In State of the Union, Obama Outlines Bold Education Proposals to Grow the Middle Class

President Obama Delivers the State of the Union

Education was one of the main themes in President Obama's State of the Union address. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

In a State of the Union address focused on growing a strong middle class, President Obama outlined a series of bold proposals that will increase access to high-quality education. Among them were initiatives to make quality early education accessible to every child, to tame the spiraling cost of college, and redesign the country’s high schools to meet the needs of the real world. The President called for a new College Scorecard to show parents and students “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.”

These proposals complemented other efforts to strengthen the middle class, including calls to raise the minimum wage and reform immigration. Education was one of the major themes of the President’s annual speech delivered to Congress and the country.

Educators and students were also well represented as guests to First Lady Michelle Obama. Here are the education excerpts from the speech:

Early Learning

Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.  But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.  Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool.  And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.

Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.

In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own.  So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.

Building the Skills that Lead to High-Quality, High-Wage Jobs

Let’s also make sure that a high school diploma puts our kids on a path to a good job.  Right now, countries like Germany focus on graduating their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges, so that they’re ready for a job.  At schools like P-Tech in Brooklyn, a collaboration between New York Public Schools, the City University of New York, and IBM, students will graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering.

In the President’s Plan for a Strong Middle Class & A Strong America, released in conjunction with the address, the President is calling on Congress to commit new resources to create a STEM Master Teacher Corps, enlisting 10,000 of America’s best science and math teachers to improve STEM education. The President continued by saying,

Four years ago, we started Race to the Top – a competition that convinced almost every state to develop smarter curricula and higher standards, for about 1 percent of what we spend on education each year.  Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy.

We’ll reward 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 jobs right now and in the future.

Holding Colleges Accountable for Cost, Value and Quality

Now, even with better high schools, most young people will need some higher education. It’s a simple fact: the more education you have, the more likely you are to have a job and work your way into the middle class.  But today, skyrocketing costs price way too many young people out of a higher education, or saddle them with unsustainable debt.

Through tax credits, grants, and better loans, we have made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years.  But taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the soaring cost of higher education.  Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure they do.

Tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.  And tomorrow, my Administration will release a new “College Scorecard” that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.

Rebuilding our Schools

The President also proposed a “Fix-It-First” program that would focus on urgent infrastructure repairs, which included schools.

And to make sure taxpayers don’t shoulder the whole burden, I’m also proposing a Partnership to Rebuild America that attracts private capital to upgrade what our businesses need most: modern ports to move our goods; modern pipelines to withstand a storm; modern schools worthy of our children.

Read, watch and share your “Citizen Response” to the State of the Union address, and read the President’s Plan for a Strong Middle Class & a Strong America.

Cameron Brenchley is director of digital strategy at the U.S. Department of Education


  1. It is great to see that the president is addressing early childhood education. I am currently a teacher candidate for pre-k through third grade. I was recently in a kindergarten classroom and it an eye-opener. After working with the students, I recognized which students were lower level or higher level academically. I was talking to my mentor teacher one day and she revealed to me that many of the lower level students, I had mentioned, had not gone to prekindergarten. I was amazed to see how much of an impact it had on the students academically and with their maturity. The lower level students had difficulty with their behavior, following directions, and completing their work. I hope that the president follows through with his ideas for early childhood education, so the students can be successful in the later grades and in life.

  2. I too applaud President Obama’s efforts. He must feel like he’s hitting his head against brick wall over and over again with all of the resistance. He is absolutely right about the changes we need especially revamping high schools curriculum and outcomes to fit the real world

  3. We have been tackling the same issue for decades. We must move from dialogue and strategic planning to action. To echo Ron Edmonds, a leading educator:

    “We can whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need in order to do this. Whatever we do, it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.” Ron Edmonds (Effective Schools Initiative)

  4. As a Special Education teacher and a Montessori Preschool teacher I applaud the
    President’s pledge to increase preschool education opportunities. We need free, universal education from preschool (age 3) thru the PhD. level like many European countries provide for their children. Every child in the U.S. deserves and should receive education starting at age 3 and starting at age 2 in low-income neighborhoods. Providing every American child with a high-quality education will be much less expensive than the rising costs of incarceration for the young people who are left behind and left out by our property tax-based education system. Birth to age six are the ‘golden years’ in a child’s developmental life. What is missed in those formative years can never be adequately made up. We need to push federal, state and local government to find the money for universal preschool education for every child in the U.S. It needs to start by making the corporations and the top 1 percent pay their fair share of taxes. Education funding should not be dependent on local property taxes. Whether a child is born in the South Bronx, Beverly Hills, Grosse Pointe, or on the south side of Chicago he/she deserves a first rate education from
    preschool thru college or career vocational training.

    • Do you hear yourself!? He wants to give every child in America the same oppurtunity to get a good education in preschool because those are critical years of development. You are fighting against something that you want. You don’t have an argument. So next time you want to voice your opinion make sure you truely think it through, cause obviously you didn’t think it through this time.

  5. I agree, but too much federal meddling is causing undue hardship because there are too many strings attached.

    • The key will be “quality preschool” this means play takes the lead in how children build knowledge.. To many preschools are simply mimicking ” rigorous” standards as more circle time for 3 and 4 year olds!

      • Yank children even earlier from their parents to indoctrinate them the way the government wants them to think and believe. Parents will have less to say in the Education of their children especially when Common Core is fully implemented.

    • In other words give me the free reign to do as I please and let me do what Wall Street did without regulation! Come on who are you trying to fool? Programs that work have accountability measures!

      • Who in Washington is accountable to anyone. Those elected think they have free reign to do with our money they take to do with what they wish. Common Core waved $4.7 Billion in front of money strapped school systems telling them that by taking this money you will do as wee say. That is taking away the Constitutionally Protected Rights of sovereign States away to teach their citizens the way the State sees fit. All 50 States grabbed at it at first but when they realized what strings were attached 5 Broke away. And 13 more States are considering breaking away.

  6. Hats off to the President for finally tackling the desparate situation of pre-K education. Lack of education at such a critical age follows students through their lives. As a high school teacher, I often see the lingering impact a decade later. My only hope is that the President finally addresses the “test” and “test prep” industries that are siphoning away scarce resources from already overburdened local public schools. Quality, meaningful assessments are wonderful tools to help inform instruction and tailor resources to the needs of specific students and then to see how they progress. But beyond that, we have been gripped by test mania. Beyond the financial cost, it also has a tremendous cost in terms of loss of actual teaching and learning time, lack of time to foster inquiry, and has narrowed the curriculum in many of our schools. “Poor test scores” then become the basis of the argument for closing schools that often serve some of our most high need students, firing some of the most dedicated teachers in our country who are willing to dedicate their lives to underserved populations, and siphoning precious resources away in the name of privatization (sometimes even to for-profit corporations!). We need time and resources to teach our children. We know that in the medical field that many costs (and often serious complications) can be avoided by eliminating unnecessary tests and procedures. Ten additional X-rays won’t heal a broken arm; the same goes for our students. Let’s teach our way to the top, not think we can test our way there.

    • All this money came from the first Stimulus Bill that was signed into law by President Obama. Common Core is stripping States of its rights to run their states as far as primary and secondary education goes.

  7. I have to say that this emphasis on JOBS, JOBS,JOBS in the education debate exposes a fundamental flaw — where is the education of the mind, the raising of informed citizens, and the creation of a populace who has learned how to make their minds an interesting place to reside for a lifetime? Sorry for being hopelessly Jeffersonian and Madisonian in my beliefs about education. Forgive my old-fashioned belief in the liberal arts philosophy. Education does not just equal job training.

      • Jane is exactly right. There is too much emphasis on job training. There is also too much emphasis on math, science and English. What about the other subjects? We cannot become a country of engineers. Remember that without creativity and design, there is nothing to engineer. The present policies are still narrowing the curriculum. This must stop. Education today is similar to when I first started teaching in 1969. Do we have to do this all over again? If you want to see the power of a liberal arts education, read “Jobs for English Majors and Other Smart People” by John L. Munschauer, former head of the career center at Cornell.

  8. Julian Vasquez Heilig, along with a long list of co-authors, has offered a comprehensive framework he calls Community Based Accountability (and I would add, responsibility!)
    Here is what how the Executive Summary describes Community Based Accountability (CBA):
    CBA involves a process where superintendents, school boards, school staff, parents, students and community stakeholders create a plan based on set short-term and long-term goals based on their local priorities.
    • CBA strategic plan developed at the local level would serve as alternatives to NCLB’s intense focus on a top-down, one-size-fits-all policy. It would enable local communities to focus on the outcomes that really matter in addition to test scores (i.e. career readiness, college readiness, safety).
    • This new form of accountability would allow for communities to drive a locally based approach that focuses on a set of measures of educational quality for their one-year, five-year, and ten-year goals.
    • State and federal government role would be to calculate baselines, growth, and yearly ratings (Recognized, Low-Performing etc.) for a set of goals that communities selected in a democratic process.

  9. What about PARENTS starting with the basics of education and spending time reading to them daily, which promotes learning. Why does big government have to do everything???

    • Big government has to be more involved because too many parents don’t do their job. Too much TV, too many video games, obese students that don’t go outside and play; and parents that let 1 to 3 year old children be babysat by these devises. It addles the brain and then these same parents complain that schools don’t do enough.

      • Nicely pointed out!
        It goes back to the home. The first people to have an impact, perhaps the most detrimental impact in a young life, are the parents. It is unfortunate that I have to say that the last couple generations have done some crappy jobs at rearing children. A smaller government is better, it allows for differentiation which gives us some really awesome ideas. More governmental meddling is not the answer. I think the parents should spend less time trying to get LED tvs and every electronic gadget known to man and more time teaching their kids the importance of respect and honesty and hard work. We should be encouraging sports and literature and creativity; not this “give them a video and a t.v and they’ll leave me alone” mentality. I can not believe the number of kids I see with I phones and tablets, and things in their ears. Not to say anything about the respect issue. Again good meaning government said “don’t spank your children, put them in time out.” Well, how is that working out for us? Parents TEACH your children. They need more than food and water!

  10. Preschool wouldn’t be so necessary if parents had their acts together and valued education in the home. Many of the studies showing the benefits of preschool focus on low income children who have not benefited from language rich environments in the home.

    As far as graduating high school, practically everyone does anymore, even with doing little to no work. A high school diploma ought to mean more than it often does.

  11. This is one of the best moves: holding colleges accountable for cost, value and quality and releasing a College Scorecard.

  12. President Obama’s practical proposals are a relief. By decreasing the cost of education, we are also decreasing the anxiety of students; this can allow the students to work peacefully on their school work and not worry about tuition. Grades, consequently, will stay strong; and, most importantly, students can remain excited about learning knowledge and wisdom, not stressed about paying bills.

  13. Unless parents get involved at the local level, this is all a big waste of taxpayer money. Uncle doesn’t know best, Mom does

  14. This President has not a clue how to create jobs. As for his educational agenda? We can’t pay for what we’re already doing. I am an education consultant and work with our lowest performing schools across the country, so I know what’s happening and what’s working. Our feckless President needs to stop coming up with program after program and let the states and local school districts have the leeway and time to work the school improvement plans that they are trying to implement right now. If he would let the free market place function without his endless regulations, then our colleges would be forced to rein in their building plans, professor salaries, and wasteful programs. That’s what we do to correct our budget shortfalls. Stop spending, tighten the belt, and be frugal for ten years. I could not even watch his entire speech last night as all he could do was talk about more “investments” he wants to make and the taxes he wants to raise; not show us leadership in how to shrink big government and lessen its control so the free market can work and our individual rights are protected. He wants the U.S. to topple into mediocrity, and you do that by breaking her back. The Baby Boomer generation is one of the brightest and most inventive of all, and we didn’t have all those costly education programs to take care of us from womb to tomb. We did just fine on our own. He disgusts me.

    • I am shocked to hear this coming from a teacher. I hope you are not from the Baby Boomer generation, because if you are, then you surely forgot about the GI Bill, Pell Grant, etc. that was implemented during that era. So if they, the Government was to as I paraphrase, tighten their belt for 10 years, you may not got your education. Unless you came from a rich family, in which you would have no knowledge of what’s life is like to need assistance, you got government assistance to attend college.

  15. Now, now, Mr. phaedris, there is no need for such inflammatory comments. Such rhetoric might cause people to think. And we can no longer tolerate independent thinkers, as they may pose a threat to our National Security…

  16. “The education of all children, from the moment that they can get along without a mother’s care, shall be at state institutions and at state expense.”

    -Friedrich Engels

  17. The president’s plans are right on the mark, from early childhood education, to high school graduation, to job training and affordable college for our students. I hope the rest of the nation will rise to the occasion and insure that we do our best to meet this promise to our youth and our great nation.

  18. I support the President educational and job creation agenda. We need to promote and secure this investment on behalf of our students and the nation.

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