The State of the Union and Education: Why Nothing Ever Changes

This year, tonight, President Barack Obama will deliver his annual State of the Union address. It will, again, contain several education initiatives. Journalists will write about these new ideas, focusing on the political implications of his new ideas and how his plans have some potentially to radically alter how America educates its young people.

But as Stephen Laurie points out at the Atlantic, the president has introduced a lot of other education ideas other States of the Union. And nothing seems to change.

[There are] 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… 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.

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There’s the early childhood education fad of 2013:

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 Houseand 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.

There was the education-is-like-the-economic-competition-we-have-with-other-countries theme:

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.

Then there’s the teachers are awesome theme:

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.

And finally there’s the ever politically popular, I-know-college-is-really-expensive-oh-precious-middle-class-supporters subject:

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.

Part of the problem is that the federal government has pretty limited control over education policy. As conservatives often point out, there is no role for the federal government in education whatsoever in the Constitution. Its only power has to do with the money it provides to elementary and secondary schools though Title I funding, which provides for extra money for schools serving students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, and to colleges through Pell grants and Perkins loans.

The other problem is that, as least according to Laurie, The president doesn’t really have a unifying theme of education reform so much as a grab bad of politically popular ideas. Early childhood education, more math and science teachers, and making college cheaper are not necessarily the things that are most likely to improve education outcomes in this country, so much as the relatively uncontroversial ideas that poll best with the American public.

And because the funds that might support education initiatives are actually provided by Congress, they’re very much subject to the lobbying of special interests groups. People very much agree that something needs to change about education, and the system needs reform in order to work more effectively. But when it actually to the actual money that comes from Washington, schools line up to keep the checks coming in on time.

So yes, he’s going to propose something “new and innovative” tonight. But a year from now things are probably going to look pretty much the same.

Education policy never changes very quickly; things change very, very slower, if they change at all. As Laurie puts it “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.”

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer