The State of the Union, Teacher Quality, and Early Ed

article | January 25, 2012

    Maggie Severns

Some critics have slammed President Obama’s State of the Union address, saying the president opted to chronicle a litany of policy proposals when he should have laid out a grand, sweeping vision for America that can inspire the public.

Yet for those of us in public policy circles, a State of the Union that delivers a long, dry list of policy ideas means there is a lot to talk about this morning, and education is no exception.

A lot of the President’s education talk last night focused on how to make and keep higher education affordable and how to improve training in community colleges for high-skilled manufacturing jobs. He also had two K-12 proposals: asking states to require students to stay in school until they graduate or turn 18, and improving the quality of the teaching workforce.  

There weren’t any proposals targeting early education, but there’s still a lot to think about here, particularly in the final category—improving the teaching profession. Here’s what Obama said:

“Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.”

This passage allowed those on all sides of the teacher accountability debate to hear what they wanted to hear. Unions liked that Obama praised teachers and demanded that we “stop teaching to the test.” Both National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten greeted this line with enthusiasm, according to last night’s write-up on Ed Week’s Politics K12 blog.

Those who support the accountability movement probably heard Obama plug merit pay when he said that we should “reward” the best teachers and “replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.” These phrases didn’t kick up much dust last night, but they will in the future if the administration renews its focus on teacher quality this year. A blueprint released by the administration last night offers some insight into what the administration is planning. It calls for a new competitive grant program, that would “challenge states and districts to work with their teachers and unions to comprehensively reform the teaching profession” through measures such as making teacher training programs “more selective,” creating new career ladders and leadership roles for teachers, creating new evaluation systems that consider student test scores but don’t rely entirely on them and “re-shaping tenure to raise the bar, protect good teachers, and promote accountability.”

Here at the Early Education Initiative, we have a lot of thoughts on ways to improve teacher training programs, assessment and professional development. Our latest issue brief highlights the best practices in classroom observation techniques for evaluating teachers in the early grades. We’re hosting an event on the subject at the New America Foundation tomorrow, Thursday January 26thclick here to learn more and RSVP.

Teacher training programs are another area we’ve been tracking. Our Getting in Sync issue brief looks at some big problems with teacher training programs for pre-K-3 classrooms, and how they could be fixed.

As for the rest of the State of the Union, some noteworthy education topics weren’t mentioned at all: The President didn’t call for long-overdue reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as No Child Left Behind), which he did in his previous State of the Union Addresses -- likely because the administration believes there’s little hope for ESEA reauthorization before the presidential election. He also didn’t mention early childhood education, making this the first Obama State of the Union to neglect the issue. Obama did boast about the effectiveness of Race to the Top, but not by name: “For less than one 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,” he said.

For Twitter users who would like to learn more, Roberto Rodriguez, Special Assistant to the President for Education Policy, will be holding “Twitter office hours” today at 12 pm EST to answer questions about the State of the Union. You can ask questions using the hashtag #WHChat, or follow the conversation through the @WHLive Twitter account.


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    Maggie Severns