The jobs of the new economy will require higher-order skills such as “problem solving” and “critical thinking,” President Obama said during his State of the Union address Jan. 28.
He also said efforts are under way to connect more schools and students to broadband internet service “without adding a dime to the deficit.”
In a wide-ranging speech that lasted 65 minutes, Obama discussed these and other education priorities in the context of creating more economic opportunities for all Americans.
Obama’s speech started on a high note for educators, as his very first statement referred to a teacher.
“Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades,” he said.
However, after this promising start, in the end the president offered no new policy directives related to education. Instead, he discussed the need to act on measures he has already advocated, such as expanding preschool education and connecting more students to high-speed internet access.
“In this rapidly-changing economy, we have to make sure that every American has the skills to fill those jobs,” the president said. He called for more “on-the-job training” and said he wanted to connect businesses with community colleges to design training programs to fill their specific needs.
But “it’s not enough to train today’s workforce,” Obama said. “We also have to prepare tomorrow’s workforce, by guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education.”
Obama said his signature education program, Race to the Top, has “helped states raise expectations and performance.” Acknowledging that the jobs of the future will demand more than rote memorization, he challenged educators and policy makers to find “new ways to measure how well our kids think, not how well they can fill in a bubble on a test.”
In last year’s State of the Union address, Obama asked Congress to help make high-quality preschool available to all four-year-olds. Although the 2014 budget that lawmakers passed earlier this month increased Head Start funding by $1 billion, and included $250 million for another round of Race to the Top Early Learning grants, it failed to include $750 million in funding that Obama had requested for states to expand preschool education.
“As a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight,” Obama said. “But in the meantime, 30 states have raised pre-K funding on their own. They know we can’t wait.”
The president also referred to his ConnectED program to bring broadband internet access to 99 percent of the nation’s students within the next five years.
“Tonight, I can announce that with the support of the FCC and companies like Apple, Microsoft, Sprint, and Verizon, we’ve got a down payment to start connecting more than 15,000 schools and 20 million students over the next two years, without adding a dime to the deficit,” he said.
(Next page: Reaction to Obama’s speech)
Economic opportunity for all Americans was a key theme throughout Obama’s speech.
“Americans overwhelmingly agree that no one who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty,” he said. “Today the federal minimum wage is worth 20 percent less” than during the Reagan years—so it’s time to “give America a raise.”
He also chided Congress for its partisan gridlock, noting that when debate over the size of our government threatens its very ability to function, “we are not doing right by the American people.”
In a recap posted to the Huffington Post, education reporter Joy Resmovits observed that Obama’s speech “ran short on fresh education policy ideas, unlike in previous years.”
“Instead of announcing new initiatives, Obama mostly expanded on proposals he announced during and since last year’s State of the Union address, tying them to his theme of fighting poverty and pushing the country forward despite legislative inaction,” Resmovits wrote.
Educators discussed Obama’s speech live on Twitter using the hashtag #edSOTU. Communications consultant Linda Perlstein (@lindaperlstein) tweeted that “Obama has been using ‘bubble tests’ as a slur since [the] 2008 campaign; would anyone say kids are taking fewer of them since then?”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten released a statement that read, in part, “By using the first words of his address to honor the dedication of teachers, the president highlighted the importance of educators and our schools in helping our children achieve their dreams. We cannot rest until we fully re-establish the steps on the ladder to opportunity and give working families a shot at the American dream. The president has heard the American people, and we now must heed his call for action.”
“Republicans have plans to close the gap, plans that focus on jobs first without more spending, government bailouts, and red tape,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., in the Republicans’ televised response to the president’s speech. “We hope the president will join us in a year of real action by empowering people, not making their lives harder with unprecedented spending, higher taxes, and fewer jobs.”
The full text of Obama’s speech is available here.
(Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.)