President Obama gave a rare gift to college administrators and others in the higher education community in his State of the Union on Tuesday night, focusing his education policy proposals on the things they care about: job training, tuition, college enrollment, and partnerships with the business community.
It’s usually the other way around in the education world. Policymakers ignore higher education and spend the lion’s share of their time mulling how to educate the country’s younger kids. Even for high schools, the conversation is generally limited to graduation rates. Much of the debate about curriculum and basic educational standards is centered on the 8th grade and below.
Not so now. Obama’s education agenda is more closely linked than ever before with his economic agenda. To achieve the high-tech manufacturing base he envisions, it will be necessary to train hundreds of thousands of workers for skilled jobs that will require technical training and some college-level coursework. That’s a heavy lift in the current climate, in which about half of the students seeking an associates' degree require remedial training that they should have gotten in high school, according to Complete College America.
Last year, Obama devoted a substantial portion of his speech to K-12 education reform, offering the Education Department’s Race to the Top competitive grant program as the guiding principle for a long-overdue rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act. Nothing happened. In September, Obama shifted gears and announced a state waiver program that will keep save schools from the ‘failure’ label under the current law.
This year, Obama is keeping the focus on training. His most substantive K-12 proposal is about training teachers, creating career ladders, payment schemes based on merit, and robust evaluation systems. When it comes to No Child Left Behind, the law that governs how the K-12 system works, that rewrite may have to wait until next year.