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State Of The Union: Obama Touts College Affordability, Tough Love For Teachers

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Though education played a sizable role in President Barack Obama's third State of the Union address Tuesday evening -- even proving to be the speech's most-trafficked topic on Twitter -- teachers, union officials and experts are still making sense of what, exactly, the rhetoric means for America's classrooms.

"You can't say 'stop teaching to the test' while continuing to advocate high-stakes testing as the measure of [teacher] effectiveness," said Mike Hladio, a Pennsylvania teacher, referring to a line that garnered the president much applause.

Obama's speech included a subtle rehashing of old policies; a measured tone that sympathized with teachers; and a few new proposals in both K through 12 and higher education that are still lean on specifics. New initiatives would add a focus on keeping kids in high school until they're 18, create a competition that incentivizes teacher effectiveness, partner businesses with community colleges, extend tuition tax credits, prevent a student-loan interest bump and make college more affordable -- though it is unclear which levers the federal government has on this last point.

Obama sought to place education within his broader framework of the revival of America's middle class, stressing the issue of college affordability, an issue he's had his senior staff stump on in recent months. "To prepare for the jobs of tomorrow, our commitment to skills and education has to start earlier," Obama said Tuesday night.

In the speech, Obama cleverly played to the desires of his various education-related constituents. On the one hand, he appealed to the Democratic education-reform lobby, a group comprised of organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform that have come to be known for its desire to use data to fuel teacher personnel decisions. He did so by discussing the need to revamp teacher personnel practices to focus on merit instead of seniority. In that vein, he cited a much-quoted new study by Harvard and Columbia economists that shows that an effective teacher can increase lifetime earnings for a classroom by $250,000, though this boils down to much less on an annual, per-student level.

"Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let's offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren't helping kids learn," Obama said.

On the other hand, in the very same paragraph, he appealed to teachers' unions, a powerful Democratic voting bloc with which he has clashed in the past. "It was about not bashing teachers, having shared responsibility, but it's about creativity and their passion and stop[ping] teaching to the test," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told The Huffington Post. "The State of the Union is a statement of values. The statement to kids is, if you stop teaching to the test, you have to obviously evaluate teachers in a very different way."

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, was similarly pleased. "I liked the way he talked about teachers," he said in an interview.

While several teachers noted the gap between Obama's rhetoric and policies on teachers -- for example, it is unclear how his No Child Left Behind waivers minimize teaching to the test -- both union heads said they were entirely satisfied.

In his speech, Obama proposed shifting federal financial aid away from colleges that don't tamp down their spiraling tuitions -- a policy that, with its incentive-based structure, mirrors his K-12 reforms. That same policy was articulated in U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's 2012 budget request, and would require a fundamental reworking of the higher education aid system. This presents something former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings couldn't do: as of now, money goes directly to students, so conditioning the aid would hurt students, not institutions.

But Obama preemptively pushed against that shade of doubt. "The point is, it's possible," Obama said. "So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down."

And the plan might have an ally in the Senate: Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), whose education committee earlier this week scheduled a hearing on college affordability for February. "I have argued that the more urgent task is in creating jobs and rebuilding the middle class," Harkin said in a statement Tuesday night. "This means continuing to make investments in areas like education and workforce training as well as securing pensions and ensuring college is affordable."

In a document the administration circulated in tandem with the speech, the White House refers to Obama's request for a new state- and district-level competition that aims to bolster teacher quality by revamping teacher preparation, shaking up the personnel ladder, "reshaping tenure" and updating teacher evaluations. While administration officials have confirmed that this is neither an extension of the Race to the Top program or the Teacher Incentive Fund, they are keeping details close to the vest for now.

Obama also hinted at a new dropout-curbing policy. "I call on every state to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen," Obama said. As Duncan reiterated later Tuesday, "we're losing a million students from our schools to our streets each year."

But such a policy can be expensive to implement, especially for recession-addled states. "The inattention to dropouts in a lot of states is shocking," said Andy Rotherham, an education consultant and former Clinton education advisor. "I'm sure states want to know who will pay for this."

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