State of the Union, 2013, with focus on education

As I mentioned in “State of the Union, Act II” (1/27/11), the President’s 2010 SOTU address recognized that:

…the devastation remains. One in 10 Americans still cannot find work. Many businesses have shuttered. Home values have declined. Small towns and rural communities have been hit especially hard. And for those who’d already known poverty, life has become that much harder….

My blog gave a few examples of devastation as it still, in January 2011, affected real lives, like the veteran suffering from cancer who was dropped from his insurance policy because he accidentally underpaid by 2 cents.

The devastation was perfectly true, though Americans don’t want to hear bad news. Things might be better if they did, but they don’t. But Americans gave the President himself some bad news in the November 2010 election.

The 2011 and 2012 SOTU addresses, which dwelt at length on repairing the aftermath of the recession, said necessary things and gave visions of a better future, but not yet a clear and politically potent agenda.


The 2013 State of the Union address seemed to me much peppier and more inspiring that the previous two, and above all gave us the sense that good things have been happening and more are about to. That’s what Americans like to hear and need to hear, and actually, it is probably true, though many problems and inequities remain in our society.

The President started out by evoking a popular predecessor:

Fifty-one years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this chamber that “the Constitution makes us not rivals for power but partners for progress….”

Americans liked JFK too and thought he knew what he was doing (especially after the missile showdown with the USSR). Americans always want to be able to think their leaders know what they are doing. It is clear now that many elements in Congress and the US Supreme Court have little clue that they are supposed to be doing something beyond perpetuating their own personal foibles and ideologies, but the President does.

“Overwhelming majorities of Americans … have come together around common-sense reform”–excellent, exactly how to phrase it. Americans like majorities, they like common sense, they like reform. Good concepts, good vocabulary!

This year, rather than talking about devastation, the President said things like: “It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth — a rising, thriving middle class.” Fine, though “middle class” isn’t everything.

In many ways, it was a politically skillful speech. After four years in office, the President has understood how to give the opposing party two alternatives: #1) Get something done in the public interest or #2) Look really really bad in the next election.

Everyone knows #1 is the better alternative, but it may not happen, due to the rightward pressures on the GOP, largely from the TP. No way will 2014 resemble the Dem disaster of 2010, which brought us the train wreck of the US House of Representatives and such luminaries as the ever-unpopular Tom Corbett.

The President spoke well, I think, on the economy, jobs, health care, climate change, energy, science, infrastructure, and a lot more. But he actually spent the most time, at least in one sustained segment of the speech, on education, which to my mind should indeed be right at the top. If young Americans don’t get the education they need, in 20 years our country will be a has-been, it’s that simple.

According to Carville and Greenberg’s very interesting Democracy Corps report on the SOTU, “Obama makes gains among swing voters on critical issues,” 2/13/13, the confidence of swing voters (taking 44 inhabitants of Denver as representative) in Obama rose very significantly from before to after the speech in all areas of the speech.

Let’s break down the President’s education ideas:

1) “…I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.”

Wonderful. That will cost money but will have huge benefits for children and families and will create more jobs per billion invested than any other expense. As the President explained, the benefits will ripple through the whole system of education and economy. Let’s just see who is in charge and what methods are imposed.

2) “…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 those German kids, they’re ready for a job when they graduate high school….”

I appreciate jobs; I’ve had them myself. But this country’s economy did not grow great on vocational training. Nothing against it; my father went to a vocational high school and became a classical musician. But we also need to talk about humanities, arts, history, foreign languages, and other areas that expand students’ consciousness and ability to think about life and the world.

3) “… four years ago, we started Race to the Top — a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards…. Tonight, 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. And 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 the jobs that are there right now and will be there in the future….”

There, I see real warning signs. The government did not “convince almost every state” to fall in line with Race to the Top, it offered a lot of money to the desperate states and told them what they had to do if they wanted the cash. Same thing with “rewarding schools” to jump in with the latest plan. Nothing against STEM education, but where are the initiatives in other fields? Or will STEM, with an influx of federal money, start to crowd out other subject areas?

Where is the right wing when you need it? They griped for years that education should be governed by states’ rights and that the US Department of Education should be abolished. Now are they going to roll over as education becomes further centralized and decisions are increasingly made by Washington and ideologically-driven foundations and corporations? In sum, this all needs a lot more deliberation.

Personally, I’m not against a true national system of education. But I am against lurching toward one through annual presidential directives, the fancies of Congress each year, and the theories of the moment of the Secretary of Education.

There have been zillions of alerts about how test-driven federal programs and the “adequate yearly progress” obsession have been degrading, not improving, actual education. For just one such alert, see Kenneth Bernstein, “Warnings from the Trenches: A high school teacher tells college educators what they can expect in the wake of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top,” Academe, Jan.-Feb. 2013:

No Child Left Behind went into effect for the 2002–03 academic year, which means that America’s public schools have been operating under the pressures and constrictions imposed by that law for a decade. Since the testing requirements were imposed beginning in third grade, the students arriving in your institution have been subject to the full extent of the law’s requirements. While it is true that the US Department of Education is now issuing waivers on some of the provisions of the law to certain states, those states must agree to other provisions that will have as deleterious an effect on real student learning as did No Child Left Behind….

Read further for more chilling remarks such as “My students did well on those questions because we practiced bad writing.” And furthermore:

The structure of testing has led to students arriving at our school without what previously would have been considered requisite background knowledge in social studies, but the problem is not limited to this field. Students often do not get exposure to art or music or other nontested subjects. In high-need schools, resources not directly related to testing are eliminated….

4) Now on higher education, the President continued:

“…even with better high schools, most young people will need some higher education. It’s a simple fact the more education you’ve got, the more likely you are to have a good job and work your way into the middle class. … Through tax credits, grants and better loans, we’ve made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years…. I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid. …”

So there is federal money again leading the charge. As soon as the feds start rating colleges for “affordability and value,” I predict a lot of unintended consequences that will not be in the interests of education. Look what happened when school ratings and even teachers’ careers started depending on students’ standardized test results: in some cases, people cheated. Just wait till the accountants and college administrators (I was one myself) get to work on “affordability” and “value”: I think people will be surprised.

I agree college should be affordable. But is that up to the government? Again, where is the right wing? Don’t they (and a lot of other people) believe in the free market? If parents don’t want to pay for college X because it’s not affordable or not a good value for their son or daughter, they look elsewhere– isn’t that the free market?

5) And finally: “…to grow our middle class, our citizens have to have access to the education and training that today’s jobs require.”

Yes, but… please, Mr. President, give some sign that education is about more than jobs and money. You yourself “majored in political science with a specialty in international relations” (Wikipedia) and went to law school. Aren’t fields like those worth something? And you even got a pretty good job.

About politicswestchesterview

Nathaniel regards himself as a progressive Democrat who sees a serious need to involve more Americans in the political process if we are to rise to Ben Franklin's challenge "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," after a passerby asked him what form of government the founders had chosen. This blog gives my views and background information on the local, state, and national political scenes. My career in higher education was mainly in the areas of international studies, foreign languages, and student advising, most recently at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, from which I retired in 2006. I have lived in West Chester since 1986.
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1 Response to State of the Union, 2013, with focus on education

  1. Pingback: State of the Union, 2013, with focus on education | progressivenetwork

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