Of his three biggest projects, one is clearly closest to President Obama's heart. On energy and healthcare, he's leaving it to Congress to fill in the details of his ideals. (They are also the two most likely to falter.) But for education? No detail is being left behind.
His agenda for public schools, laid out in a major speech Tuesday, is bolder than he promised on the campaign trail and reflects his particular interest in urban schools – and perhaps being a parent.
It also signals unilateral action by the US Department of Education that won't rely on lawmakers, many of whom are beholden to campaign donations from powerful teacher unions.
Mr. Obama will use the carrots and sticks of billions in federal money already allocated for education this year to aim for what he calls "a complete and competitive education" for all Americans.
He wants longer school years and days. He's asking states to lift the caps on the number of charter schools (in clear defiance of teacher unions). He wants teachers' pay tied to the success of students. He would push states to toughen standardized tests, while also broadening their scope to include skills such as critical thinking and creativity. And much more.
These reforms would inject a heavier federal hand into local schools, both in mandates and a reliance on money from Washington. Obama has yet to address the wisdom of a nation of 300 million people with diverse educational problems marching to the same federal tune of reform. It won't be easy to backtrack on a failed reform or stand up to Beltway lobbies relying on this huge influx of spending.
But then, the need to make America competitive in global markets is great. In 8th grade math, for instance, the US has fallen to 9th place in world rankings. The high school dropout rate has tripled in 30 years. Of the 30 fastest-growing occupations, Obama says, half require a college degree. For those students who have gone on to a four-year college in recent years, only 57 percent graduate – and many take six years to do so.
The most difficult reform may be expanding merit pay to more school districts. While it's best to work with unions to come up with fair ways to judge a teacher's performance, unions can't stand in the way of ousting teachers whose talent or enthusiasm doesn't make the grade. Tenure can no longer protect bad teachers.
In Obama's call for about half the states to lift their current caps on the number of charter schools, he's making an important decision for choice in education – especially for poor parents in cities where many charters are doing well with public money.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was well known as Chicago's school chief for closing down failing schools and letting charter schools show what union-free teaching can do in achieving innovation and excellence. Charters also help put a spotlight on parental responsibility in education, such as making sure students get to school and do their homework.
Just as the US economy is now being held accountable by world markets for its failings, so must US schools now measure up to the higher standards set in many other nations. As Obama says, "The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens."