Obama's Empty Rhetoric on Education

By Stephen Lurie
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).

A competition for better education sounds great in theory, but the President’s celebratory remarks hide a starker reality. While Race to the Top might help raise standards in many states, it can’t be the most meaningful reform of a generation if it fails to help states meet those standards. Only 19 states received grant money to help reach their goals; 14 states won early learning grants; and 21 districts won district-level money. That’s a partial program at best, and one that rewards success where success (proven by grant writing) is already possible. Foregoing his commitment to “every single child in America” for a flashy education competition is an easy political choice to make, but it’s not a substantive one.

Echoing that populist, state-based approach to education, Obama also uses his State of the Unions to emphasize the need for local control of education. In 2012, he even evoked Lincoln as a Republican role model for education, promising “more control for schools and states...getting rid of regulations that don’t work.” Before that, in 2011, he espoused the grand benefits reaped when “reform isn’t just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principles, school boards and communities.” Highlighting Bruce Randolph High School in Denver for their local reforms, Obama applauded the impressive 97 percent of seniors that received their diploma that year, after long being considered “one of the worst schools in Colorado.” As with Dillon, Oklahoma, and Georgia, the full story isn’t so simple at Randolph. Math proficiency has stayed beneath 15 percent for five years, writing proficiency below 25 percent, and reading proficiency below 45 percent. It’s probably true that Obama believes in bottom-up reforms—and continuing Race to the Top follows up on that commitment. In this case, though, it’s the knowledge of their efficacy that is skin-deep.

Finally, Obama has recognized that teachers are really popular. Talking about hiring more teachers, and making existing teachers better, is unsurprisingly popular too. The President makes no exception in arguing “teachers matter”: He’s suggested we treat them better, reward good teaching, and train 100,000 new STEM teachers in the next decade. Obama also imbued teachers with great power, claiming that a good teacher “can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000” (which would be not much, around $150 per year per student), as well as “offer an escape from poverty” to a child. Even if a teacher, alone, did offer such superpowers, it’s hard to see how the President could make good on his promises and support teachers nationwide: That power resides with Congress, and with the states. While advocating for teachers in the State of the Union is important, finding a way to actually improve their lot is a harder task—and one the President hasn’t yet substantially engaged.

If each component of the President’s elementary and secondary education promise seems fragile, it’s because they are. What the President lacks is a central federal education policy that could give form to the ideas he espouses. For that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act needs to be re-authorized, and that hasn’t happened since 2001’s No Child Left Behind. The President pushed renewing and improving the act in the 2010 and 2011 address, but with no bipartisan compromise in sight, he has had to settle for providing waivers to implement piecemeal changes to the existing act. Until a new authorization occurs, it’s unlikely that any substantive change to education will occur from a federal level, despite positive Presidential intentions.

Higher Education

For serving a relatively small percentage of the population (around 35 percent of workers), higher education has received disproportionate attention in Obama States of the Union every year. Unlike in earlier education, the President has repeatedly laid out specific quantitative goals and desired policies. Among the items in the addresses, he’s requested: to extend a $10,000 tuition tax credit (2010); attain the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 (2011); double work study jobs in five years (2012); and change funding eligibility to include affordability in the Higher Education Act (2013).  Though “revitalizing” community colleges (2010, 2011) and veteran’s education (2013) get a mention, the focus of this section of the speech is unmistakable: the cost of college. To listen to Obama’s speeches, that would be the unmistakable challenge facing higher education.

The big challenge facing higher-education reforms, Obama seems to understand well: convincing Congress to act. Unlike with other parts of the education system, the President repeatedly calls on Congress to act—and, luckily, it has sometimes worked. The tax credit for tuition, originally proposed by Obama and pushed for in the 2010-2012 addresses, has been extended through 2017. Congress failed to prevent student loan interest rates from doubling, an Obama plan, but the President could not be criticized for his effort in preventing them from doing so. (The measure was later reversed.) Luckily, the President’s SOTU proposal and implementation of revised income based repayment plans for students have stuck. Here, in a few circumstances, there is a definite record of accomplishment from targeted State of the Union addresses.

When it comes to the cost of college, though, Obama’s rhetoric has been less effective—and, again, more cosmetic than constructive. Talking about a more affordable education doesn’t make it so, even if you’re the President putting colleges and universities “on notice.” Imploring states and universities to “do their part” to keep costs down (in 2012 and 2013) hasn’t seemed to work either: the dramatic increase in tuition expenses has continued unabated. Without much luck asking nicely, Obama then used the 2013 speech as a prelude for both a “College Scorecard” and ranking system to rate (or shame?) colleges based on their affordability. The details of the ranking, released in August of that year, show a plan that intends to link those rankings to how much federal aid a college and receive. (It would need congressional approval for that.)

Even if Presidential influence on tuition weren’t years away, the whole obsession with the price of college is questionable. While certainly important, the cost of college isn’t “the most daunting challenge” for most students on their way to graduating high school. The increasing need for remedial courses for those in college, the dearth of vocational and technical opportunities, and the acknowledged desire that we want more college graduates, should get comparable (if not greater) attention than the cost of school. Focusing just on cost won’t change the American ranking in percentage of college graduates, a crown the President covets. It will, however, play well with the right constituents and crystallize easily on paper as a popular promise.

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All of this is not to say that President Obama does not desire the best for our education system—the opposite is true. Yet, given the hamstrung Congress—and the bitter tasting reforms before him—he hasn’t had viable opportunities to live up to his words. He knows by now that “change” of any kind is easier said than done, that nothing is very simple, that reform is complex. Yet, as the President has discussed his education agenda with the nation—like other Presidents on many issues—he has drifted away from that nuanced understanding. The promises for education in each State of the Union like a grab bag of cure-alls, each with corresponding anecdotes, each one with the capability of revolutionizing the education system. Off the lectern, though, they lose their sheen: each initiative isn’t enough on its own; each school faces immense challenges beyond a Presidential snapshot; each plan comes to contradict the next once in the thick of things.

If that’s going to change this year, or in the years to come, the President must start speaking with a unified voice on education: one that doesn’t promote state competition and equal opportunity in the same breath. Embracing each approach is an easy and attractive solution to soothe critics, but the cases of Dillon, Randolph, Oklahoma and Georgia, should show that attractive solutions are rarely good ones, that easy fixes might not fix that easily. “Reforming our schools,” Obama said in 2011, won’t be easy. “All of it will take time. And it will be harder because we will argue about everything. The costs. The details. The letter of every law.” That’s useful wisdom. For the real “reform of a generation” to take place in 2014, the President will have to embody that belief in his address. If he does, the course of educational policy could cease to be, like the case of JV Martin, so disappointingly superficial. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/01/obamas-empty-rhetoric-on-education/283292/