The State of Our Union Hinges on the State of Our Classrooms

In 2008, Barack Obama was a meteor across the political firmament offering hope and change. Seven years later and battle-tested, he gave the country his last State of the Union address.

According to The Washington Post, his speech lasted nearly 59 minutes; 15 minutes were devoted to foreign policy, almost 12 to politics, more than eight to the economy, and three and a half to climate change.

Education accounted for roughly two minutes on helping students learn computer coding, bipartisan reform of No Child Left Behind, pre-kindergarten for all, computer science and math classes that make students job-ready, recruiting and supporting great teachers, making college affordable, and offering community college at no cost. 

Two minutes doesn’t seem like much since education undergirds just about every aim the President mentioned. The foundation of the state of our union is really the state of our classrooms.

“We live in a time of extraordinary change,” President Obama said. “… and whether we like it or not, the pace of this change will only accelerate.”

Martin Ford, the Silicon Valley software developer and author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, agrees. He says three trend lines are converging: a technology revolution based on big data and artificial intelligence, climate change, and dramatic and growing inequality.

All these trends converge on education. 

Remaking this nation to deal with that change will happen college-by-college, school-by-school, and classroom-by-classroom because in the emerging knowledge economy, deep and lasting learning is the currency of mobility and prosperity.  

But this kind of change does not happen by magical or wishful thinking. Instead, let's:

Strengthen the teaching profession. We need more teachers of color and we need to cultivate professional learning that supports teachers in the classrooms. Today’s digital learners require less “talk and chalk” and more mentoring and coaching.

Promote personalized learning. We know that students learn best when they can explore ideas and customize their own learning. Classrooms based on inquiry and experiential learning allow students to grow intellectually and emotionally—according to their curiosity and at their own pace.  

Infuse technology into 21st century curriculum. We need to align technology to enhance teaching and learning, because today’s and tomorrow’s students must be part of the knowledge revolution. Artificial intelligence can enhance deeper learning. For example, at the School of One, a middle school in New York City, math students get an individually customized course of study based on each student’s learning strengths and needs. At the Carpe Diem Collegiate High School in Yuma, Arizona, an online computerized assistant coach guides students through difficult content with immediate, on-the-spot assistance.

Recruit prepared and inspired leaders. It’s said that no school is better than its teachers, but it’s also true that no school is better than its principal. A new generation of school leaders must come from diverse backgrounds, must understand organizational and social change, and must be committed to student learning without reservation. 

Rebuild our educational infrastructure. Many schools attended by our poor and working class students are relics from the past. We need a national campaign to rebuild schools in underprivileged neighborhoods as a down payment on our pledge that equality of opportunity is more than a sentiment, it’s real.

Ensure that all students have the resources they need for success. The disparities in funding between rich, middle class, and poor school districts is a national scandal. Adequate and equal funding is the bedrock of equal educational opportunity.   

We already know a great deal about what it will take to make America’s schools world class. We are not starting from scratch. Research informing policy and practice across the life span at AIR and elsewhere has provided the empirical basis for implementing educational innovations that could transform classrooms into laboratories of learning for all students.

Based on this body of work, educators and policymakers should be poised to create a system that graduates men and women who are instilled with deep pride, open and inquiring minds, moral courage, and self-confidence—not prone to rigid ideologies and escapist beliefs, but rather prepared to seize the creative moment.

The state of our union can be no better than the state of our classrooms.

Peter W. Cookson, Jr., is a principal researcher and director of The Equity Project at AIR.