I am a lifetime teacher, first in public schools and then in a university-based teacher education program. I think I do an honest job and that students benefit from being in my classes. I was hoping to hear something positive about the future of public education in President Obama's State of the Union speech. I confess I was so disturbed by what Obama was saying about education that I had to turn him off. In the morning I read the text of his speech online, hoping I was wrong about what I thought I had hear. But I wasn't. There was nothing there but shallow celebration of wrong-headed policies and empty promises.
For me, the test question on any education proposal always is, "Is this the kind of education I want for my children and grandchildren?" Obama, whose children attend an elite and expensive private school in Washington, D.C., badly failed the test.
Basically Obama is looking to improve education in the United States on the cheap. He bragged that his signature education program, Race to the Top, was "a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year." I am not sure why Obama felt entitled to brag. Race to the Top has been in place for four years now and its major impact seems to be the constant testing of students, high profits for testing companies such as Pearson, and questionable reevaluations of teachers. It is unclear to me what positive changes Race to the Top has actually achieved.
In the State of the Union Address, Obama made three proposals, one for pre-school, one for high school, and one for college.
Obama on Pre-Schools:
Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than three in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program ... I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America ... In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own.
I am a big supporter of universal pre-kindergarten and I like the promise, but Georgia and Oklahoma are not models for educational excellence. Both states have offered universal pre-k for more than a decade and in both states students continue to score poorly on national achievement tests. Part of the problem is that both Georgia and Oklahoma are anti-union, low-wage, misnamed "Right-to-Work" states. In Oklahoma City, the average salary for a preschool teacher is $25,000 and assistant teachers make about $18,000, enough to keep the school personnel living in poverty. Average preschool teacher salaries for job postings in Oklahoma City, are 17 percent lower than average preschool teacher salaries for job postings nationwide. The situation is not much better in Georgia. In Savannah, average preschool teacher salaries for job postings are 12 percent lower than average preschool teacher salaries for job postings nationwide.
Let's also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job. Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they're ready for a job. At schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering ... I'm announcing a new challenge to redesign America's high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. We'll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math -- the skills today's employers are looking for to fill jobs right now and in the future.
Unfortunately, P-Tech in Brooklyn, the Pathways in Technology Early College High School, is not yet, and may never be, a model for anything. It claims to be "the first school in the nation that connects high school, college, and the world of work through deep, meaningful partnerships, we are pioneering a new vision for college and career readiness and success." Students will study for six years and receive both high school diplomas and college associate degrees. But the school is only in its second year of operation, has only 230 students, and no graduates or working alumni.
According to a New York Times report which included an interviews with an IBM official, "The objective is to prepare students for entry-level technology jobs paying around $40,000 a year, like software specialists who answer questions from I.B.M.'s business customers or 'deskside support' workers who answer calls from PC users, with opportunities for advancement."
The thing is, as anyone who has called computer support knows, those jobs are already being done at a much cheaper rate by outsourced techies in third world countries. It does not really seem like an avenue to the American middle class. The IBM official also made clear "that while no positions at I.B.M. could be guaranteed six years in the future, the company would give P-Tech students preference for openings."
[S]kyrocketing costs price way too many young people out of a higher education, or saddle them with unsustainable debt ... But taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the soaring cost of higher education ... My administration will release a new "College Scorecard" that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.
As a parent and grandparent I agree with President Obama that the cost of college is too high for many families, but that is what a real education costs. If the United States is going to have the high-tech 21st-century workforce the president wants, the only solution is massive federal support for education. There is a way to save some money; however, I did not hear any discussion of it in the president's speech. Private for-profit businesses masquerading as colleges have been sucking in federal dollars and leaving poor and poorly qualified students with debts they can never repay. These programs should to be shut down, but in the State of the Union Address President Obama ignored the problem.
The New York Times documented the way the for-profit edu-companies, including the massive Pearson publishing concern, go unregulated by federal education officials. These companies operate online charter schools and colleges that offer substandard education to desperate families at public expense.
President Obama, celebrating mediocrity and shallow promises are not enough. You would never accept these "solutions" for Malia and Sasha. American students and families need a genuine federal investment in education.