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State of the Union: What can Obama do about college tuition?

President Obama hit hard on college tuition costs in his State of the Union speech, calling on Congress to extend the tuition tax credit and to stop student loan interest from doubling in July.

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In fact, in Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels’s response to the State of the Union Tuesday night, he praised just two aspects of Obama’s tenure as president: killing Osama bin Laden and “bravely backing long overdue changes in public education.”

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Obama was particularly diplomatic in how he handled his remarks on teachers, who have, in many cases, sharply rebelled against his administration’s agenda of increased accountability, more data, and evaluations linked to student achievement.

“Teachers matter,” Obama said. “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, he said, he wants to “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.”

Teachers’ unions seized on the message, in particular the line about “teaching to the test.” A common complaint about the direction of education reform – including Obama’s Race to the Top initiative – is that it encourages instruction driven only by standardized tests.

Obama “made clear tonight what America’s teachers have long understood,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. “We can’t test our way to a middle class; we must educate our way to a middle class. The overemphasis on testing has led to narrowing of the curriculum, rather than creating a path to critical thinking and problem solving.”

But nothing in Obama’s comments, or the blueprint his administration released, indicated he was backing off from his controversial education reform goals.

While he didn’t mention Race to the Top by name, he lauded what it has accomplished, in terms of pushing states to enact tough reforms. “For less than 1 percent of what our nation spends on education each year, we’ve convinced nearly every state in the country to raise their standards for teaching and learning,” he said.

And he continues to tout teacher quality, both recognizing the best and replacing ineffective teachers. “We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000,” he said.

In his blueprint, Obama particularly emphasized the need to reform the teaching profession, including pushing to make teacher education schools more effective and selective, to improve professional development, and to reshape tenure and evaluation systems.

Obama didn't clarify the means by which he wants to achieve these goals, though an existing federal program, the Teacher Incentive Fund, is already being used to improve teacher effectiveness and reform the teacher pay system, among other goals.

“It’s notable that the president will continue to aggressively promote this new federal priority in education,” including teacher effectiveness, data systems, teacher evaluations, and school turnarounds, says David DeSchryver, vice president of education policy for Whiteboard Advisors, an education consulting group.

While he offered conciliatory rhetoric to teachers’ unions, Mr. DeSchryver notes, Obama still holds that teacher evaluations should be used for both hiring and firing teachers.

“And given that we’re heading into an election season, it’s notable that he’s willing to stand behind that,” DeSchryver says. 

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