“In today’s global economy, a high-quality education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity,” Obama says—”it is a prerequisite to success.”

(Editor’s note: This article is adapted from speeches and text on the White House website.)

To prepare Americans for the jobs of the future and help restore middle-class security, we have to out-educate the world—and that starts with a strong school system.

In today’s global economy, a high-quality education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity—it is a prerequisite to success. Because economic progress and educational achievement are inextricably linked, educating every American student to graduate from high school prepared for college and for a career is a national imperative.

To create an economy built to last, we need to provide every child with a complete and competitive education that will enable him or her to succeed in a global economy based on knowledge and innovation. Toward this end, I’ve advanced reforms around four key objectives: 

• Higher standards and better assessments that will prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace.

• Ambitious efforts to recruit, prepare, develop, and advance effective teachers and principals, especially in the classrooms where they are most needed.

• Smarter data systems to measure student growth and success, and help educators improve instruction.

• New attention and a national effort to turn around our lowest-achieving schools.

Since taking office, my administration has designed and implemented several initiatives to strengthen public education for students in every community nationwide. Here’s what we’ve already achieved, and what I hope to achieve in the next four years.

Strengthening the teaching profession

We’ve taken several steps to support teachers, by recruiting top talent to the profession, increasing accountability of teacher preparation programs, supporting the rethinking of traditional compensation and advancement models, promoting educator collaboration, and re-engaging communities in their schools.

For instance, we launched the RESPECT Project, which stands for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching, with the goal of working with teachers, school and district leaders, teachers’ associations and unions, and state and national education organizations to spark a dialogue that results in strong policy and a sustainable transformation of the teaching profession. To implement the principles of the RESPECT Project, I’ve proposed a new $5 billion grant program to support states and districts that commit to pursuing bold reforms at every stage of the teaching profession.

Developing effective evaluation and support systems has been a central part of my administration’s work to strengthen the teaching profession. Our ESEA reauthorization proposal, Race to the Top initiative, School Improvement Grant program, and the Teacher Incentive Fund all support the development of strong systems of educator evaluation and support. Once fair, rigorous evaluations for teachers and school leaders are in place, they can serve as a foundation for connecting educator performance with differentiated professional development, compensation, and career advancement.

To support the preparation and development of successful teachers, we’ve also proposed setting aside 25 percent of Title II funds under No Child Left Behind (roughly $600 million) to improve teacher and school leader recruitment, preparation, and professional development. The set-aside would support programs that recruit talented candidates into the teaching profession and provide them with rigorous training to prepare them for high-need schools. It also would support programs that recruit and train principals and school leadership teams to turn around the lowest performing schools.

America cannot build a world-class education system without teachers in our classrooms. But cuts to education budgets nationwide put education jobs at risk. These cuts force states and districts into difficult decisions, including laying off teachers and other school personnel, overcrowding classrooms, reducing preschool and kindergarten programs, or even shortening the school week and year.

That’s why I’ve provided funding to keep hundreds of thousands of teachers on the job over the past three years, and I’ve pushed to prevent further layoffs from taking place. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act enabled states and schools districts to keep approximately 300,000 educators on the job in the face of severe budget cuts caused by the recession. In 2010, I signed the Education Jobs Bill into law, giving states $10 billion in emergency funding to keep approximately 130,000 more educators in the classroom. I’ve also proposed another $25 billion investment in the coming year to make sure we can keep more teachers in the classroom.

Spurring school reform

Race to the Top marked a historic moment in American education. This initiative offers bold incentives to states willing to spur systemic reform to improve teaching and learning in America’s schools. Race to the Top has ushered in significant change in our education system, particularly in raising standards and aligning policies and structures to the goal of college and career readiness. Race to the Top has helped drive states nationwide to pursue higher standards, improve teacher effectiveness, use data effectively in the classroom, and adopt new strategies to help struggling schools.

As states move forward with education reforms, some provisions of No Child Left Behind—the most current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is long overdue for reauthorization—stand in the way of their progress. Although NCLB started a national conversation about student achievement, unintended consequences of NCLB have reinforced the wrong behaviors in trying to strengthen public education. NCLB has created incentives for states to lower their standards; emphasized punishing failure over rewarding success; focused on absolute scores, rather than recognizing growth and progress; and prescribed a pass-fail, one-size-fits-all series of interventions for schools that miss their goals.

In March 2010, my administration sent Congress a “Blueprint for Reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” addressing the issues created by NCLB while pursuing high standards and closing the achievement gap. But because Congress has not acted to reauthorize ESEA, we’ve moved forward in giving states flexibility within the law—as authorized by provisions in the law itself—to pursue comprehensive plans to improve educational outcomes for all students, close achievement gaps, and improve the quality of teaching. To date, 33 states and the District of Columbia have received ESEA flexibility.

We’ve also taken steps to spark innovation and build on the success of innovative programs that are working in schools. The Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund supports research-based programs that help close achievement gaps and improve outcomes for high-need students. The i3 program invests in innovative practices in school districts, nonprofits, and institutions of higher education that are demonstrated to have an impact on improving student achievement, closing achievement gaps, decreasing dropout rates, increasing high school graduation rates, or increasing college enrollment and completion rates.

These grants allow educational innovation to expand and develop, working in partnership with the private sector and the philanthropic community to identify and document best practices that can be shared and taken to scale based on demonstrated success. To date, $800 million in funding has been provided to more than 70 grantees to develop, validate, and scale up innovative reforms, with $150 million more available in the 2012 competition.

Fortifying STEM education

I’ve called for improvements in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education to move America’s students to the top of the pack by enabling all students to learn deeply and think critically in science and math; expanding STEM education opportunities for students from all backgrounds; and building partnerships among educators, businesses, and community partners to support advances in STEM education.

Toward this end, my administration has prioritized STEM education in Race to the Top and the i3 Fund; improved the coordination of STEM education initiatives between the Department of Education and National Science Foundation; and recruited more than 100 industry partners to help boost STEM learning through the “Change the Equation” program.

We’ve also issued a national challenge to prepare 100,000 effective STEM teachers and have requested $80 million for a competition to support effective STEM teaching preparation programs. And, I’ve proposed the creation of a new, national STEM Master Teacher Corps comprised of some of the nation’s finest educators in STEM subjects. The STEM Master Teacher Corps will begin with 50 exceptional STEM teachers established in 50 sites and will be expanded over four years to reach 10,000 Master Teachers. These selected teachers will make a multi-year commitment to the Corps and, in exchange for their expertise, leadership, and service, will receive an annual stipend of up to $20,000 on top of their base salary. We plan to launch this Teacher Corps with $1 billion from the 2013 budget request currently before Congress.

Raising the bar for early learning

Expanding access to high-quality early childhood education is among the smartest investments we can make. Research has shown that the early years in a child’s life—when the human brain is forming—represent a critically important window of opportunity to develop a child’s full potential and shape key academic, social, and cognitive skills that determine a child’s success in school and in life.

Participation in high-quality early learning programs—like Head Start, public and private pre-kindergarten, and childcare—will give children from disadvantaged backgrounds a strong start and a foundation for success. These programs also generate a significant return on investment for society; numerous economic studies have documented a rate of return as high as 18 percent on the program investment each year because of a reduced need for spending on other services, such as remedial education, grade repetition, and special education, as well as increased productivity and earnings for these children as adults.

We’ve invested more than $600 million in the Race to the Top: Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC), a new competition that challenges states to transform their early learning systems with better coordination, clearer learning standards, and meaningful education and training for early educators. The goal is to make sure that more children, especially those with high needs, enter kindergarten ready to succeed.

Nearly 45 years after its inception, the Head Start program continues to be one of the best investments to help our neediest children get a strong start in school and in life. Nearly one million children under the age of five benefit from Head Start services each year through grants provided by the Department of Health and Human Services directly to community-based agencies across the country. The program makes it possible for the most vulnerable children in America to see doctors and dentists, obtain insurance, and receive immunizations against childhood diseases.

We’ve taken important steps to make Head Start services available to additional children. Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we invested $2.1 billion in Head Start and Early Head Start, expanding these programs to reach more than 61,000 additional children and families. We’ve also taken new steps to raise Head Start’s standards, focus on school readiness results, and promote accountability—including the launch of a new process designed to ensure that only the most capable and highest quality programs receive Head Start grants.