President Obama (I love typing that phrase) delivered a pretty major address on education yesterday. As I wrote after his pseudo-State of the Union speech, the days of thinking that education wasn't on the national priorities ist (as it appeared during the campaign) are over. Obama has ensured that the money is pouring into the system and now he's laying out where it's going to go. As we should probably expect from Obama - practioner of the "New Pragmatism" - the approach is not solidly in one reform camp or another. As he's done so often, he took on an "all of the above" approach. Ultimately, I think that is a wise decision.
Before I get into what he actually said, I do want to emphasize that it was actually Obama who gave this speech. It was not handed over to Arne Duncan (who's been very high profile for a secretary of education) or to anyone else. The fact that the president himself is delivering this speech means that this is his program. By putting himself out, he has ownership of it, succeed or fail. That's good because you know he doesn't want to fail.
There was absolutely nothing innovative in the plan. Nothing that jumped out and made you say, "Wow! What a brilliant idea!" Rather, it was a combination of several ideas and theories that have been kicking around the education world for a while. Some are better than others.
1) Investment in early education. A+
He said he was going to do it and he did. The best way to close the achievement gap is to stop it from ever opening. Focusing on the youngest, most vulnerable children makes sense because that's where the gap starts. It's like he read my mind.
2) Accountability. B
It's fine to talk about how wrong it is to "low ball" expectations for some kids, but linking everything into test scores just isn't the answer. Don't get me wrong, I don't know what the answer is, but it's short sighted to think that we can measure all learning on standardized test scores. Obama partly seemed to acknowledge that when he said that we have to make sure we're teaching more than bubbling skills, but finding a good way to test problem solving and critical thinking across all kids in the country is something that just hasn't been devised yet.
3) Teacher compensation and retention. B
Obama talked about bringing in better teachers to the system and getting rid of the bad ones. Both of these goals I agree with. He advocated merit pay for outstanding teachers, which I support with the caveat that we need to make sure we know how we're determining who our outstanding teachers are (remember Shane Battier). But Obama missed the big one, which is working to develop all the teachers that we already have who are just plain average teachers and turning them into good (if not great) teachers. I really do think it's unrealistic to expect to reconstitute the entire teaching corps in this country. So let's make sure that we're getting the absolute most we can out of the people we have.
4) Support for charter schools. C
Buying into the hype. There's a lot of reason to think that the successful charter school model is not scalable across the entire school system (student recruitment, teacher quality, etc). That said, charter schools do seem to have success where they operate. So I'm completely on the fence about this one right now. (Note: these grades are not inflated. A C isn't bad, it's right in the middle - a neutral grade.)
5) Making higher education more affordable. A
How can you not like this one? It's not a reform so much as an amplification of what pretty much everyone says. But it's a good amplification, so give him credit.
So Obama's speech wasn't "Yes We Can" but it wasn't "Is our children learning?" either. I think that Obama showed yet again that he's interested in practical, effective solutions to the big problems. And it's tough to find a bigger problem than failing urban education. I think this speech at least begins the path of rising to that challenge.