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State of the Union Pushes for More Transparency

In his annual State of the Union Address Tuesday night, President Obama touched on a number of pressing education challenges. Speaking before a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., Obama used his platform to promote the ideas of universal preschools, innovative high schools, and affordability of higher education.

"The Best Investment"
Citing the fact that "study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road," Obama proposed working through states to provide "high quality preschool" to "every single child in America." Twenty-five people joined First Lady Michelle Obama's in her viewing "box," each chosen, according to the White House, because they "exemplify the themes and ideals" of the Address. This year Susan Bumgarner, a pre-K teacher at Wilson Elementary School in Norman, OK and a major proponent of early childhood education for all children was part of that group.

In an interview at the White House today with Web site Babble, Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the president's commitment in this area "extraordinary." Preschool, he said, is "the best investment we can make in education... The financial benefits for society for every dollar we spend -- you get seven, eight dollars back in returns. This is the right thing to do."

Barbara Beatty, a professor of education at Wellesley College, declared in a statement that the president's comments about universal preschool were "music to my ears." However, she added, the announcement raised "some big, complicated questions." Among them:

What's meant by "high quality" and how to ensure it;
Who will provide it;
How to blend the need for play in childhood with a focus on literacy; and
Who should pay for it.

More "Creative" Schools
Referring to Pathways in Technology (P-Tech), an experimental 9-14 school in Brooklyn now in its second year of operation, Obama announced a program to redesign high schools to "better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy." The goal: to make sure that students are trained for a "good job" right out of high school.

With a brief nod to Race to the Top, the state and district competitions to encourage education agencies to "develop smarter curricula and higher standards," Obama's newest challenge called for rewarding schools "that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math--the skills today's employers are looking for to fill the jobs that are there right now and will be there in the future."

P-Tech is a collaborative effort among New York Public Schools, New York College of Technology, City University of New York, and IBM. At this non-charter school the students graduate not only with a high school diploma, but also an associate's degree in computers or engineering. During the course of their studies, the students are paired with a mentor from IBM. In fall 2012, schools based on the P-Tech model also opened in Chicago, and additional ones are scheduled to open this year in New York.

Noted Duncan, "Our children today are competing in a global marketplace. They're competing with children in India, China, Singapore, and South Korea. And I'm convinced that our children are as talented, as smart, as creative, as entrepreneurial, as hard working as children anywhere in the world. We just have to level the playing field for them. We have to give them a chance. There are certain districts and schools that are being creative in certain areas, but not enough. We're not at that tipping point yet. And I'm trying to do everything I can to push it in that direction."

Duncan called out Mooresville Graded School District, an "underfunded" district in North Carolina that shifted to a digital curriculum. "A few years ago they stopped buying textbooks," he said, "and started putting a lot of money into technology." Every child in grades 4 through 12 are given a MacBook for use at school and home. In a "short amount of time," he noted, the district saw increased graduation rates. "A whole district moving in a different direction."

Greater Transparency in Higher Ed
Noting the "skyrocketing costs" of college, Obama said that while tax credits, grants, and "better loans" have made higher education "more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years," the country should no longer expect to have to subsidize "higher and higher and higher costs for higher education." Colleges too must do their part to keep costs down, he added, "and it's our job to make sure that they do."

Specifically, Obama said he has asked Congress to revise the Higher Education Act "so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid." To help students and their families know "where you can get the most bang for your educational buck," he also charged his administration with developing a "college scorecard." That scorecard was released today by the Department of Education as part of a College Affordability and Transparency Center. The scorecard highlights five key indicators:

Annual costs;
Graduation rate;
Loan default rate;
Average amount borrowed; and

The department said it would update the data "periodically," and that in the coming year it would publish information on average earnings for graduates of a specific institution.

The Department od Education's college scorecard will rate higher education institutions on five key indicators.

Duncan reiterated the emphasis on transparency. In the last year, he said, 40 states--"Republican and Democrat"--have cut funding to higher education. "That's not good. Universities have to keep their costs down. Some universities are doing a great job. Others' tuition is increasing much faster than the rate of inflation."

By introducing a scorecard that lays out a simple way to understand college costs and the effectiveness of the education program for students, Duncan said, people will be able to make "better choices" and institutions will have to become more competitive. "I want young people voting with their feet. And great universities will get rewarded. Those where graduation rates are too low and costs are too high, [fewer] people [will] go there. That creates a little bit of pressure."

The Bigger Issue: Pending Federal Cuts
The message underlying much of the president's education focus in his speech was the potential impact of the pending "sequester." That's the name given to the $85 billion in automatic reductions that will clear-cut the federal budget on March 1 unless Congress takes action to stop them. According to the Washington Post, the five percent budget cut to hit education would take 70,000 children out of Head Start, put 10,000 teacher jobs 'at risk," and reduce funding for 7,200 special education teachers aides, and staff.

According to the National PTA, the education reduction would "lead to larger classroom sizes and fewer teachers; the loss of after-school and enrichment programming; reductions in services for special education students; the erosion of quality early childhood education options for low-income children; and less financial assistance for postsecondary education." In addition, this hatchet approach to cutting support for education will have a disproportionate impact on Title I schools as they depend more heavily on federal dollars than higher income schools.

A number of institutions--among them Chicago State University, the University of Southern California, Haverford College, and the University of Pennsylvania--hosted parties to view the speech, tweet about it, and learn what the president has in store for the coming year. As serious as the discussion was, however, Duke University, found a fun way to get people to pay attention. A member of the university's Office of News and Communications concocted a "State of the Union Bingo" game card distributed online and invited faculty and students to share their impressions on Twitter with #DukeChat.

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