This from the New York Times:
There was an impressive breadth of knowledge and a welcome dose of candor in President Obama’s first big speech on education, in which he served up an informed analysis of the educational system from top to bottom. What really mattered was that Mr. Obama did not wring his hands or speak in abstract about states that have failed to raise their educational standards. Instead, he made it clear that he was not afraid to embarrass the laggards — by naming them — and that he would use a $100 billion education stimulus fund to create the changes the country so desperately needs.
Mr. Obama signaled that he would take the case for reform directly to the voters, instead of limiting the discussion to mandarins, lobbyists and specialists huddled in Washington. Unlike his predecessor, who promised to leave no child behind but did not deliver, this president is clearly ready to use his political clout on education.
Mr. Obama spoke in terms that everyone could understand when he noted that only a third of 13- and 14-year-olds read as well as they should and that this country’s curriculum for eighth graders is two full years behind other top-performing nations. Part of the problem, he said, is that this nation’s schools have recently been engaged in “a race to the bottom” — most states have adopted abysmally low standards and weak tests so that students who are performing poorly in objective terms can look like high achievers come test time.
The nation has a patchwork of standards that vary widely from state to state and a system under which he said “fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming — and they’re getting the same grade.” In addition, Mr. Obama said, several states have standards so low that students could end up on par with the bottom 40 percent of students around the globe.
This is a recipe for economic disaster. Mr. Obama and Arne Duncan, the education secretary, have rightly made clear that states that draw money from the stimulus fund will have to create sorely needed data collection systems that show how students are performing over time. They will also need to raise standards and replace weak, fill-in-the-bubble tests with sophisticated examinations that better measure problem-solving and critical thinking.
Mr. Obama understands that standards and tests alone won’t solve this problem. He also called for incentive pay for teachers who work in shortage areas like math and science and merit pay for teachers who are shown to produce the largest achievement gains over time. At the same time, the president called for removing underperforming teachers from the classroom.
In an effort to broaden innovation, the president called for lifting state and city caps on charter schools. This could be a good thing, but only if the new charter schools are run by groups with a proven record of excellence. Once charter schools have opened, it becomes politically difficult to close them, even in cases where they are bad or worse than their traditional counterparts.
The stimulus package can jump-start the reforms that Mr. Obama laid out in his speech. But Congress will need to broaden and sustain those reforms in the upcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. Only Congress can fully replace the race to the bottom with a race to the top.