In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the National Urban League, President Obama gave a speech this morning addressing education reform. He opened his remarks by acknowledging the advances that the National Urban League has forged in its 100-year existence.
He then spoke about the criticisms he has faced for not focusing his energies solely on economic issues. “Education is an economic issue, if not the economic issue of our time,” said Obama, although “we won’t see results overnight.” He said that the current status quo is leading to a decline of the country’s educational standards, and that educational reforms are needed to catch up to other countries. He cited that the US has dropped from the number one country with the most college graduates to number 12.
He discussed the changes needed to make higher education more accessible. He said that the education gap between minority and white students is leading to a widening income gap. Some the reforms have already been made, like making more financial aid available to students in the form of Pell Grants and federal loans. Obama also said that more effort needed to be invested in strengthening community colleges, which he described as “great undervalued assets.”
Improving higher education, however, is not the only concern. For many students, education barriers come much earlier. Obama described many students as victims of low expectations as early as elementary school. His discussed his Race to the Top program, including some of the criticisms it has faced. He began by stating that some of these criticisms reflect a resistance to change. Also, it has been said that Race to the Top does not do enough for black and Hispanic students, but Obama countered this by saying that changing the status quo will benefit everyone. He particularly pointed to the fact that Race to the Top incentivizes states to deal with schools that are struggling the most. Obama further restated his continuing support for teachers. He wants to provide more support for teachers and higher salaries, but did not back down from his stance that there needs to be greater teacher accountability and higher standards.
Obama has also come under some heat for his vocal support of charter schools, which are perceived as diverting funds from other public schools within a district. Four billion dollars are to be devoted to turning around low performing schools, and in some cases this will mean starting charters schools. The president emphasized that he wants districts to try new tactics. He pointed to examples where charter schools not only lead to better academic results, but also better prepared students for college and lead to less in-school violence. “None of this should be controversial.”
Obama ended the address with a message to parents and teachers. He said that in order for students to achieve real academic success, parents will have to focus more on their children’s educations and that students themselves must be willing to work hard to better their own futures.