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.
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.