Back to school

BACK TO SCHOOL…. Listening to President Obama’s vision of education policy, outlined in an address this morning to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, one gets the sense that in most areas, the president isn’t afraid to think big. While media personalities keep pushing the White House to scale back its agenda — Mark Halperin, we’re looking in your direction — the president is moving decisively in the other direction.

Dana Goldstein touched on some of the key elements of Obama’s comprehensive policy:

* Charters: In the biggest concession to reformers, Obama said he supported every state lifting caps on the number of charter schools allowed to open in a year, provided that states also have accountability guidelines for assessing charters and closing down ineffective schools. […]

* Curriculum: National standards are emerging as a consensus point between teachers’ unions and free market education reformers. Obama also supported higher standards today, saying, “Our curriculum for eighth graders is two full years behind top performing countries. That is a prescription for economic decline.” But his agenda stops short of pursuing national curriculum guidelines or tests, promising only “to promote efforts to enhance the rigor of state-level curriculum.” […]

* Early childhood: Obama’s budget will include “incentive grants” for states to develop uniform quality standards and target care and education to the most disadvantaged children.

All of this, of course, comes on top of the changes the administration has already proposed on revamping student loans for higher-ed.

And what about the big one: teacher pay? There’s a lot of reporting this afternoon about “merit pay,” but the president wasn’t nearly this direct, instead addressing “recruiting, preparing, and rewarding outstanding teachers” (which Dana Goldstein believes is “code-speak for performance pay“).

Also note, Obama touched on one aspect of the education debate that often goes overlooked: the calendar:

Even as we foster innovation in where our children are learning, let’s also foster innovation in when our children are learning. We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day. That calendar may have once made sense, but today, it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea. That is no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy. That is why I’m calling for us not only to expand effective after-school programs, but to rethink the school day to incorporate more time — whether during the summer or through expanded-day programs for children who need it. I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas. Not in my family, and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom. If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America.

Realistically, the length of the school year won’t be shaped by the federal government. It’s why Obama called on us to “rethink” the status quo, instead of outlining a specific policy to change it.

Nevertheless, it’s a very compelling, comprehensive outline, and further evidence that this is a president who doesn’t mind swinging for the fences.