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A Missed Opportunity: What We Didn't Hear in the State of the Union

In the first State of the Union address of his second term, President Obama proposed education initiatives that have enormous potential for children across America: universal pre-school and college and career readiness programs for high school students, so our graduates leave school with the skills needed to enter the workforce.

President Obama’s ideas are lofty, commendable and necessary if America wants to compete on a global scale. But one can’t help but notice the President’s silence on an issue that was at the heart of his first-term education agenda: teacher quality. This omission is noteworthy because extensive research shows that the quality of a student’s teacher matters more than anything else that happens in a school. 

Teacher quality is at the heart of President Obama’s strong education record. His Race to the Top (RTTT) competition encouraged school districts to focus on instructional rigor and higher standards. It was RTTT that led New York, like many other states, to adopt a new teacher evaluation system, which helped us win the race and $700 million. 

The President’s speech introduced a new phase to the RTTT challenge: “to redesign America's high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy.” Schools that develop partnerships with colleges and employers to focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) will be rewarded. The U.S. Department of Education website provides additional details on the President’s proposal, including language about how the best and brightest teachers must be a part of this initiative. 

Beyond that, however, the President did not speak to the importance of teacher quality or provide any policy prescriptions to address it. This was a missed opportunity. It’s not as if RTTT finished the job, box checked. 

So why the silent treatment on teacher quality? A cynic might say that the President didn’t want to ruffle the feathers of the education establishment, which bristles at any mention of the topic as “teacher bashing.” But I’m no cynic. 

Instead, I’ll remain the optimist who hopes President Obama and Congress work together to implement the great ideas he outlined in his speech. At the same time, I will also continue to hope that the President maintains the courage of his convictions and uses every opportunity going forward to speak about what we know matters more than anything else that happens in school: teacher quality. How can we recruit and retain the highest quality teachers, particularly in our highest-need neighborhoods and hard-to-staff subject areas? This is what it will take to prepare our kids to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

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