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From preschool to high school, Obama seeking big progress in education

This week the president announced ambitious plans for universal preschool access and high school curriculums tailored to the 21st century, but are Congress and the states interested?

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For high schoolers, the results are even worse: Just 21 percent of high school seniors ranked as proficient.

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It’s significant, Mr. Jennings says, that Obama stepped over a traditional boundary line for presidents, stating in blunt terms that what is taught in US high schools needs to change.

Obama said that part of the change should be to offer stronger career-oriented education, citing the way German schools graduate “their high school students with the equivalent of a technical degree from one of our community colleges.”

The president's goals won't be easy to reach, given that his second-term attention span appears to be spread among many priorities, from deficit reduction to immigration reform to gun control.

Some analysts of the US education system say, moreover, that Obama still isn’t putting forward a coherent overall policy.

Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University and former assistant secretary of education, called Obama’s idea of preschool for all “strong and persuasive,” but wrote on her personal website that the president appears to be taking a tight-fisted approach to higher education funding, just as states have also been shifting burdens onto students.

In part, Obama's call for colleges to do more to cut costs reflects public exasperation at the way tuitions have continued rising even as graduates face a tougher job market. 

Obama may also be choosing his battles and priorities. The Democratic president likely won’t have an easy time getting legislation through a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

For his part, Jennings predicts that Obama will probably be able to at least win “down payments” from Congress on his latest education agenda.

That, in turn, could have sizable ripple effects. As in his first term’s Race to the Top challenge to the states, Obama is seeking to use federal dollars to offer incentives for states to take their own actions.

A White House fact sheet this week describes the preschool initiative as "a cost sharing partnership with all 50 states, to extend federal funds to expand high-quality public preschool to reach all low- and moderate-income four-year olds from families at or below 200% of poverty." The proposal also encourages more states to offer full-day kindergarten. 

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