Obama: “Strengthening STEM education is vital to preparing our students" for the 21st-century economy. (AP photo)
Barely into the new school year, President Barack Obama issued a tough-love message to students and teachers on Sept. 27: Their year in the classroom should be longer, and poorly performing teachers should get out. Separately, the president also announced a goal of recruiting 10,000 teachers over the next two years in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
American students are falling behind some of their foreign counterparts, especially in math and science, and that’s got to change, Obama said. Seeking to revive a sense of urgency that education reform might have lost amid the recession’s focus on the economy, Obama declared that the future of the country is at stake.
“Whether jobs are created here, high-end jobs that support families and support the future of the American people, is going to depend on whether or not we can do something about these schools,” the president said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show.
U.S. schools through high school offer an average of 180 instruction days per year, according to the Education Commission of the States (ECS), compared with an average of 197 days for lower grades and 196 days for upper grades in countries with the best student achievement levels, such as Japan, South Korea, Germany, and New Zealand.
“That month makes a difference,” the president said. “It means that kids are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer. It’s especially severe for poorer kids who may not see as many books in the house during the summers, [and] aren’t getting as many educational opportunities.”
Obama said teachers and their profession should be more highly honored—as in China and some other countries, he said—and he said he wants to work with the teachers’ unions. But he also said that unions should not defend a status quo in which one-third of children are dropping out. He challenged them not to be resistant to change.
And the president endorsed the firing of teachers who, once given the chance and the help to improve, are still falling short.
“We have got to identify teachers who are doing well. Teachers who are not doing well, we have got to give them the support and the training to do well. And if some teachers [still] aren’t doing a good job, they’ve got to go,” Obama said.
They’re goals the president has articulated in the past, but his ability to see them realized is limited. States set the minimum length of school years, and although there has been experimentation in some places, there’s not been wholesale change since Obama issued the same challenge for more classroom time at the start of the past school year.
One issue is money, and although the president said that lengthening school years would be “money well spent,” that doesn’t mean cash-strapped states and districts can afford it.