In his first big education speech earlier this month, President Barack Obama tried to show that he is a reformer, and not a shill for the education special interests that dominate the Democratic Party. While he had a few worthwhile ideas, others sounded good until one turned to the details.
“What’s required is not simply new investments, but new reforms,” President Obama told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Some of his reform ideas did address important needs, such as longitudinal student performance data from “childhood through college.” He rightly pointed out that such data can “tell us which students had which teacher so we can assess what’s working and what’s not.”
The president also recognized the disparity among state academic content standards. He noted that students in states with weak standards may receive high marks even though these same students would fail in states with tough standards. “The solutions to low test scores is not lowering standards,” he observed, “it’s tougher, clearer standards.” When it came to details and his overall vision, however, President Obama’s call for reform fell short.
Although he pushed for tougher academic standards, the president also said he wanted standards and assessments that measure “21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.” So-called “21st century skills,” however, is a buzz phrase that liberal educators use to spruce up the failed teaching methodologies they have advocated for decades, such as having students discover knowledge on their own, with little input from teachers.
John Richard Schrock, biology education professor at Emporia State University in Kansas, has pointed out that a number of school districts in his state have adopted the 21st century skills agenda. “The teachers are not to speak for more than a few minutes each class, and then only to give directions,” professor Schrock says. “Students are to work on projects to learn all science concepts on their own.” Overwhelming quantitative research confirms that such methods leave students deficient in core basic skills and knowledge.
In his speech, President Obama said that the “first pillar” of his reform plan is to increase spending on government preschool efforts. That’s why, he said, he’s funneling billions of dollars more into the federal Head Start and Early Head Start early childhood programs. Yet, a 2001 study by a federal researcher found that participation in Head Start “does not have long-term benefits.” In addition, in Oklahoma and Georgia, which both offer universal government preschool, student performance has been disappointing.
The president also wants to change teacher pay and retention practices. In 150 pilot school districts, he wants to institute teacher pay-for-performance schemes where teacher pay will be linked to improved student performance. While this idea sounds great, it is hugely suspicious that the giant National Education Association teachers union, an implacable foe of merit pay, says it can support Mr. Obama’s plan. Further, 150 school districts is a proverbial drop in the bucket. There are approximately 1,000 school districts in California alone. Most parents and students will have to wait a long time for teachers to focus more on student achievement.
President Obama says that if low-performing teachers don’t improve, “there’s no excuse for allowing that person to continue teaching.” However, rules that protect incompetent teachers are negotiated at the local school district level. Mr. Obama does not say how he would change local union contracts to achieve his goal. The unfortunate reality is that he simply cannot.
President Obama has good intentions but his education agenda will fall short of its goals because it is based on a purely government-focused vision. His tweaking efforts divert attention from the big-picture issue that the government school system itself is inherently and irretrievably flawed and that all children have a right to an immediate escape ticket in the form of a voucher or similar school-choice option.
President Obama attended private school and sends his own children to a private school, but in his education speech he again opposed and denigrated vouchers that would allow other children the same opportunities that he and his family have had. The new president thus demonstrates that, for all his reformist rhetoric, he is no true reformer.
Lance T. Izumi is Senior Fellow in California Studies and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy (PRI), California’s premier free-market public-policy think tank based in San Francisco. He is the co-author of the book Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice.