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Obama's education policy
Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis., applaud as President Barack Obama waves goodbye after giving his final State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016. Credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The President’s remarks about education were brief, largely promises to build on existing success. He highlighted five areas of concern: expanding early childhood education for all, improving high school graduation rates, attracting more American students into studying the sciences, recruiting and supporting more teachers, and making college more affordable.

The Hechinger Report took a closer look at those goals, delving into our own recent coverage of each.

Obama:  “ … together, we’ve increased early childhood education, lifted high school graduation rates to new highs, and boosted graduates in fields like engineering. In the coming years, we should build on that progress, by providing Pre-K for all, offering every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one, and we should recruit and support more great teachers for our kids.”

Expanding early childhood education is popular; it’s the cost that raises hackles. Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, told The Hechinger Report last month that giving every 4-year-old a free public education would cost more than $30 billion. There’d be scant political backing for that level of spending, so advocates promote “universal access,” in which the government pays for preschool for poor and some middle-class kids, while wealthier families pay their own way. The White House’s own plan proposes exactly that, while also encouraging the states to fund additional seats for 4-year-olds from middle-class families.

As for high school graduation rates, only recently has there been a uniform way of counting them, mandated by the federal government in 2011 and beginning that year. Since then, the national rate has risen to 81 percent from 79 percent in 2013 (the last year with complete numbers tallied). It ranges from 69 percent in Oregon to nearly 90 percent in Iowa. Last summer, the Hechinger Report compiled a map showing high school graduation rates by school district for every state.

Efforts to improve science, math and technology education have been uneven among the states. One major concern the President didn’t address was the vast gender and racial disparity in these fields. Girls make up 56 percent of all students taking Advanced Placement tests in high school, but just 18 percent of those taking computer science tests, according Richard Culatta, the just-departed head of the Education Department’s Technology Office — and in 12 states, zero students of color took the computer science Advanced Placement exam. “That’s an incredible problem that we need to solve,” Culatta said, as reported in Hechinger’s Blended Learning newsletter.

Teacher training is addressed in the Every Student Succeeds Act just passed by Congress and signed into law by Mr. Obama. It has provisions allowing states to set up new degree-granting academies for teachers, outside the traditional higher education systems, and encouraging the creation of residency programs, in which teacher recruits would be paired with veterans for a year of in-classroom training. Some experts worry that these state academies might in fact lower the standards for new teachers. Meanwhile, salaries continue to be an obstacle in the quest to recruit better teachers.

Obama:  “And we have to make college affordable for every American …  We’ve already reduced student loan payments to ten percent of a borrower’s income.  Now, we’ve got to actually cut the cost of college.  Providing two years of community college at no cost for every responsible student is one of the best ways to do that, and I’m going to keep fighting to get that started this year.”

The administration’s income-driven repayment plan (often called “pay as you earn”), in which students can pay back college loans as a fixed percentage of their future income, has proved popular, and has helped reduce the number of Americans who default on their loans. As for making community college free, federal Pell grants already pay much of the cost of community college for most students (up to $5,730 a year); some states supplement that. Less publicized are the many reasons students fail to take advantage of these grants, ranging from confusing application forms to ignorance of the rules or availability of grants to the part-time or in-school-then-out-awhile pace at which many low-income students attend community college. Technically, part-timers can get Pell grants, pro-rated by the number of classes they take, but in practice, it is hard for such students to get the financing they need. Cutting the actual cost of college is a far more ambitious and complicated undertaking — easy to call for, difficult to achieve.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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