Blog: The Educated Reporter

Obama and Romney: Education Nation in Context

Education Writers Association will bring you articles from multiple sources that help contextualize the upcoming Education Nation interviews with the two presidential candidates. President Barack Obama is slated to speak first at 10:25am EST. Gov. Romney will follow at 11:20am EST.

You’ll find Obama’s remarks on this page. For a summary and annotation of Romney’s appearance at Education Nation, click here. 

President Obama’s Education Nation Interview with Savannah Guthrie

Are Democrats no longer kowtowing to the unions as a result of the teachers’ strike in Chicago, Guthrie asks?

The president says no, and explains both sides had reasons to to be unhappy. He notes he supports pay for performance and charter schools, an admittedly unpopular position with the unions. 

Here are a few news articles that crystallize the political consequences of the strike and the president’s support for school choice and reform models:

  • “Organized labor has historically been one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies. But the fight underway in Chicago illustrates how that dynamic is changing.” (NBC New York)
  • Some Democrats see vouchers as offering an escape hatch for students who would otherwise be forced to stay in academically struggling public schools. Others say publicly funded private school scholarships provide opportunities for students to obtain a religious education they otherwise could not afford. (Education Week)
  • Unions have also sometimes found themselves at odds with their traditional allies in the Democratic Party. When Vice President Biden addressed the American Federation of Teachers in July, some members of the Chicago union held up signs protesting Obama administration education policies.” (NPR)

He touted his Race to the Top initiative, especially as it pertains to moving beyond the teach-to-the-test limitations of No Child Left Behind, a federal education policy that he nonetheless congratulated former President George W. Bush for spearheading. 

There is limited evidence merit pay for teachers, a staple of Race to the Top, is effective:

  • “The U.S. Department of Education, in part through its Race to the Top competition, has pushed states to find ways to reward teachers for their performance in an effort to make teaching careers more attractive and retain those who are most effective” (Hechinger Report)
  • There’s very good evidence that teacher quality matters a lot in terms of student performance in school and success later on in life.” (Washington Post’s Wonk Book)

Guthrie also asked the president why the U.S. lags behind other leading countries on PISA, an international test that gauges student knowledge in mathematics, science, and language arts, while the U.S. outspends those countries on education. Why is the U.S. not getting its money’s worth, Guthrie asked. 

  • EWA’s Story Starter on standards and assessments helps explain some of the lag witnessed: “For example, on the 2009 PISA tests, the gap in performance between rich and poor students in the United States was among the highest of all participating nations, while the countries with the top scores overall  had smaller performance gaps between their students of different income levels. (The U.S. child poverty rate is twice that of the OECD average.)” (EWA’s Story Starter)

Obama references poverty playing a large factor in the U.S. falling behind other countries on PISA. He also mentions the effect the recession has had on the teacher force. He cites a White House study that found 300,000 teachers were laid off during the recession. The result has been an increase in class sizes: 

  • “The study concluded that 300,000 education jobs have been lost since the official end of the recession in 2009 and that student-to-teacher ratios have increased by 4.6 percent from 2008 to 2010 and are on track to grow more.” (AP)

On higher education, the conversation circled around the increasing cost of earning a degree. While he questions the merit in constructing “country club” level workout facilities and fine dining options, those luxury updates have not contributed to a substantial jump in college costs. But since the early 1990s, the state share of providing financial support to colleges has gone down, with the added expenses being passed on to the students and other agencies:

  • “Higher education certainly took a hit during the economic downturn. In 1990, states spent on average 15 percent of their general funds on higher-ed. In 2009 that figure was closer to 12 percent, meaning more students pay out of pocket or takeout loans in a tough economy, according to Dr. Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers. For 2012, state spending on higher education is down 7.6 percent, he said, with the stimulus dollars exhausted.” (EdMedia Commons)

The president argued his administration has provided aid to students who have seen tuition prices jump. Obama said he expanded Pell Grants and intimated other efforts to assist students. 

On Pell, the president has expanded funding but narrowed eligibility:

But his much touted Income Based Repayment has been slow to take off, leading the administration to go on a marketing offensive to remind college debt holders they can pay back their loans on a graduated program based on their current incomes:

  • “In other words, IBR is a much more reasonable option for many borrowers who are struggling to make monthly loan payments. Yet even though the Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimates that more than 5 million student-loan borrowers currently have at least one loan that is past due, as of February, only 630,000 people were enrolled in IBR.” (Time)
  • “Although the U.S. Department of Education program is two years old, so far only about 600,000 borrowers have enrolled. That’s disappointing, given that federal officials estimate that far more of the 36 million borrowers who owe $1 trillion plus in federal loans could qualify for this program.” (Chicago Tribune) 

Guthrie asked the president if he has seen efforts by institutions to drive down the cost of higher education, reminding Obama he warned universities during a State of the Union address that the ball is in their court to address the steep price tag for getting a degree. Obama stressed the progress universities are making in rolling out more online learning courses and “tele-education” models.

  • This is the first time a university in the United States has offered academic credit for a Udacity course, although several universities in Austria and Germany already do. The course, “Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine,” teaches basic computer-science skills by having students build a Web search engine similar to Google. Students enrolled in the free, online course also learn the basics of the programming language Python. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
  • The market for online higher education aimed at adults may be reaching maturity, according to a new report from Eduventures. And without a better-defined product, the report’s author said online learning faces a risk of petering out and being little more than a back-up alternative to on-campus education for students. (Inside Higher Ed)
  • “As the demand for online learning continues to grow, another 17 prominent universities Wednesday joined Coursera, a company that hosts free Internet-based college classes.The new additions… give the for-profit company a larger footprint in the increasingly crowded market for the so-called “massive, open online courses.” (The Wall Street Journal)

The president states community colleges have been hurt, too, during the recession. He calls them under-utilized, however, and a cost-effective  route to achieving one’s post-secondary goals. Still, he has struggled to push for additional community college funding: 

  • “The Obama administration sought to include a $10 billion community college package in its health care overhaul legislation in 2010, called the American Graduation Initiative (AGI), but the plan was scrapped in favor of a smaller $2 billion fund for job placement.” (EdMedia Commons) 
  • “The U.S. Department of Labor announced Wednesday more than $500 million in grants to nearly 300 community colleges and universities -– including 17 schools in California -– for job training.
    The grants are a part of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training initiative, an Obama administration program designed to promote skills development and employment opportunities among students.” (Los Angeles Times)

Guthrie refers to sticker price shock, but the president reminds her that institutional aid can drive down the cost burden for students. To follow up, Obama also touted his administration’s shopper sheet for colleges and universities. It helps kids determine what their financial burdens will be after graduation. What about those who do not finish college?

  • “At private, nonprofit four-year colleges, the most recent College Board annual survey reported published tuition and fees averaged $27,293. That’s expensive, to be sure. But fewer people realize full-time students at those schools receive grant aid and tax breaks totaling on average $16,000. The average net cost of attending private colleges has actually declined over the last five years.” (The Huffington Post) 
  • “The sticker price has gone way up (no surprise). But, because the value of grants and scholarships has also grown, average net price has grown much more slowly. In fact, in the past five years, average net price at private colleges has actually fallen. Of course, these are just averages, and there’s huge variation.” (NPR)
  • Called the Shopping Sheet, it will list or lead to information on the loans, grants, expected earnings through work-study programs, institution student-loan default and delinquency rates, and a slew of other cost-related details that the White House says will allow families to make better decisions on which school a student should attend.” (EdBeat.net) 

Guthrie asked the president what is stopping him from approaching education reform in a way that’s similar to his Race to the Top programs. She notes education has been reformed positively at one percent of the federal budget through RTT. He cites congressional resistance and various formula funds that politicians rely on to send money to their districts as some of the reasons RTT has been slow to expand. 

Still, some RTT programs lack popularity, while others have ushered in reforms that have created discord among state and local policy leaders:

  • Almost two years into the federal Race to the Top program, states are spending their shares of the $4 billion prize at a snail’s pace—a reflection of the challenges the 12 winners face as they try to get ambitious education improvement plans off the ground.” (Education Week)
  • Nearly 900 school districts across the nation intend to apply for a slice of close to $400 million in grants that theU.S. Education Department will distribute in support of local initiatives that help close achievement gaps and prepare students for college and a career.” (AP)

Obama tried to downplay the federal government’s effect on public education, saying it accounts for ten percent of all education funding (recently it’s been closer to 12 percent). Curious to learn how much of your district’s spending comes from federal sources, take a look at this: 

  • “More than 1,500 school systems depend on federal funding for more than 20 percent of their annual revenue based on 2010 data” (EdMedia Commons)


Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Contact Emily Richmond. Follow her on Twitter @EWAEmily.

Read other Educated Reporter articles.