Obama's Empty Rhetoric on Education

In his State of the Union addresses, the president has talked about schooling in very superficial ways.
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Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

As the crescendo of his first Address to a Joint Session of Congress in January 2009, newly elected President Barack Obama decided to share a story of a school. That school was called J.V. Martin Middle School, in Dillon, South Carolina. The President described it as “a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom.” He had visited J.V. Martin after receiving a letter from a student who, despite being “told that her school is helpless,” wrote of her school’s ambition and implored, “we are not quitters.” Obama, in his address, repeated the mantra for full effect.

Following the President’s nod to J.V. Martin, support tumbled in to the school, one of many dilapidated schools in the so-called “corridor of shame,” the impoverished communities on South Carolina’s I-95 corridor.  A new school was built, thanks to a $4 million grant and a $37 million loan from the Department of Agriculture. A furniture company in Chicago donated more than $250,000 worth of new desks and chairs. The school was renamed as Dillion Middle School in 2011, and the buzz died down. The President’s mention of the school in his biggest annual speech catalyzed rapid educational improvement, at least to one struggling school. Plaudits were handed out, credit claimed, people moved on.

To check in on Dillon Middle School five years after Obama’s first address to Congress is to summarize the Obama administration’s rhetorical record on education, played out through the lofty States of the Union beginning each new year: grand promises followed by minor accomplishments. J.V. Martin, the crumbling and neglected school, became Dillon, the new and pampered one. Yet, the actual academic results are less of a success. In 2013, 66 percent of Dillon students scored proficient in writing on the state’s standardized test, the school’s highest score. Only 40 percent of the school met proficiency on social studies or on science. Perhaps most importantly, given the apparent turnaround of the school, since 2009 the school has remained ranked “below average” by the South Carolina Department of Education.

Though the story of just one school, and the result of one Presidential address, it speaks to a number of themes replicated each time the President has addressed the educational system in the State of the Union. His words for the nation have been well intentioned and popular, but the results, like at Dillon, have been incomplete or unsuccessful. In both the understanding of America’s educational needs, and the resulting approach to reform, the President’s educational rhetoric has been distinctly cosmetic.

Early-Childhood Education

Despite its surging popularity as the education cure-all, only in 2013 did the President give specific mention to Pre-K education in a State of the Union address. Noting the importance of early-childhood education for everything from achievement to reducing teen pregnancy and violent crime, Obama proposed to start “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.” He complimented Georgia and Oklahoma on making early education a priority, and lauded the success of such programs in improving math and reading scores, high school graduation, and adult success. Following the 2013 address, the White House announced a number of early-childhood initiatives it would like to be made into law by Congress and implemented by states. In a rare show of bipartisan solidarity, a bill was introduced in both House and Senate in November of last year—the Strong Start for America’s Children Act—based largely on the President’s SOTU-inspired recommendations. Though the legislation has important content, it will likely die in committee. Nonetheless, its introduction is a minor win for the President’s credibility on education issues.

That might sound promising, but complications abound, besides the whole “not passing Congress” thing. The first is that even if the President’s ideas did become law, while placating some early-childhood advocates, the plan would undercut his commitment to educational equity made elsewhere in his statements. Similar to the administration’s other education plans, the bill would be both opt-in (states would not automatically be part of the early-childhood program) and require states to meet standards in order to receive significant funding. That’s a direct contradiction to Obama’s insistence in the 2010 SOTU, referring to all education, that “the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential.” Though Obama still insists that a child’s fate should not be determined “by the zip code she’s born in,” policies that do not mandate state adoption do just that—and would allow vital early-childhood to come to fruition in only some states. 

Second, and moreover, the models of early childhood education Obama cites—Oklahoma and Georgia—confer a superficial understanding of the capabilities of these programs. While Oklahoma is regularly gushed over as the leader in the field, their program isn’t actually translating to higher achievement the President seeks. Compared to the national average on math and reading tests, Oklahoma is now farther behind than it was 20 years ago, and results seem to indicate the effect of the their program doesn’t last much past elementary school. In Georgia, despite their push, the performance gap between low-income and higher-income students—22 points on reading and 29 on math—has not significantly decreased from the gap of the late ‘90s.

Promoting an early-childhood agenda is a good thing, but Obama’s SOTU statements thus far have been either undone by Congress or undercut by unsound reasoning.

Elementary and Secondary Education

Advocates for elementary and secondary school reform would be happy if the promises made in Obama’s speeches led to the same sort of legislative movement, or even public debate, seen around early-childhood education. Instead, the largest section of the public education system has seen small successes from the State of the Union—and a lesser focus each year. Last year’s address, for example, skipped from early-childhood education to making “sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job” with no mention of the interim years. Furthermore, though the Common Core debate has been the central focus of education reform nationwide, the President has not once addressed the standards in his speeches (perhaps because it might be politically advantageous for him to keep out of the process). The focus instead has been on how important elementary and secondary education, as a concept, is for our country—the finer details hidden behind lofty ambition and politically favorable platitudes: competitive improvement, local control, more and better teachers.

The education-as-competition metaphor hit a new level in the 2011 SOTU, when the President asserted, “if we want to win the future... [we] have to win the race to educate our kids.” In addition to competing with China and India, the administration’s Race to the Top program has been a common talking point. Obama labeled the Department of Education’s competition-based grant program as “the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation” (2011). By offering money to states for innovative approaches to improving education, Obama claims 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” (2012).

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Stephen Lurie is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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