On this 50th day in office, President Obama made broad calls for improvements in education, but did not call for any specific legislative changes. His first presidential speech focused solely on education was long on rhetoric, but short on specifics on how he plans to shepherd reform.
The president did not propose any changes to the No Child Left Behind, a signature of the Bush administration, but rather said that the policy should be fully funded to "live up to it's name," a constant campaign trail refrain.
The president called for higher standards across the board –- for teachers, schools, and students -- but did not call for changes at the federal level, instead, pushing states to voluntarily standardize reforms.
"Today’s system of fifty different sets of benchmarks for academic success means 4th grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming, and getting the same grade," he said. "That is inexcusable, and that is why I am calling on states that are setting their standards far below where they ought to be to stop low-balling expectations for our kids."
The president said that children should spend more time in the classroom, adding that South Korean students spend more than a month longer in schools than those in the U.S. He joked that while longer school days may not be popular, especially with his own elementary school aged daughters, he said the extra time is needed to keep Americans competitive.
In addition to raising expectations for students, the president also said he expects more from the nation's teachers. Bad teachers should be fired, and good ones should be rewarded with more money, the president explained, though he did not provide specifics on how or who would make such determinations.
As he did in his address to Congress, the president laid out his goal of making America the country with the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. He said he will do that in part by refocusing student aid programs, including increasing Pell grants with inflation each year, and simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
The president called for the lifting of caps on the number of allowable charter schools, wherever such caps are in place.
“That isn’t good for our children, our economy, or our country,” Obama said of some state’s caps.
“Of course, any expansion of charter schools must not result in the spread of mediocrity, but in the advancement of excellence. That will require states adopting both a rigorous selection and review process to ensure that a charter school’s autonomy is coupled with greater accountability –- as well as a strategy.”
The president concluded by speaking to the importance of personal responsibility. He called on students to stay in school, and on parents and teachers to provide the support they need to do that.
"I truly believe that if I do my part and you, the American people, do yours, then we will emerge from this crisis a stronger nation and pass the dream of our founding on to posterity, ever safer than before," he said.
-- Yunji de Nies and Sunlen Miller