Alliance for Quality Education. “I haven’t seen the policies that shows that respect.”
Educators said that Obama’s rhetoric contradicted his policy in other parts of his education remarks as well. Obama praised America’s public school systems for providing students with more than memorization drills for standardized tests. “It’s why our students don’t just memorize equations,” Obama said, “but answer questions like ‘What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?’ “
Rogers considered it one of Obama’s strongest lines and said that it reflected the part of the president’s vision he most admires. “But that’s not the sort of question that emerges when you have the narrowed standardized tests we have now,” he warned.
“Obama’s good at co-opting the criticism,” said Ayers. “He said, ‘We’re not talking about rote memorization; we’re about learning deeply and asking questions.’ But that’s our argument,” Ayers said, referring to progressives who take issue with the Obama administration’s policies, “that the test prep stuff undermines the possibility of deep learning and learning for democracy.”
Of course, amidst everything the president was said, there were notable silences as well. Rogers said he wished Obama was more willing to address the vast racial disparities in kids’ educational opportunities. “I was struck by the fact that there was so little attention paid explicitly to the issue of race in education, or even outside of education,” Rogers said. “He didn’t highlight those equity issues.”
The upcoming year holds many uncertainties. It’s still unclear whether Republicans or Democrats have any interest in tackling No Child Left Behind, or even what another Race to the Top round would look like. In the meantime, the debate rages on over what winning the future even means, let alone how to do it.