Saying that it was time to give all Americans a “complete and competitive education from cradle up through a career” and make America’s entire education system the “envy of the world,” President Barack Obama outlined a sweeping education reform agenda in a March 10 speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Obama grouped his education reform agenda into five pillars including early childhood initiatives; better standards and assessments; recruiting, preparing, and rewarding outstanding teachers; promoting innovation and excellence; and providing every American with a quality higher education. He also focused on the importance of world-class standards, data systems that can track students’ academic progress, and the need to focus on the two thousand high schools that account for over 50 percent of the nation’s dropouts.
As in past speeches, the president stressed the important role that education must play in helping the economy recover. “America will not remain true to its highest ideals—and America’s place as a global economic leader will be put at risk—unless we not only bring down the crushing cost of health care and transform the way we use energy, but also if we don’t do a far better job than we’ve been doing of educating our sons and daughters; unless we give them the knowledge and skills they need in this new and changing world,” Obama said. “For we know that economic progress and educational achievement have always gone hand in hand in America.”
Noting that “source of America’s prosperity has never been merely how ably we accumulate wealth, but how well we educate our people,” Obama rattled off a list of successful education investments from the past, including land-grant colleges, public high schools, the GI Bill, and the math and science investments made under President Eisenhower. “So let there be no doubt,” he said, “…the future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens.”
But, Obama explained, the United States is not currently that nation. “Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we’ve let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us,” he said. Obama He noted that American eighth graders had fallen to ninth place in math and that only one third of the nation’s thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds read as well as they should. He also expressed dismay at the “stubborn” achievement gap that exists between white students and their African American and Latino classmates, adding, “…the relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, it’s unsustainable for our democracy, it’s unacceptable for our children—and we can’t afford to let it continue.”
Something else that Obama said could not continue was the high school dropout crisis. “To any student who’s watching, I say this: don’t even think about dropping out of school,” Obama said. “As I said a couple of weeks ago, dropping out is quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country, and it is not an option – not anymore. … It is time for all of us, no matter what our backgrounds, to come together and solve this epidemic.”
To help more students graduate from high school, Obama called for a greater focus on turning the two thousand low-performing high schools around the country that account for over 50 percent of the nation’s dropouts. He called on educators, lawmakers, parents, and teachers to make turning around these schools a “collective responsibility.” Obama said that his budget would invest in developing new strategies to prevent at-risk students from dropping out while helping students who have already dropped out get back into school and on a path to graduation.
Obama challenged states to set “world-class standards” and to end the “race to the bottom” whereby states lower their standards to ensure that more students pass their tests and schools make Adequate Yearly Progress. “Today’s system of fifty different sets of benchmarks for academic success means fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming—and getting the same grade,” he said. “Eight of our states are setting their standards so low that their students may end up on par with roughly the bottom 40 percent of the world.” Obama singled out Massachusetts, where students tie for first in the world in science, and called on states to follow its example. He also called on the nation’s governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that measure whether students have acquired the skills necessary to succeed in the twenty-first-century job market.
The president stressed the importance of data systems that can track a student “from childhood through college” and provide teachers and principals with the information they need to ensure that students are prepared to meet higher standards. The recently enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides $250 million for data systems, which Obama said can help improve student achievement by identifying where students struggle while also revealing the teachers who have the most impact on student performance.
Once identified, good teachers would be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement under Obama’s plan. He would also create new pathways to teaching and provide new incentives to encourage teachers to teach in hard-to-staff schools and high-need subjects such as math and science. He would also hold teachers more accountable for their school’s performance, while providing them with more support and guidance to help them improve. Under his plan, new teachers would be mentored by more experienced ones while bad teachers would be removed from the classroom. “Let me be clear,” Obama 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. The stakes are too high. We can afford nothing but the best when it comes to our children’s teachers and to the schools where they teach.”
Obama also expressed support for expanding charter schools, but stressed that new charter schools should go through a rigorous selection and review process to ensure that their autonomy is “coupled with greater accountability.” The president also called for a longer academic calendar, which would include longer school days, longer school years, and an expansion of afterschool programs. “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,” Obama said. “That calendar may have once made sense, but today, it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea. That is no way to prepare them for a twenty-first-century economy.”