This is part six of a nine-part series by the entire Pocket Full of Liberty staff focused on President Obama’s specific failures during his time in office.
Barack Obama campaigned heavily on big education issues. During the 2008 campaign and his first term, President Obama repeatedly outlined his views and goals on education. Once in the White House, he set his sights on reforming and improving primary and secondary schooling (K-12) as well as higher (college) education. His stated view is that “education is the surest path to the middle class.”
Addressing Obama’s report card on his educational goals would require several blog posts. So, for this article, we’ll focus on early learning, secondary training, and higher education.
- Early Education (K-6)
President Obama has pushed to establish universal preschool via the Head Start program. Head Start is the $8 billion per year educational program intended to enhance learning for underprivileged preschoolers. Nearly $40 billion dollars has already been invested in Head Start with little effect and Obama wants to allot more federal dollars in a useless program.
“Useless? Says who?” The Department of Health and Human Services.
DHHS’ multi-year study found that by 3rd grade there is no significant difference or advantage for kids who participated in Head Start. Despite the findings of this “ambitious and methodologically rigorous study,” the President continued to push his original agenda. In May, he vowed that early education would be expanded with a proposed $75 billion investment:
“Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.”
While the President’s intentions might appear noble, he failed to practically implement his plan. And the scientific facts show that federally-funded early education programs do not make children more prepared for school.
- Secondary Training (Grades 7-12)
In 2008, Obama pledged to reform the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative, a bipartisan effort championed by late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH), Representative George Miller (D-CA), and Representative John Boehner (R-OH), and passed into law by President George W Bush. NCLB was supposed to hold schools accountable for teaching basic concepts in reading, math, and writing, which would be evaluated by testing. Schools – and teachers — that failed to meet these standards, based on student test scores, would face losing federal funding.
After only a few years of enactment, most schools were unable to meet the NCLB standards. So what did President Obama do? To prevent schools from losing funding, he offered “waivers,” protecting schools from NCLB’s “punitive measures.” Obama eschewed “overall performance metrics,” opting for “other measures of growth and improvement.” The problem is that no one is clear on what these “other measures” are. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tried to explain:
States receiving waivers will evaluate teachers by other means besides the student achievement tests. Other indicators will include the number of graduates enrolled in college and reviews of teachers by students, principals, and other teachers….
Alas, these “metrics” do not define specific outcomes of student learning or teacher performance. In fact, recent statistics indicate that 20% of incoming college freshman at four-year colleges and over 50% of students at two-year colleges must enroll in remedial courses because they are unprepared for college.
Furthermore, SAT scores have not risen in almost a decade, despite investments in hiring more teachers and massaging curriculum requirements. Reading and writing scores have dropped while math scores have essentially stayed level.
Again, here is the theme that defines much of the Obama administration — plenty of ideas but few practical applications for implementation. NCLB has not served our educational system well, but neither have Obama’s waivers. Instead of articulating a clearer picture of student outcomes and substantial measurements for success, Obama has essentially issued “get out of jail free” cards, letting schools off the hook.
- College Education
The President has argued that getting a college education should be accessible to everyone and that tax credits, loans, and grants should help kids go to college. He increased the amount of Pell grants using stimulus funds, moving the program into unsustainable levels.
But college costs continue to rise — while over 50% of college graduates are jobless and in massive debt from school loans. Many of those who are employed are often in lower-paying jobs in fields that have nothing to do with their university degrees.
It’s clear that the student loan crisis escalated under President Obama’s watch. In July, student loan rates doubled to over 6% because Congress was unable negotiate a solution to keep rates low.
The problems with college education stem from several areas:
(1) Selection of major affects career outcomes.
STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors usually translate into higher paying jobs. Yet the numbers of students who choose STEM careers are decreasing. The President hopes to reverse this trend by establishing more science role models. Obama also announced a plan to create a STEM Master Teachers Corp in which 100,000 STEM educators will be recruited and elevated to prominence. Their mission will be to disseminate effective teaching to encourage students to pursue STEM careers.
Encouraging students, especially in under-represented groups, to choose STEM careers is a worthy idea — but creating an “elite corp of teachers” might only elevate the STEM mystique. The focus might be better placed on finding way to make STEM more commonplace in society, conversation, and pop culture. Finally, with dwindling funds to schools, it’s unclear where the money will come from to pay these new STEM teachers.
(2) Student Loan Debt is high, over $1 trillion.
Student loan debt is the only debt that rose during the recession and is second only to mortgages. With the rising costs of college (see below) and the inability of graduates to find well-paying jobs, the student loan situation is in crisis. The President repeatedly called on both universities and Congress to fix this problem. Congress finally arrived at a compromise, and one that the President supports — linking student loan rates to the financial markets.
It’s not a perfect solution, because if the economy improves then so will interest rates. Ultimately, Obama has entrenched government –- and the taxpayer –- into the student loan business when one could argue (and Heritage does so here) that it should not be there in the first place.
(3) College is expensive.
President Obama has called for reining in the costs required to attend university. He, and others, have put the blame squarely on the rising price of tuition. The President has proposed that in lieu of traditional education, students should have the opportunity to enroll in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
“Now, some colleges are testing new approaches to shorten the path to a degree or blending teaching with online learning to help students master material and earn credits in less time.”
Theoretically these large courses permit more students to get an education and minimize the burden of paying faculty to teach only a few courses. MOOCs require just as much faculty involvement as classroom courses. Lectures are prepared months ahead of time and translated into online formats. Usually two or more faculty and several staff members are involved in this prep work. Yes, MOOCs may increase educational access for the masses — but they don’t actually minimize faculty and staff burden, as the President and other outlets believe.
Finally, the President has vowed to encourage college presidents to find ways to lower tuition.
Ironic that he would call on the very people who are pulling in enormous salaries that are supported by tuition. Perhaps President Obama should target the increasingly outrageous amenities offered by universities to woo students to their campuses or the increasing numbers of university administrators.
The student to faculty ratio (15:1) has remained consistent for about 30 years. However, the student to administrator ratio has gone from 84:1 in 1975 to 68:1 in 2005. This means that universities are gaining more and more administrators who are paid, at least partially, from tuition costs.
Colleges argue that administration expansion is due to federal and state mandates for record-keeping, licensure, and accreditation. In other words, government is playing a role in the expansion of university administration that is propelling tuition costs skyward.
Now has Mr. President tackled this truth?
Obama and his political party advocate bigger government, so it is little surprise that the President has not taken on the leviathan of academic administration. Asking universities to “trim the fat” by downsizing “support services” and re-evaluating president, chancellor, provost, and sports coaches salaries — and holding these individuals accountable for their spending — would be a more realistic way to truly reform tuition costs.
The bottom line is that education in America needs reform.
But the answers — as offered by President Obama — are avoiding the implementation of defined measures of success, throwing more money at the problem, or railing at the salaries of instructional staff.
President Obama, probably even more than most Presidents before him, has had a chance to make his mark on education reform. But his lack of practical implementation, combined with his inability to identify the root problems in the US education system, has made him just another leader who sowed seeds among thorns.