Society and Culture, Education

What does the State of the Union hold for education?

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Image Credit: Shutterstock

If past is prologue, President Obama’s previous State of the Union addresses can tell us something about what he will relay to Congress and the American people tomorrow night.

All four addresses have featured a few words on education. So far, each has followed essentially the same pattern, starting with K-12 policy, transitioning into higher education, and then (at least in his last two) making a tacit endorsement of the DREAM act.

In strict word count terms, this education section has ranged from 4% of the total text (in 2010) to 17% (in 2011).

Within the K-12 section, the president has generally made plain the need for a better-educated workforce and populace, showcased the administration’s achievements promoting that end, and then offered a “big idea” to go a step further.

His most common brag has been stimulus and its signature education component, the Race to the Top. In 2009, he called it the administration’s “historic investment in education through the economic recovery plan.” In 2010, he argued that “we’ve broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools.” In 2011, he called Race to the Top “the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation,” and in 2012, he stated that “for less than 1 percent of what our nation spends on education each year, we’ve convinced nearly every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and learning—the first time that’s happened in a generation.”

His “big ideas” have varied, but have generally had a slim chance for success. In 2009, the president asked every American to “commit to a least one year or more of high education or career training.” In 2011, he called on the nation to prepare “one-hundred thousand new teachers in the field of science and technology and engineering and math” over the next decade. In 2012, he proposed that “every state—every state— requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.”

To be fair, the nation will prepare 100,000 math and science teachers over the next decade, but that’s doing nothing more than keeping up with turnover in the 3.2 million person-strong teaching force already in existence. Also, his bold idea in 2010, for an income-based repayment plan for college student loans, has become the new “Pay as you Earn” plan. So, they’re not all pipe dreams. The president can use the bully pulpit to draw attention to education, as it often takes a back seat in national conversations to pressing issues of the economy and foreign policy.

So what’s in store for this year’s State of the Union? Well, I’ll put on my prognosticator hat and offer the following guesses:

BRAG: I don’t think the president will still brag explicitly about Race to the Top — it was three years ago. I do think that he’ll mention higher standards, and the administration’s role in promoting them, and will talk about the importance of teachers.

BIG IDEA: There has been some rumbling that the president’s big idea in this speech will be in the area of early childhood education. Just recently, the Center for American Progress proposed a plan for universal pre-school that would increase federal subsidies for childcare and double the number of children in Head Start.

While it is not the worst idea to try to mitigate some of the cognitive and behavioral gaps that develop between wealthy and poor students even before school begins, this particular plan would be difficult to implement. First, it’s going to be expensive. The total price tag of the project would be almost $200 billion over the next decade, and when programs across the education spectrum are seeing cuts, this will be a tough sell. Second, the department of Health and Human Service’s recent evaluation of the Head Start program showed less than encouraging results, so it will be even more difficult to push for increasing its funding when programs with a stronger track record are being cut.

General: I have to assume that the president will devote a significant amount of time to the DREAM Act. Now, whether he talks about it in the education section as he has in the past or in terms of immigration reform is not clear to me. But it’s going to be there.

Happy watching!

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