With the whole world watching, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama made history Nov. 4 by becoming the first African-American elected as president of the United States. Now, as he prepares to take office Jan. 20 amid a host of steep challenges, school leaders will be watching to see how education fits in with his priorities.

Facing all these challenges won’t be easy, Obama acknowledged in his victory speech. But it had to be encouraging for educators to hear him mention college affordability and new school construction as he listed some of these key hurdles.

"Even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime–two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century," Obama said before a huge crowd of more than 100,000 supporters in Chicago. "Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they’ll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor’s bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair."

Education was a key theme for Obama on the campaign trail, joining health care and energy independence as the centerpieces of his domestic agenda. He has called for better pay for teachers, more funding for early childhood education, and a $4,000 tax credit for college tuition, among other proposals.

Citing the need to meet rising global challenges, Obama also says he wants more investment in educational technology.

"While technology has transformed just about every aspect of our lives–from the way we travel, to the way we communicate, to the way we look after our health–one of the places where we’ve failed to seize its full potential is in the classroom," he said in a speech earlier this year. He has proposed creating a $500 million matching Technology Investment Fund that would build on existing federal ed-tech programs to help ensure that technology is fully integrated throughout U.S. schools. (See "Obama calls for ed-tech investment.")

But whether he’ll be able to meet these goals early on in his presidency, if at all, remains to be seen. The country faces a $10 trillion national debt, the worst economy since the Great Depression, and several other priorities to tackle.

Still, Obama will enter the White House with a solid mandate for change–and a Democratic Congress to support his agenda.

Obama won 52 percent of the popular vote, with his Republican challenger, Sen. John McCain, tallying 47 percent. The margin in the Electoral College wasn’t nearly as close; as of press time, Obama had 349 electoral votes and McCain had 162, with Missouri and North Carolina still in doubt.

By comparison, President Bush won the White House twice–and never tallied more than 286 electoral votes.

Although Democrats solidified their majority in both the House and the Senate, they fell a few seats short of the 60 required to make a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Ed-tech advocacy groups said they look forward to working with Obama to improve the nation’s schools and lead instruction into the 21st century.

"We thank President-elect Obama for supporting online learning, virtual schools, and educational technology during the campaign … and look forward to working with him on implementing them," said Susan Patrick, chief executive of the North American Council for Online Learning.

"CoSN congratulates President-elect Obama on his historic victory," said Keith Krueger, CEO of the Consortium for School Networking. "Over the past eight years, the United States has unfortunately had a very narrow perspective on the role technological tools can play in improving education and maximizing student achievement, and [federal officials] have foolishly slashed federal funding for education technology. Today, we welcome a new direction."

Krueger continued: "Throughout this campaign, candidate Obama has demonstrated a fundamental grasp of the importance of technology and 21st-century skills to transforming education. In addition, he has committed to supporting the e-Rate program, and particularly the importance of broadband connections in schools. We look forward to working with his incoming administration to develop U.S. education policies that will enhance teaching and learning and provide our children with the skills required for success in the 21st century."

"Everyone expects the new administration to focus on our economic crisis," said Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. "However, this cannot be adequately done without focusing on America’s competitiveness. Central to this important work is the ability of Americans to effectively compete in the new global economy. While the country’s education system must focus on infusing 21st-century skills into K-12 education, the new administration must help every American obtain the … skills they need to be successful 21st-century citizens."

Links:

North American Council for Online Learning

Consortium for School Networking

Partnership for 21st Century Skills

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the “ Creating the 21 st Century Classroom ”resource center. Preparing today’s youth to succeed in the digital economy requires a new kind of teaching and learning. Skills such as global literacy, computer literacy, problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and innovation have become critical in today’s increasingly interconnected workforce and society–and technology is the catalyst for bringing these changes into the classroom. Go to Creating-the-21st-century-classroom