Investment in the Middle Class: Obama's Biggest Boost to Education?

President Obama's first State of the Union address after his reelection established two important education policies as high priorities for his second term: incentives for high schools to incorporate real-world job training, and universal pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds. Both address critical holes in current education policy, and both would improve the prospects for low-income and all students. His broader jobs and labor proposals, however, may represent even more important boosts to improved educational outcomes.

Providing every U.S. 4-year old access to a high-quality pre-kindergarten education could sharply narrow achievement gaps at kindergarten entry. Solid evidence from both "model" programs like Michigan's Perry Preschool and large, public programs like the Chicago Child-Parent Centers also demonstrate long-term benefits in social, emotional, and behavioral development that lead to higher odds of high school graduation, college attendance, and employment, and sharply reduced involvement in criminal activity. Combining such programs with affordable child care would also help low- and middle-income parents find work and work more productively. With the costs of child care demanding as much as half of low-income families' income, federal support could free up family funds for other important basics, from books to summer camp, that could further boost children's educational achievement.

There has been increasing emphasis in recent years on ensuring that students are "college and career-ready" when they graduate high school. The administration's education policies, however, have not necessarily supported that goal. High-stakes testing, in particular, puts pressure on students to acquire test-taking skills and basic reading and math knowledge, rather than the higher-order thinking and creativity that both college and good jobs require. Educators complain that these requirements, enshrined in No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, squeeze out time for the hands-on activities and other subjects that help them engage their students and prepare them for real life beyond school. Moreover, most high school graduates do not enroll in traditional four-year colleges, so exposing students to, and preparing them for, other post-secondary options makes practical sense and helps build a strong workforce and citizenry.

But other policies the president advocated that do not fall under the traditional umbrella of education policy hold potentially as much, and even more, potential to boost the educational outcomes of those students who need it most. Among these are his suggestion to establish new manufacturing innovation hubs like the pilot site in Youngtown, Ohio and, perhaps strongest, increasing the federal minimum wage and indexing it to inflation so that it stops falling behind the cost of living.

The recession has led to under-employment and long-term unemployment for millions of Americans, and to a lack of opportunity for those entering the labor force. As the forthcoming HBO documentary American Winter depicts, it has exacted a harsh toll not only on the middle-class status of families, but on the educational opportunities, and thus life prospects, of their children. Children whose parents cannot put dinner on the table understandably arrive at school in the morning stressed and unfocused. Students who spent the night in a homeless shelter, rather than their own beds, may be confused or ashamed, and may lose not only cognitive but social skills. Obama's focus on putting more Americans back to work thus has the potential to right many of the educational wrongs that these children have suffered.

The recession also illuminated systemic problems in the American labor force that were building up long before the recession. As manufacturing and other jobs that were largely unionized and provided a living wage were replaced in recent decades with low-wage service jobs, the middle class of the 1950s and 1960s has eroded. Much of it has been replaced with families in which, despite full-time work by all available parents, incomes are insufficient to meet all of children's needs for food, clothing, housing, and health care. As Obama stated:

"There are millions of Americans whose hard work and dedication have not yet been rewarded. Our economy is adding jobs, but too many people still can't find full- time employment. Corporate profits have skyrocketed to all-time highs, but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged. It is our generation's task, then, to re-ignite the true engine of America's economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class."

Increasing the minimum wage represents an important step that 19 states have already taken on their own in recognition of the need to boost the wages of the lowest-income workers. Indexing it to inflation would protect that increase from being cancelled out by annual erosion. As Obama asserted, "[I]n the wealthiest nation on earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty." In addition to the moral imperative, there is a practical one; raising future generations of strong students, workers, and citizens requires that that we attain that goal.

Obama's joint attention to both in-school and out-of-school factors reflects the mission of a Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. Let's hope that he and Congress make it a reality in the next four years.