There is honestly little to say about yesterday’s State of the Union address. Although President Barack Obama did make clear that he was staying the course on his school reform efforts, he offered little in the way of specifics. While it may be a tad surprising in one way, it isn’t because education reform has been the one part of his agenda that has garnered largely bipartisan support (witness outgoing Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’ praise of the president during his rebuttal). On the other hand, Obama’s short-term economic stimulus efforts and push for healthcare reform are the areas that have been his greatest political weaknesses — and threats to his re-election prospects — so he naturally spent more time on touting proposals such as a “January surprise” federal refinancing of home mortgages that could be a short-term boon for homeowners (even as they remain in debt for decades to come).
But the good news is that Obama is, at least rhetorically, not backing down from systemic reform. His call for removing laggard teachers from the classroom once again reminds the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that they can no longer count on the Democratic Party for unquestioned support of the traditional teacher compensation system the unions have long defended. So does the possibility that the administration will try to expand the Teacher Incentive Fund, which helps finance performance pay efforts by states and districts. Considering that his fellow congressional and senate Democrats (especially those facing stiff re-election campaigns), still count on NEA and AFT dollars to finance their campaigns, Obama can’t full out call for an end to tenure. But his rhetoric can be used cannily by those rightly pushing to abolish near-lifetime employment policies that harm children and make it difficult to remove laggard teachers. All in all, he is still pushing for teacher quality reforms embraced through Race to the Top and the School Improvement Grant programs.
Obama also briefly discussed one of the symptoms of the nation’s education crisis: The dropout crisis in which 150 teens every hour drop out of school and drop into poverty and prison. His call for states to raise their compulsory school ages from 16 to 18 is, rhetorically sound. Some states have already done this, including Indiana (which made the move after I co-wrote the nation’s first series on how inflated graduation rates hid the extent of the education crisis). But as longtime school reformers such as Rebekah Richards of the American Academy have pointed out, raising compulsory ages will do nothing to keep kids on the path to graduation; the research is also largely contradictory on the value of simply raising compulsory school ages. Just keeping kids in school until age 18 only means that they will just age out of school, still never graduating with a diploma, and still be unprepared for higher ed and career success. States must still address the underlying culprits of laggard instruction, abysmal curricula, and the lack of intensive literacy interventions needed to help kids succeed in school and life.
The bad news is that Obama once again remains silent on Parent Power and school choice. Certainly the administration will continue to push for the expansion of charter schools. But Obama had a chance to directly call out California’s state legislators, who are considering AB 1172, which would allow traditional districts to shutter the expansion of charter schools in the nation’s most-populous state if the bureaucracies deem them a negative fiscal impact. Obama could have used the State of the Union to call for states to take charge of approving charter school openings and taking this role out of the hands of traditional districts (which is essentially akin to letting Red Lobster decide if an Applebee’s can open next door). He could also have also pushed for states to move toward the Hollywood Model of Education and away from the traditional district system.
The president also had an amazing opportunity to advocate for the rightful role of parents as lead decision-makers in education — and failed on that front. His unwillingness to embrace vouchers is particularly galling given that, thanks to his taxpayer-funded salary, he and Michelle can exercise choice and Parent Power by sending their two daughters to one of the nation’s exclusive (if not necessarily top-performing) private schools, and through his exalted status as the nation’s School Reformer-in-Chief. With Parent Trigger laws up for consideration in Indiana, Florida, and Arizona this year, Obama’s call could have rallied Democrats in those states to step up and support Parent Power. Obama could have also called for states and districts to release value-added teacher data so that parents can know the quality of the teachers who have our kids in their care, something that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has supported; the failure to do so is also rather disappointing.
Then there is Obama’s continued push to weaken his own school reform accomplishments through the administration’s No Child waiver gambit. As I have pointed out ad nauseam in the past year, the effort to essentially gut the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions is a retreat on the very accountability that has spurred reform. Under the waiver plan, schools that are merely warehouses of mediocrity — including suburban districts that are failing to properly educate poor and minority kids — will largely be left alone, and thus, allowed to subject those kids to educational neglect and malpractice. Certainly the plan requires states to put ambiguous “college and career-ready” curriculum standards — likely Common Core standards in reading and math already done by 45 states so far — in place in exchange for avoiding accountability; but the fact that the administration can’t actually explicitly demand this without running afoul of congressional Republicans and some reformers who essentially declare that doing so oversteps the Department of Education’s authority, means that states can come up with some mishmash, call it college- and career-ready, and then avoid being accountable altogether.
Meanwhile the waiver gambit is a failure in other areas. It doesn’t address the crisis of low educational achievement among young men of all backgrounds, one of the leading symptoms of the education crisis — including requiring gender to be measured as part of subgroup accountability in state systems, something Richard Whitmire and I proposed last year. The waivers may allow for the possibility of states targeting gender for subgroup accountability, but the conditions under which the waivers are being granted don’t require states to take on any additional accounting for the performance of young men or other children whose academic failures are the result of the education crisis. Nor does the waiver plan call for states to expand choice, enact Parent Trigger laws, or a plain, simple measure of chronic truancy that can help teachers and principals work on keeping kids in school. And the fact that the administration’s waiver plan doesn’t even address the need to overhaul ed schools (which train most of the nation’s new teachers) or push for the development of alternative teacher training programs outside of university confines, makes the entire effort unworthy of pursuing.
Those states that are applying for the waivers have already figured this out. As Center for American Progress scholar Jeremy Ayers pointed out last month in his report, only Massachusetts and Tennessee have submitted proposals with clear goals and worthwhile accountability systems; the rest have offered little in the way of specifics. In the process, the clear accountability and progress goals set in No Child will be ditched for 51 different goals that offer no sense of what is actually going on. In short, Obama and Duncan are sabotaging the administration’s own reform efforts, and in the process, as I pointed out in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, the slow but amazing progress that has been made in stemming the education crisis since the law’s passage a decade ago.
Meanwhile Obama isn’t the only one pushing for the dismantling of accountability. House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline has his own plan for reauthorizing No Child — actually a collection of bills — which differs little from Obama’s proposal in spirit (even if it pushes for an a greater rollback of the federal role in fostering school reform); more than 50 groups, including 50CAN and even the NAACP, have issued a letter opposing it. Then there is also the now-comatose plan crafted by Kline’s Senate counterpart, Tom Harkin.
President Obama certainly should get credit for much of his work in spurring systemic reform. But he needs to ditch the No Child waiver gambit — and actually commit to expanding accountability, school choice, and Parent Power — in order to sustain those successes. Our kids deserve a stronger, more-comprehensive push for reforms that can help all of them succeed.