In last night's address to the joint session of Congress, President Obama said:
The third challenge we must address is the urgent need to expand the promise of education in America.
In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity - it is a pre-requisite.
Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. And half of the students who begin college never finish.
This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow. That is why it will be the goal of this administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education - from the day they are born to the day they begin a career.
Already, we have made an historic investment in education through the economic recovery plan. We have dramatically expanded early childhood education and will continue to improve its quality, because we know that the most formative learning comes in those first years of life. We have made college affordable for nearly seven million more students. And we have provided the resources necessary to prevent painful cuts and teacher layoffs that would set back our children's progress.
But we know that our schools don't just need more resources. They need more reform. That is why this budget creates new incentives for teacher performance; pathways for advancement, and rewards for success. We'll invest in innovative programs that are already helping schools meet high standards and close achievement gaps. And we will expand our commitment to charter schools.
It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make this system work. But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country - and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
I know that the price of tuition is higher than ever, which is why if you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure that you can afford a higher education. And to encourage a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations, I ask this Congress to send me the bipartisan legislation that bears the name of Senator Orrin Hatch as well as an American who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country - Senator Edward Kennedy.
These education policies will open the doors of opportunity for our children. But it is up to us to ensure they walk through them. In the end, there is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent/teacher conferences, or help with homework after dinner, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, and read to their child. I speak to you not just as a President, but as a father when I say that responsibility for our children's education must begin at home.
I'm generally heartened by these remarks, but of course, I have some thoughts of my own to add.
First, I'm in agreement that education ought not to be a "frill" that is only available to those who are already economically privileged. The reality is that the employment landscape in the U.S. affords vastly fewer choices to people without high school diplomas than it does to high school graduates, and fewer choices to high school graduates than to college graduates. The chances of being able to earn a living wage seem more tightly linked to one's level of educational attainment than they used to be. If we pretend that this isn't the case, especially around kids at risk of dropping out of high school, we're not doing anyone any favors.
But, I think it's worth examining the extent to which the expanding "credentialism" is driven by what is necessary to perform particular jobs well, and the extent to which it might be driven by other forces. A particular degree, diploma, or certificate may be suggestive of a set of skills and competencies, but there are other ways people develop skills and competencies besides formal education (and, of course, there are people who have gone through the formal education and still failed to develop particular skills and competencies). From the employer's point of view, it is quicker and easier to verify the level of formal education of a job applicant than to verify what skills and competencies she actually possesses, but this easy way out is why there's a market for fake diplomas.
The flip side of the worry that there are people with the skills to do the jobs who don't have a chance at those jobs for want of a piece of paper is my worry that we consider higher education only of value in the context of job training. I've noted before that education ought to provide preparation for human flourishing more broadly. At a moment in U.S. history when it would be good for us to look beyond our own individual economic interests in order to come up with ways to help our economy, our environment, and our society as a whole, encouraging people to give serious thought to what human flourishing might involve seems more strategic than indulgent. My sense is that President Obama is sympathetic to this viewpoint -- his language certainly suggests that the talents of every American are to be valued for more than just their ability to plug in to a particular job-slot. I just hope we can manage to keep entertaining the notion that things like education which have economic value also have a value that is deeper and harder to quantify.
Improving high school graduation rates is a commendable goal. I trust that, to achieve this goal, the Obama administration will be taking a close look at the features of No Child Left Behind that might create incentives for schools to let struggling students leave rather than figuring out how to help these students succeed. I suspect that this re-examination will point to a need to take account of special challenges faced in some school district (including high proportions of students who are English language learners), and that some of the more punitive responses to "failing schools" will need to be replaced with responses that support the schools in their efforts to educate their student populations.
Indeed, in considering what works and what doesn't in education, I do hope the education wonks in the Obama administration will keep a close eye on the explosion of assessment (especially in higher education) and the concomitant growth of the administrative class (whose members tend to draw high salaries while not doing much in the way of actually teaching students or evaluating student work). At the very least, imposing a great deal of assessment whose educational efficacy has not itself been assessed should be viewed as a bad way to invest scarce education dollars.
If education is a big commitment of the Obama administration, then we should expect that education dollars will become more plentiful. Indeed, if every adult American takes seriously President Obama's call to attain at least a year of higher education or career training, big steps will be needed to reverse the cuts to higher education made in state budgets in response to the economic crisis. Without resources, we can't educate people, and public university and community college systems are arguably some of the most affordable ways to deliver education. Taking those systems out of crisis mode, and doing it soon, will go a long way toward making attainable the president's goal for America to produce the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
Finally, I very much agree with President Obama's assertion that it is not just teachers, but also those raising kids, who bear special responsibility to help those kids access and value their educational opportunities. Really, I'm on board with this. But living up to this aspiration would be easier in a world where employers understood that their employees also have real and important responsibilities at home, and where employers accommodate such issues of work-life balance gladly, rather than grudgingly or not at all.