Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The Education Community Responds to the State of the Union

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Updated 1/31/12

In the State of the Union, President Obama made several references to education, reiterating its importance to his administration and to a healthy economy. 

While k-12 education was not a primary focus of the speech, he did touch directly on a few major education issues. He pointed out that nearly all states have raised their academic standards in recent years. He also made one very specific policy proposal: He called on all states to keep students in school until they either graduate from high school or turn 18.

In addition, the President emphasized the importance of good teachers. As he put it:

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.

What did the education community have to say about this speech?

Gayle Manchin, president of the National Association of State Boards of Education, was pleased that education was emphasized in the speech. She urged the federal government to recognize the lead role of states in education reform and called for “for the federal government to renew its partnership with states to ensure they are successful in meeting the overall needs of our nation’s students in a global economy.” 

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel praised the President’s vision and understanding that investing in education is fundamental to the long-term success of our children and nation. He also appreciated the call to support teachers and to stop teaching to the test. He too called for the federal government to collaborate in its efforts to improve education in our nation, reminding the President that “teachers and educators are eager to work with the Obama administration on ideas to strengthen the profession of teaching and help all students succeed.”

Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, was encouraged by the call to empower teachers and principals to use their "creativity and passion." He called for a continued partnership to ensure that educational technology in particular is included in the nation's roadmap to success and achievement. As he pointed out, "In the globalized economy that the President speaks of, few things are as important as a highly skilled labor force. And that labor force is the result of educators who have relevant digital age skills as well as creativity, passion, and professionalism.”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten picked up the President’s language on testing, noting that he “made clear tonight what America's teachers have long understood: We can't test our way to a middle class; we must educate our way to a middle class. The overemphasis on testing has led to narrowing of the curriculum, rather than creating a path to critical thinking and problem solving.”

Learning Forward Executive Director Stephanie Hirsh agreed that great teachers need to be rewarded and applauded the President's continued emphasis on the need to ensure all teachers get the support they need to be be successful. She added that "effective professional learning is the most valuable tool we have to ensure that all teachers are effective and all students experience great teaching" and that her organization is committed to working with the Department of Education in seeking new ways to ensure all educators can engage in such learning every day.

National School Boards Association Executive Director Anne Bryant was pleased by the President's commitment to advancing public education and pointed out that stable funding is critical to success in doing so. She called on the President and Congress to "find long-term solutions to adequately fund education that will help ensure student success and prepare our next generation with the 21st century skills needed compete in the global economy." She also urged Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with "a bill that supports local flexibility to increase student achievement while eliminating counter-productive requirements contained in current flawed law.”

National PTA President Betsy Landers applauded the President’s commitment to rebuilding the nation’s workforce by improving education and reiterated the need to overcome the partisan divide to do right by the nation's students. She emphasized the importance of all stakeholders – parents, schools, teachers, the community and government – investing the endeavor to ensure its success. She also called on Congress to reauthorize ESEA while making clear that “while [National PTA agrees] that increased focus on state and local flexibility in education is needed, [it] remains committed to ensuring educational equity through maintained federal investment in quality instruction and education programs, transparency and accountability – to both parents and students.”  

NASSP’s Director of Government Relations Amanda Karhuse also pointed out that schools must have the resources needed to implement the President's vision - resources including both dedicated formula funding and supports such as commitment to strengthen the education profession through better preparation and professional development programs. She also argued out that “if we’re to no longer ‘teach to the test,’ such supports should include policies that are no longer written to the test,” calling for the reauthorization of ESEA and meaningful educator-evaluation systems that resist a focus on student test scores to assess educator performance.

Several practitioners seemed to agree, expressing concern with both current federal policy and the direction in which some believe the administration is trying to push it. One common complaint on the #EdSOTU Twitter chat was the disconnect between advocating for teacher evaluations based in part on standardized test scores (which the Obama administration has done) and the notion that we spend too much time teaching to the test. Another concern on the thread: Whether mandating students stay in school until they are 18 is the best solution to the dropout problem.

Despite those concerns, overall it seems that many of the education ideas expressed in the State of the Union were applauded by those in the education community, particularly if they are achieved through collaboration and not simply imposed by the federal government. The challenge now is making sure that the policies that emerge in the coming year match this rhetoric.

Image by Pete Souza. Taken from a screenshot of WhiteHouse.gov.