The State of Our Union’s Education

On February 12, 2013, President Obama addressed the American public with the State of the Union address. He dedicated a few minutes to the challenges that lie before us for the American educational system, which has historically lagged behind in international ratings and received less time, effort and funding from both national and state-level governments than it deserves (these characteristics, of course, being anything but mutually exclusive).

The President began his portion on education by stressing the importance of access to preschool education. “Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than three in ten four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.”

He noted that the national government will work with state governments to achieve this goal, but did not elaborate on his specific ideas about how to do so – neither the necessary steps for funding nor implementation. As this was a general address on a magnitude of concerns our nation faces this year, one can only hope we will see precise bipartisan progress on the matter in Congress soon.

President Obama also spoke about working with universities across the country to get our presently sky-high tuition rates down: “Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure they do. Tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid. And tomorrow, my Administration will release a new “College Scorecard” that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”

Government interventions in terms of tuition are next to impossible for private institutions. As students at Connecticut College, which has been targeted as the most expensive private college in the nation by numerous reports including that of the U.S. Department of Education, Business Week and Forbes, we are altogether too familiar with these challenges. I believe the President’s recommendations to Congress and his own Administration’s actions are good ones; but that more drastic actions – a summit of leaders and educators in higher education to agree on certain tuition caps, for example – will have to be taken so that public and private schools alike can be made more affordable for students and their families.

President Obama continued, “Four years ago, we started Race to the Top – a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year.”

However well framed this sentence may be to leave the American public thinking that our country has made leaps and bounds in the field of education over the past few years, it is, in actuality, intensely problematic. For me, the root of the problem – the debate over which has plagued American schools for the past four decades – lies with standardized testing. I am therefore devoting the bulk of this article that lies before you to the matter.

In July of 2009, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced Race to the Top as a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The criteria of the program are great teachers and leaders, state success factors, standards and assessments, general selection criteria, turning around the lowest-achieving schools, and data systems to support instruction. Most of the criteria – notably including the most heavily weighted, that of the performance of teachers – are measured by nationwide standards.

For all the arguments of starkly contrasting viewpoints Democrats and Republicans have, is Race to the Top really all that different from George W. Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind? In the latter, schools’ success levels were measured on the basis of state mandated tests rather than the nationally mandated ones of Race to the Top, but the exact same premise of performance based measuring through tests is still present.

This debate divides not only just by party lines, within party lines, but also within families – even the First Family. Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy, in her biography of the first lady, Michelle, wrote: “Michelle frequently deplores the modern reliance on test scores, describing herself as someone who did not test well.” Politics Daily published a piece three years ago about a session of Mrs. Obama’s mentoring program, held in Denver. One of the high school female students in attendance asked Michelle what her views on standardized testing were. The student explained how many of her classmates do not speak English and therefore do not do well on the tests, as they can’t understand them; she questioned the fairness of measuring performance off of them. Mrs. Obama responded by saying, “I was never a great test taker. So from a personal level, I would always get nervous and feel a great deal of anxiety over test-taking.”

Race to the Top has sparked much controversy in the field of education. The American Progress Organization released a report written by Ulrich Boser in March of the past year assessing the success of Race to the Top over the past three years. He wrote, “In some states, there’s been little collaboration between key stakeholders, and states could do more to communicate reforms. In New York more than 1,000 principals have signed a petition protesting the new teacher-evaluation system, and a number of districts in the state, including New York City, have not yet been able to reach agreements with their teacher’s union on the details of the new teacher evaluations. In other states, teacher’s unions and other groups have also taken issue with some of the program’s priorities, with teacher evaluation almost always being the most contentious issue.”

In his address, President Obama spoke of bringing back the power of the American high school diploma. “At schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering. Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.”

The President should realize why it is that the American Progress Organization dubbed teacher evaluation such a contentious issue in evaluating Race to the Top. Teachers have a problem with being evaluated on the basis of their pupils’ performances on standardized tests because it often stifles the creative and out-of-the-box thinking that makes such a large impact in the field of education, but cannot be effectively measured by a state or federally mandated exam. Does President Obama really believe that it would be feasible to develop programs like that of Brooklyn’s P-Tech while teachers in that school are so busy molding their curriculums to fit the standards determined for them by politicians rather than what they know as educators?

Let me be clear. I believe that President Obama’s efforts in the field of education over the course of his first term – like that of most leaders before him – have had the best intentions. I believe that the ideas he expressed for the future are solid ones, albeit in need of precise planning and legislation. There is no doubt that education, the omnipresent, timeless, great equalizer of the American Dream, is regarded as incredibly important.

But because it is so important, why was it a selling point in this speech that Race to the Top cost our government only 1 percent of the national budget for education – a national budget that is laughably miniscule in comparison to what we spend on higher American priorities like that of the military, at that?

Why is it that programs like Race to the Top insist on subjecting students to tests (and learning curriculums designed accordingly to those tests) that at their core, decrease their motivation, passion, and excitement for learning?

How can it be that we are weeding out teachers with unconventional approaches – the very ones that tend to make a lasting impact on children’s lives – because they don’t fit inside of the confines of these mandated “smarter curricula” the President spoke of; or that we are discouraging teachers who have dedicated years of their lives to the profession, with tried and true techniques, to the point that they quit?

In sum, the state of the Union, in terms of education, is actually quite low. I – writing this as a product of twelve years of public schooling prior to arriving at Connecticut College – am tired of politicians who largely send their children to private schools starting at age four declaring the public school system a mess and offering inadequate reforms.

We need to see some real change in education. I appeal to leaders of our country and states to ask students and educators – the true experts we should be turning to – for advice on reforming their field. •

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