The Agenda

The Good Ideas in SOTU 2012

Having criticized the president’s address somewhat sharply, I do want to emphasize that there were, as Josh Barro observes, a handful of good ideas.

On teachers, the president seems to have endorsed reforming teacher tenure provisions:

At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced States to lay off thousands of teachers. We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000.

Not surprisingly, the president didn’t note the other important finding from the Chetty et al. research, which is that a very ineffective teacher can decrease the lifetime income of a classroom by the same amount.

A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance.

If this is true, one could just as easily say that a terrible teacher could help consign a child on the margins of society to a life of poverty. Viewed through this lens, policies that emphasize hiring large numbers of teachers even at the risk of diluting the teacher talent pool seems like a profoundly dangerous approach. 

Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies – just to make a difference.

It makes political sense for the president to celebrate teachers, who vote in large numbers, who tend to back Democratic candidates, and who in most states belong to labor organizations that channel large sums of money to politicians who favor increasing compensation levels for teachers without a commensurate emphasis on improving the quality of instruction. It’s not clear, however, that most teachers work longer hours for less pay than they would in another profession, though there are presumably many who do. 

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.

And here we come to the good idea: “replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.” It is, however, not clear that the federal government has much leverage in this space, or that the Obama administration would be willing to use what leverage it does have to challenge the interests of unionized public school teachers.

Another intriguing idea relates to higher education:

At a time when Americans owe more in tuition debt than credit card debt, this Congress needs to stop the interest rates on student loans from doubling in July. Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves middle-class families thousands of dollars. And give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.

Of course, it’s not enough for us to increase student aid. We can’t just keep subsidizing skyrocketing tuition; we’ll run out of money. States also need to do their part, by making higher education a higher priority in their budgets. And colleges and universities have to do their part by working to keep costs down. Recently, I spoke with a group of college presidents who’ve done just that. Some schools re-design courses to help students finish more quickly. Some use better technology. The point is, it’s possible. 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. Higher education can’t be a luxury – it’s an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford. [Emphasis added]

This is encouraging — indeed, it reminds me of the work of economist Vance Fried of Oklahoma State. But how far is the president willing to go to take on the large and lucrative “non-profit” higher education industry (he has already demonstrated a willingness to take on for-profit higher education)?


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