Five Things the President Should Have Covered in the State of the Union

In Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, President Obama made it clear that he envisions a society with a strong middle class and that education is the path to achieving that vision. He spoke of increasing tax credits for quality childcare and making higher education accessible and affordable by offering free tuition at two-year community colleges to all qualified students.

But if, as the President suggested, we want to strengthen the middle class by improving opportunity for all, is piecemeal reform really enough? Doesn’t a systematic approach to improving opportunities for poor working-class and middle-class students call for comprehensive interventions and improvements all along the educational continuum from preschool to adulthood? 

Here are five door-openers the President didn’t mention in his speech that are critical to achieving upward mobility and a strong middle class through education.

1. Access to Excellent Teachers.  Experience and research show that a school is only as good as its teachers and that few schools serving low-income and minority students can recruit and retain the most qualified teachers. We need an incentive system to get the best teachers in high-needs schools and to keep them in those jobs for more than a year or two.

2. Safe and Supportive School Environments.  A recent Southern Education Foundation report shows that 51 percent of children attending the nation’s public schools come from low-income families. This new majority faces formidable obstacles in using education to reach the middle class. We need to make our schools communities that tend to needs of the whole student. This approach is not untried or untested: the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City has an outstanding track record of providing high quality wrap-around educational opportunities and services for low-income minority children and their families.

3. High Standards for All Students. National academic standards may have become a political football, but individual state proficiency standards vary widely—the gap between states with the highest and lowest standards amounting to as much as three to four grade levels. Standards are meant to ensure that every student is exposed to high quality curricula. Without demanding standards and curricula, students’ chances of adult success are slim.

4. Closing the Digital Divide. The President did mention a free and open Internet in every classroom. Access to high-quality digital learning, however, requires more than an open Internet. We must make the Internet a place for dynamic and successful learning environments—not just for the lucky few, but for all students, by expanding broadband in schools, making top-notch digital devices and apps available to all kids, and taking other steps to support digital leaning. 

5. Systematic Educational and Career Counseling.  Job training can’t substitute for quality school counseling and mentoring. A high school graduate in 2015 could be working for the next half century and hold many different jobs requiring many different skills. Today, we need systematic school-based educational and career counseling—which starts not at the end of high school, but at the beginning. Industry-supported apprenticeships proposed by the President may not be enough support for students from low-incomes families.

Having a strong middle class and upward mobility is an objective worthy of a great nation and, if history is any guide, essential foundations for a robust civic life and democracy. The President rightly believes that quality education for all is the ticket. His 2015 State of the Union Address took us part of the way there, but we need to go further by creating a system of schools that support learning and social development for every student from preschool through college and career. 

Peter W. Cookson, Jr. is the Director of the Equity Project at AIR and the author of Sacred Trust: A Children’s Education Bill of Rights.