Edu-Reform . . . Maybe

Yesterday, the president's celebrated education speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is a prime specimen of what is already identifiable as classic Obama. The president delivered a serious speech that urged both right and left to move past "stale debates," called for substantial new spending, and promoted some serious reform while fudging on the details of those reforms.

In a noteworthy salvo, the President offered an indictment of American schooling clearer than that of any previous Democratic president, declaring, "Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we've let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us . . . It's time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones."

This was bold stuff, especially for a Democratic president elected with the backing of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Obama explicitly endorsed performance pay, (eventually) removing lousy teachers, and the need for more charter schools. All to the good, and none of it easy.

Whatever the president's intentions, between the stimulus and the omnibus budget there has thus far been much spending but little evidence of reform.

At the same time, the President sent up worrisome signals that he may champion faddish "21st century skills" pablum in lieu of strong content standards, was so vague on performance pay that the unions said they shared his vision, and remained silent on the effort of congressional Democrats to choke off the D.C. voucher program even as he touted the need for "innovation."

More tellingly, whatever the president's intentions, between the stimulus and the omnibus budget there has thus far been much spending but little evidence of reform. The president's budget "scrubbing" has come up empty, the $110 billion in education stimulus spending is mostly going to protect jobs and preserve the status quo, and the strategy for higher education and preschool amounts to ladling out fresh billions of borrowed funds.

The president can give a great speech and his heart seems to be in the right place. But will his administration's actions match his handsome words? The speech gives cause for optimism; the early signs, cause for skepticism. Classic Obama.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy at AEI.

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About the Author

 

Frederick M.
Hess
  • An educator, political scientist and author, Frederick M. Hess studies K-12 and higher education issues. His books include "Cage-Busting Leadership," "Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age," "The Same Thing Over and Over," "Education Unbound," "Common Sense School Reform," "Revolution at the Margins," and "Spinning Wheels." He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog, "Rick Hess Straight Up." Hess's work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, U.S. News & World Report, National Affairs, the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic and National Review. He has edited widely cited volumes on the Common Core, the role of for-profits in education, education philanthropy, school costs and productivity, the impact of education research, and No Child Left Behind.  Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, and on the review boards for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 SCHOOLS. A former high school social studies teacher, he teaches or has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University and Harvard University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Government, as well as an M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum, from Harvard University.


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