Grading Obama’s Education Policy

A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I were discussing President Obama’s performance in the area of education — more specifically P-20 education, which begins in preschool and ends with graduate school. As is usually the case when we debate matters of education politics, the debate became quite contentious and in the end we had to agree to disagree. In response to that debate, I decided to write an opinion piece, assessing Obama’s education record. Toward the end of the article, I will issue a letter grade (A-F) denoting my assessment of the president’s level of performance in education policy.

Let me begin by saying that throughout Obama’s political career, he has continually preached the need for America to invest in education. To put it in his own words, “Countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow.” The core of his plans for education has been to provide all students with the same opportunity to reach high levels of proficiency. In the past, disadvantaged students were not provided the same educational pathways as other students. They were not held to the same high standards as their classmates; their lower achievement outcomes were readily accepted.

The president has continually invested in and supported early childhood education. Why? Because he knows that it lays the foundation for future academic success. In a 2007 speech in Manchester, New Hampshire, Obama said, “For every $1 we invest in these programs, we get $10 back in reduced welfare rolls, fewer health care costs, and less crime.” When he became president, he put his money where his mouth was, figuratively speaking.

The American Recovery Act allocated $5 billion for early childhood programs, and $77 billion for reforms to support elementary and secondary education. On top of this, his administration provided $500 million for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge. It is unprecedented for a president to show such passion and commitment towards early childhood education, while simultaneously articulating such a profound understanding of its importance.

In 2010, President Obama established Promise Neighborhood Grants to support plans that implement cradle-to-career services that are intended to improve the educational attainment and healthy development of children. The program endeavors to provide youth in Promise Neighborhoods with effective schools and well-built networks of parental and community support that will prepare them to receive an exceptional education and effectively transition to college and a career. Patterned after Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, Promise Neighborhoods are a “promising” reinvention of an existing educational innovation.

Obama’s education reform magnum opus, Race to the Top, sustains successful teachers and principals in school districts across the nation, and has led to the adoption of common K-12 teaching standards. In this competition, states receive points for fulfilling certain criteria, such as performance-based standards for teachers and principals, showing fidelity to nationwide standards, encouraging charter schools, etc. Critics argue that high-stakes testing is untrustworthy, and I am inclined to agree. If there was a component that required contestants to create alternative assessments or value added systems to replace high stakes testing, “Race to the Top” would be as advertised.

In terms of outreach to the Hispanic community, the president’s actions have been unprecedented. President Obama did an excellent job of ensuring that the Hispanic community was included in attempts to advance educational opportunities for the entire nation. In addition, he restructured the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics to advance educational opportunities at the P-20 level. Also, President Obama is dedicated to giving students who aren’t yet American citizens an opportunity to gain their citizenship.

In terms of college access and loans, President Obama has made higher education more affordable by doubling financial support for Pell Grants, growing the number of recipients from 6 million to 9 million since 2008. How did he do it? Obama accomplished this mostly by cutting out the intermediary from the college-loan program, which in turn freed billions of taxpayer dollars.

Beginning in 2014, first-time borrowers will only have to pay 10 percent or less of their disposable income towards loan repayments. The law also stipulates that after 20 years, any remaining loans will be forgiven. If they make their payments on time, public servants (teachers, police officers, servicemen, etc.) will have their student loans forgiven after 10 years. Also, the president increased funding for land-grant colleges. The aforementioned measures constituted the largest reform of student aid in 40 years.

Solely on his P-20 record, I will have to give President Obama a B+. The Obama administration’s education agenda began in the midst of one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. Since his inauguration, President Obama and Arne Duncan aggressively tackled education reform in P-20 education. What President Obama and Arne Duncan have been able to accomplish in less than four years is nothing short of amazing.

There is room for improvement, especially when students are still tested using antiquated assessment measures. More importantly than this, NCLB still exists in its original state and has not been amended. However, I decided to stick with my B+, because these issues cannot be laid at the president’s doorstep. Throughout his first term, President Obama has entreated Congress to amend NCLB, and he has been met with opposition and hostility.

Under Obama’s watch, the U. S. education system is experiencing something that it hasn’t experienced in ages — genuine progress. Although we have many more miles to go, we have to remember that Rome was not built in a day. The issues that continuously plague our public education system took decades to get that way and will probably take several more decades to fix. If President Obama is to engender true school reform in America, he has to bear in mind that school reform is a unicorn of sorts — an imaginary, magical creature conjured up by our subconscious desire to make sense of things. The truth of the matter is that school reform, as most people envision it, does not exist.

President Obama knows that you do not need to wait for something to be broken in order to fix it. That’s why our president always looks for opportunities to improve upon current processes, making things incrementally better as time passes. He has brilliantly applied the process of continuous improvement to our educational system; constantly striving to make things better, reevaluating how he does things, looking at the results he achieves, and taking steps to improve things incrementally. He has earned his B+.

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