The Education Words President Obama Didn’t Say

When it came to K-12 school reform, the second-term head of state left a lot to the imagination in his State of the Union address.

Mandel Ngan/AP

For the policy wonks and advocates hoping for more than a passing mention of K-12 education in President Obama’s State of the Union Tuesday night, it was a long 59 minutes.

There was a quick moment during the night in which the president praised public schools for improving graduation rates, along with math and reading scores. He also highlighted the value of universal childcare (which is not the same as preschool), the importance of protecting student data, and his goal of expanding digital access to the nation’s classrooms.

On the higher-education side, the focus was on a plan to make the first two years of community college free to most students, revising the tax code to provide more effective credits for education, and reducing the staggering burden of student loans. That focus wasn’t unexpected, given the proposals were recently rolled out.

"Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt," Obama said Tuesday. "Understand, you’ve got to earn it—you’ve got to keep your grades up and graduate on time."

But there was no mention of academic standards (no one really expected him to use the words "Common Core"). Some pundits had predicted mention of the federal push to upgrade the quality of the nation’s teacher-preparation programs. But that didn’t happen. The word "teacher" doesn’t appear anywhere in the text. And the closest the president got to talking about testing—arguably one of the most pressing issues for educators, parents, and policymakers—was that reference to improved math and reading scores.

In the New York Times, columnist Frank Bruni offered a trenchant criticism on Tuesday of the free-college proposal, noting that it won’t do much good unless more students are actually prepared for the academic challenges of higher education. That means improving the quality of K-12 instruction through better teacher training and the use of higher academic standards, Bruni said. From his column:

We need to raise standards. That’s in fact what the Common Core is ideally about, and that’s why the [U.S.] education secretary, Arne Duncan, under harsh attack, remains wedded to a certain amount of testing. High standards without monitoring and accountability are no standards at all.

The goal is to lift children from all income groups up—and to maximize their chances of success with higher education. Their failure to complete higher education isn’t just a function of financial hardships and related stresses, though those are primary reasons. Academic readiness factors in.

Indeed, K-12 education is the focus today on Capitol Hill, as lawmakers are holding hearings on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law that created the Bush-era No Child Left Behind reform initiative. It’s a long-overdue conversation: No Child Left Behind has been in place since 2002, and was due to be re-upped in 2007.

Michael Petrilli, the president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said he wasn’t surprised that the president didn’t mention that issue. But Petrilli suggested that the omission was a missed opportunity.

The president "avoided the one area of education policy where there is potential for bipartisan agreement," Petrilli told me. "He’s playing politics instead of governing."

I asked Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst for Bellwether Education Partners, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, for her thoughts on the State of the Union.

She had anticipated a dearth of K-12 policy in the speech, given that early and higher education have garnered the most attention over the past couple of years. That doesn’t mean the Obama Administration doesn’t have irons in those fires, however.

"Secretary Duncan laid out his priorities for reauthorization last week in an important policy speech, and there really isn’t anything more to say until Congress begins negotiating the bill and making changes through the amendment process," Hyslop told me. "That said, the administration was largely absent from the last effort to reauthorize the law, so I consider those remarks a positive step in getting all of the key players to the negotiating table."

In the long run, whether he talks about education one night of the year isn’t an accurate barometer of a president’s priorities. Obama’s legacy will reflect the billions of dollars in stimulus money distributed to public schools through competitive grants, all of which "sparked significant change at the state level despite a lack of progress on [No Child Left Behind]," Hyslop said.

Those programs, coupled with the waivers Duncan has issued to the majority of states—allowing them to escape the more onerous provisions of No Child Left Behind in exchange for making changes in key areas like teacher evaluations— make it clear that "Secretary Duncan has accomplished an enormous amount of work in K-12 over the course of six years," Hyslop said.

The Department of Education might be better off focusing on the ambitious K-12 education initiatives already in play rather than introducing a new program, namely because its influence is diminishing and the Obama Administration’s time in office is winding down, Hyslop said.

And given a choice, Hyslop said, she would take "actual policy changes over proposals, like free community college, that are unlikely to pass a Republican Congress any day."

This post appears courtesy of The Educated Reporter.