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Monday, February 6, 2006
The State of the Union Address: Education

My two previous posts discussed what President Bush had to say about foreign policy and several domestic issues. This one focuses on education.

In my third post of my Groundhog Day-delayed notes on President Bush's State of the Union address (last week), I'll address education. (The first post was on foreign policy and the second on other domestic issues.) He put education and most other domestic issues in the context of competing with the rest of the world. What he said was fairly predictable: more money for certain things, expecially  math and science.

He announced an "American Competitiveness Initiative." He proposes to double the federal commitment to certain kinds of research and to make permanent certain research and development tax credits -- which seems helpful in a minimal sort of way, while at the same implying an acknowledgement that it's not government's sole responsibility to advance science and technology.

And then there's the matter of the schools. "We've made a good start in the early grades with the No Child Left Behind Act," he says. Beyond that, he wants to train 70,000 high school teachers to teach AP math and science courses. Wouldn't it have been better if they had been trained in college? But okay.

He wants to bring 30,000 math and science professionals into the classroom to teach. Teachers unions and schools of educations really want a monopoly on entry into the teaching profession, and other teachers will resent what these professionals will have to be paid to get them into the classroom. But this is a good step, too, if it actually happens.

And he wants to provide some extra help to students who struggle with math -- also good, but I'm not sure why it has to be a federal problem.

Notice the tacit indictment of math and science teachers, most of whom apparently are not now qualified to teach advanced high school courses in the subjects they supposedly studied in college. But the implied indictment of schools of education is even sterner: First, they have produced math and science teachers who can't teach much math and science. Second, in order to compete in the world we need to create a different pipeline -- different from schools of education -- to get the math and science teachers we need. Ouch.

Notice also that the President's plan does not rely solely on raising the floor for the weakest students, as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) attempts to do. It's crucial that the least-prepared graduates of our schools be at least minimally capable of functioning in a modern economy and democracy. They ought to have enough math, science, English, government, and economics in their heads to support themselves and sustain our democracy. The fiscal and governmental implications alone are staggering if they do not.

But the best students have real academic needs, too, and they are often the most neglected -- even though it is mostly through their efforts that we will achieve the important scientific and technological advances on which the President's vision for the future depends. Let's set aside for the moment some legitimate disputes about NCLB and the proper size and nature of the federal role in education, and assume that NCLB properly and effectively raises the floor. NCLB still does nothing to help the best students, and may actually harm them, if it further strains the budgets of programs aimed at the needs of the best students.

Here is an important strength of the President's proposal -- on its face, at least. (Remember, even the State of the Union speech is just words.) Upgrading the qualifications of 70,000 math and science teachers to teach (relatively) advanced classes, and adding 30,000 more teachers with actual careers in science and math (fine qualifications in themselves) -- these improvements may or may not do anything for the students at which NCLB is aimed, but will do much good for the best students, on whom future scientific and technological leadership will depend.

A little voice in my head wants to say cynically, "Promises, promises," and wonder how much they will cost. I suppose it's less than rampant mediocrity will cost in the long run. And I wonder if additional federal activity in education is worth the cost in lost state and local sovereignty. But federal participation in education seems like a fact of life, at least for the present. Given that . . . at least the promises are good, sensible promises.

In fact, it was a good, sensible speech in most respects. I hope it foretells real progress.

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