What Lessons Can We Learn from Obama's SOTU Proposals on Education?

Jan 25, 2012Amy Baral

The president's speech brought up core issues facing our educational system but he didn't always go far enough.

Obama's State of the Union focused minimally on education. However, what he did say fits with the administration's existing policy. Focusing on retraining our workforce through partnerships with community colleges is key. Most community colleges are already well equipped to do the technical training and re-training needed for both young people and older workers to succeed in our ever-more technologically complex manufacturing economy. Additional financial support from the federal government will help make community college more affordable, especially for those out of work. Still, it's important to note that community colleges already receive funding from the state and federal governments, so what's really important is making sure that students in community colleges have access to the loans and financing they need in order to go to school while potentially remaining unemployed.

Obama's focus moved next to teachers. Turning the teacher criticism debate on its head, he stated clearly and concisely that most of our nation's teachers are strong, dedicated professionals who even use their own money to buy supplies for their classrooms. On the one hand, he argued for allowing teachers and schools more opportunities for flexibility in order to improve on strong methods without an educational bureaucracy slowing them down. Still, not wanting to let up on ensuring teacher quality, he also talked about rewarding strong teachers and getting rid of bad teachers. There's really no debate between Republicans and Democrats on this topic -- retaining and rewarding good teachers while removing bad ones is essential to ensuring that all children encounter only the best teachers during their educational experiences. The issue remains how to judge teacher quality, and Obama gave no hint on how to do that.

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Obama moved on to discussing the need for flexibility in the education system generally. While some heralded this as removing No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Obama's stated policy follows his administration's support of NCLB waivers from the Department of Education. Waivers are certainly no solution to the difficulties of NCLB, but the waiver system does allow states with innovative education programs the flexibility needed to enact true reforms without worrying about sanctions or less funding from the government. Certainly "teaching to the test" is not the type of education system the United States wants to champion, but Obama did not state that NCLB was completely failed. Retaining high standards for all students and subgroups as well as their teachers is key to ensuring a strong education system that allows every child to receive a high quality education.

Finally, Obama touched upon supporting higher education for students -- all students, including those whose parents came to the United States illegally. Adding work study grants and ensuring student loan reform is key to helping students know that college is within their reach. However, Obama's proposal to stem college costs by reducing federal funding would seemingly not help with the problem. The real reason that colleges are increasing costs at such a fast rate needs to be further understood before a policy can be developed to help flatline or reduce these costs. Higher education does need to become more affordable, but in return jobs need to be accessible to students when they graduate. To tie this back to Obama's focus on jobs, having an educated workforce is key to ensuring high-quality and high-paying jobs in the United States, but the nation itself needs to ensure that jobs are being created both for the currently unemployed and those of us still in school working toward a better future.

Amy Baral is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow performing legal and policy research on the Boston Public Schools, focusing on access to quality education and school choice. She is also a 1st year law student at Boston University School of Law.

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