Expanding Opportunity for Every American: Education and the State of the Union

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

“I want our actions to tell every child, in every neighborhood: your life matters; and we are as committed to improving your life chances as we are for our own kids.” – President Barack Obama

On Tuesday, President Obama delivered his sixth State of the Union address. The President’s speech reflected his strong belief that education is a vital investment in America’s economic competitiveness, in its communities, and in its people.

The President discussed America’s economic recovery, noting that since 2010, our nation has put more of its citizens back to work than Europe, Japan, and all advanced economies combined.  At a time when millions of Americans now work in jobs that didn’t exist even 10 or 20 years ago, education—particularly higher education—is more important than ever before in the effort to equip our young people with the skills they’ll need to succeed in the well-paying jobs of the 21st century knowledge economy.

In his speech, the President noted the significant educational progress that our nation’s schools, teachers, and students have made – including young students earning math and reading scores at record levels, a high school graduation rate at an all-time high, and more Americans finishing college than ever before.

While celebrating progress, the President noted we must work to ensure that education lives up to its promise of bolstering and expanding the middle class and helping more young people to achieve their greatest potential.

He stated: “America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free, sent a generation of GIs to college, and trained the best workforce in the world. But in a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to step up our game; we need to do more.”

By the end of this decade, two in three jobs will require some form of higher education. Yet, as the President noted, too many bright, hard-working students are priced out of college. In his address, the President laid out his top priorities – all aimed at expanding opportunity and opening the gateway to the middle class to more Americans.

He committed to his recently announced America’s College Promise proposal, which would make two years of community college free for responsible students; and he asked more businesses to offer educational benefits and paid apprenticeships, giving workers the chance to advance in their careers, even if they haven’t achieved higher education. The President also pledged to make quality childcare more available and more affordable for every middle-class and low-income family with young children, and to extend the reach of technology and the Internet into every classroom.

Each year, the First Lady invites exceptional Americans—whose stories often reflect key themes in the speech—to join her in her viewing box. This year, several educators and students were selected. Learn more about these special guests.

Below are education excerpts from the speech:

Higher Education:

“… I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college – to zero.

Keep in mind: forty percent of our college students choose community college.  Some are young and starting out.  Some are older and looking for a better job.  Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market.  Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt.  Understand, you’ve got to earn it – you’ve got to keep your grades up and graduate on time.  Tennessee, a state with Republican leadership, and Chicago, a city with Democratic leadership, are showing that free community college is possible.  I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today.  Let’s stay ahead of the curve. And I want to work with this Congress, to make sure those already burdened with student loans can reduce their monthly payments, so that student debt doesn’t derail anyone’s dreams.”

Job Training and Workforce Development:

“… To give working families a fair shot, we still need more employers to see beyond next quarter’s earnings and recognize that investing in their workforce is in their company’s long-term interest.”

“[T]o make sure folks keep earning higher wages down the road, we have to do more to help Americans upgrade their skills. …

Thanks to Vice President Biden’s great work to update our job training system, we’re connecting community colleges with local employers to train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding, and nursing, and robotics.  Tonight, I’m also asking more businesses to follow the lead of companies like CVS and UPS, and offer more educational benefits and paid apprenticeships – opportunities that give workers the chance to earn higher-paying jobs even if they don’t have a higher education.”


“I intend to protect a free and open internet, extend its reach to every classroom, and every community, and help folks build the fastest networks, so that the next generation of digital innovators and entrepreneurs have the platform to keep reshaping our world.”

Early Learning/Childcare:

“First – middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change.  That means helping folks afford childcare, college, health care, a home, retirement – and my budget will address each of these issues, lowering the taxes of working families and putting thousands of dollars back into their pockets each year. …

In today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality childcare more than ever.  It’s not a nice-to-have – it’s a must-have.  It’s time we stop treating childcare as a side issue, or as a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us.  And that’s why my plan will make quality childcare more available and more affordable, for every middle-class and low-income family with young children in America – by creating more slots and a new tax cut of up to $3,000 per child, per year.”

State of the Union Resources

Tiffany Taber is Chief of Staff for Communications Development at the U.S. Department of Education.

New Preschool Grant Program Will Expand Opportunity to More of America’s Early Learners


Secretary Arne Duncan interacts with a student at the Hug Me Tight Childlife Center in Pittsburgh. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Across the country, there is a great need for early learning. But the need isn’t just for preschool seats — it’s for high-quality early learning programs that can put children on the path to thrive in kindergarten and beyond.

Research has shown the powerful benefits of high-quality early education. Children who receive rich early learning experiences are less likely to need special education services. They’re in better health, and they get better jobs. Yet, today, only 30 percent of 4-year-olds in the U.S. participate in state preschool, and 10 states don’t offer it at all. Among other industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks 25th in enrollment of 4-year-olds in early learning.

President Obama has issued a call to expand access to high-quality preschool to every child in America. Yesterday, an important down payment was made toward that goal when Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell announced the availability of funds through the Preschool Development Grants program.

This new $250 million federal program will support states to build, develop, and expand voluntary, high-quality preschool programs for children from low- and moderate-income families. It will be jointly administered by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. All states — including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico — are eligible to apply by Oct. 14, 2014.

Secretary Duncan noted, “Through the Preschool Development Grants, we continue our efforts to create educational opportunities that prepare our youngest Americans for success in kindergarten, through elementary school and beyond. This new grant competition will prepare states to participate in President Obama’s proposed Preschool for All program — a federal-state partnership that would promote access to full-day kindergarten and encourage the expansion of high-quality preschool programs for 4-year-olds from low- and middle-income families.”

He added, “We urge states and communities to seize this opportunity, form partnerships, and begin drafting their proposals for the Preschool Development Grants program, because providing high-quality early learning opportunities is the most important single step we can take to improve the future of our young people.”

Secretary Duncan highlighted the new grant program yesterday during a trip to Pittsburgh, where he joined Mayor William Peduto in a visit to the Hug Me Tight Childlife Center and a community conversation at Hill House’s Kaufmann Center.

While at Hug Me Tight, Secretary Duncan toured classrooms, met with early childhood education providers, parents, and community members, and engaged in arts activities with some of the city’s youngest learners. Following the visit to the center, Secretary Duncan and Mayor Peduto participated in a discussion on early learning hosted by the city of Pittsburgh and the National League of Cities.

For more information about the new Preschool Development Grants program and how your state may apply, visit here. For more information on early learning at the U.S. Department of Education, visit here.

Tiffany Taber is Chief of Staff for Communications Development at the U.S. Department of Education. 

Supporting Educators to Innovate Through Technology

OpportunityTechnology offers extraordinary opportunities and capacities to teachers. The breadth and depth of educational materials and information available on the Internet can break boundaries, making any subject accessible anywhere, and providing students with access to experts from across town or across the globe. New technologies also give teachers tools and flexibility to engage students, personalize the learning experience, and share resources or best practices with colleagues.

President Obama’s ConnectED initiative aims to provide high-speed Internet to every school in America, and make affordable computers, tablets, software, and other digital resources widely available to educators. Yet innovative technologies offer their greatest benefits only when teachers and principals have the skills and supports to leverage them. The ConnectEDucators plan will help educators to grow those skills. Watch this video to learn more:

Tiffany Taber is senior communications manager in the Office of Communications and Outreach

Partners in Progress: Turning Around a Washington, DC School Takes Teamwork and Joy

City Year

National and local education leaders met at the DC Scholars Stanton Elementary School, where 18 City Year corps members currently serve. The visit included a roundtable discussion on the school’s turnaround effort and the importance of partnering with key stakeholders to achieve education reform. (Photo courtesy of City Year/Elliot Haney)

There’s a transformation occurring at an elementary school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation’s capital and it begins, each day, with chants and song. “Stand up!” and “C-O-L-L-E-G-E! College is the place for me!” ring out of the cafeteria where students gather for a daily morning ritual of activities designed to build school culture and student confidence. Just a few years ago, DC Scholars Stanton Elementary struggled with chronic underperformance and was long known as a place ruled by chaos, where neither students nor educators felt it was possible to focus on learning. Today, the school is turning around. With the help of strong partnerships and engaged stakeholders, chaos is being replaced with joy, as educational outcomes improve for the school’s young “scholars.”

On Monday, Secretary Arne Duncan visited DC Scholars Stanton to observe the school’s progress and to participate in a roundtable discussion, highlighting the importance of partnerships in the effort to dramatically improve teaching and learning in persistently low-achieving schools.

Secretary Duncan joined a group of local leaders and stakeholders including District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Kaya Henderson, Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) CEO Wendy Spencer, and City Year Co-Founder and CEO Michael Brown, for the visit.

City Year Group Photo

(Photo courtesy of City Year/Elliot Haney)

Three years ago, DCPS engaged in a partnership with Scholar Academies, a national nonprofit education management organization, to run Stanton. As Chancellor Henderson noted, “Back then, there was a sense that if you went here, you were coming because you could go nowhere else.”

Third grade teacher Sheryl Garner spoke poignantly about the school’s transformation. She remarked that before the turnaround, almost daily she was “kicked and punched by students,” many of whom had difficult backgrounds and limited understanding of how to manage their emotions in school. She said, “I’m glad I decided to stick with it because I’ve seen so much growth here.”

Now, there is order in the classrooms where university pennants line the walls, reminding students that higher education is within their reach—and a goal that they can strive for each day. In addition to college banners and achievement awards, it’s not uncommon to see students working in classrooms and hallways with City Year AmeriCorps members—who represent another key element in the story of progress at DC Scholars Stanton.

City Year has partnered with the school for six years; but this year, DC Scholars Stanton was able to double its number of City Year service members. These young people provide intensive before-, during-, and after-school support to students in reading, math, and social-emotional skills development. Principal Rena Johnson and Assistant Principal Sanja Bosman also credit City Year members with helping to improve overall school culture.

Eighteen City Year AmeriCorps members work at the school now through a federal School Turnaround AmeriCorps grant, jointly administered by the Department of Education and CNCS, which is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the AmeriCorps program this year. Wendy Spencer, CNCS CEO, noted, “This partnership expands the role of AmeriCorps members in helping students, teachers, parents, and school administrators transform schools into models of achievement.” With the help of Jeff Franco, executive director for City Year-Washington D.C., approximately 150 City Year members serve in more than a dozen schools across DCPS.

Students and families at DC Scholars Stanton also benefit from a home visiting program, coordinated by the local Flamboyan Foundation, a private, family organization focused on improving educational outcomes for children. Through the program, teachers are trained to visit families and build relationships with parents and caregivers, with the aim of helping students to succeed in school.

Secretary Duncan acknowledged the efforts of all the partners at DC Scholars Stanton, saying, “Turning around a school is some of the hardest, most controversial, and yet most important work in the country. … Together, you are doing something remarkable.”

The hard work is beginning to show results. Since 2011, students at DC Scholars Stanton have improved their proficiency rates in mathematics from 10 to 42 percent. Reading proficiency rates have doubled from 10 to 20 percent.

As Mayor Gray stated, “Education reform is never done.” There is still much to do to ensure all Stanton scholars achieve to their fullest potential. But, even though the work is ongoing and challenging,  Lars Beck, CEO for Scholar Academies, summed up the experience, saying, “You might think it’s crazy, but working together to turn around schools is … exciting and exhilarating … it can even be joyful.”

Tiffany Taber is senior communications manager in the Office of Communications and Outreach

Making High-Quality Early Learning a National Priority

Secretary Duncan with preschool students at Edgewood Prep Today, a class of preschool children at the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Georgia, engaged in an interactive lesson on sizes and shapes with a special guest – President Barack Obama. The President toured the center, which serves children from infancy through four years of age, before discussing the importance of quality learning from the early years with a crowd of local educators.

The President elaborated on a new plan for early education, which aims to dramatically expand preschool – a priority for the U.S. Department of Education in the Administration’s second term and a topic that the President emphasized in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children … studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, [and] form more stable families of their own,” the President stated. “[L]et’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”

Despite the benefits of early learning, state funding per child for preschool programs has declined over the last decade, according to data from the most recent State Preschool Yearbook, published by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Studies also show that children from low-income families are less likely to have access to high-quality early education opportunities and to enter kindergarten prepared for success – a situation that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has described as “education malpractice, economically foolish and morally indefensible.” The high costs of private preschool and a lack of public programs also narrows options for middle-class families.

To fulfill a commitment to our nation’s youngest learners at a time when fewer than three in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in a quality preschool program, the Administration is proposing a series of new investments that will establish a continuum of learning for children from birth through age five. Major elements of the plan include:

  • Providing High-Quality Preschool for Every Child: A new cost-sharing partnership with all 50 states, managed by the Department of Education, will extend federal funds and expand high-quality public preschool to reach all low- and moderate-income four-year-olds from families whose incomes are at or below 200 percent of the poverty line.
  • Growing the Supply of Effective Early Learning Opportunities for Young Children: A new Early Head Start-Child Care partnership will support communities that extend the availability of Early Head Start as well as child care providers that can meet high standards of quality for infants and toddlers.
  • Expanding Evidence-Based, Voluntary Home Visiting: Voluntary home visiting programs enable nurses, social workers, and other professionals to connect families to services and educational support that can improve a child’s health, development, and ability to learn. The President’s plan extends these important programs to reach additional families in need.

The proposal also encourages states to provide additional opportunities for children to attend full-day kindergarten and extends important investments in the federal Head Start program – managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – which annually serves more than one million children across the country.

The President’s commitment to provide every child with access to quality early education builds upon the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Fund, a competitive grant program jointly administered by the Department of Education and HHS, which supports state efforts to raise the bar across early learning programs and to close the school readiness gap. Through the President’s proposal, the Department and HHS will continue to strengthen the quality of early education programs and assist states and districts in improving the alignment of preschool with K-12 education.

Building and expanding opportunities for learning in the early years is key to fostering a cradle-to-career education system. As Secretary Duncan has noted, “High-quality early learning is what we want for our own children – which means that it must be what we want for all children.”

Department Releases New Publications Highlighting ESEA Flexibility

With 34 states and the District of Columbia approved for ESEA flexibility, the U.S. Department of Education released a series of new publications this week, describing the flexibility program and the ways in which some participating states are advancing important education reforms.

ESEA Flex LogoESEA flexibility enables states and districts to maintain a high bar for student achievement while better targeting resources to schools and students most in need of additional support. The publication series includes a brochure and fact sheets on topics that relate to five priority areas under ESEA flexibility (pdf files):

  1. Continuing to expose and close achievement gaps;
  2. Advancing accountability for graduation rates;
  3. Turning around the lowest-performing schools;
  4. Protecting school and student accountability; and
  5. Supporting teachers, leaders, and local innovation.

The Department announced voluntary ESEA flexibility in September 2011 in the absence of a reauthorization – or congressional update – to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The most recent update to the federal education law – the No Child Left Behind Act – was due for reauthorization in 2007, but has governed a changing national education landscape for more than a decade. ESEA flexibility allows states and districts to replace the “one-size-fits-all,” prescriptive provisions of NCLB with state-led reforms tailored to address their most pressing education challenges.

For more information about ESEA flexibility and to access the new brochure and fact sheets, please visit this Web site.

Tiffany Taber is senior communications and events manager at the U.S. Department of Education

Strumming and Drumming with Local Students and Music Educators at ED

The percussive rhythm of tambourines and African drums as well as the sound of ukuleles and acoustic guitars filled the outdoor plaza at the Department of Education on Tuesday, May 10, when the nonprofit National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) brought its “Strumming and Drumming for Music Education” program to Washington. The event aimed to promote local student talent and raise awareness about the importance of music education in our nation’s schools.

Students from George Fox and Lime Kiln Middle Schools in Maryland showed off their skill in a large drum circle, led by musicians Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, a two-time Grammy-Award-winning duo.   Joining the students in their music-making were NAMM representatives; local music educators; former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley; former New York Yankee Bernie Williams; as well as Peter Cunningham, assistant secretary of communications and outreach; and Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary of innovation and improvement. ED employees and passersby were encouraged to pick up a ukulele or drum and join in the outdoor jam session.

Earlier this month, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) released its landmark report, Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools. The culmination of 18 months of research, meetings with stakeholders, and site visits throughout the country, this report reviews the current condition of arts education in America’s schools and reaffirms recent studies that have shown a link between high-quality arts programming and increased student achievement.

For more information about NAMM and its initiatives, please visit here. For additional details regarding the PCAH report and its findings, please select this link.

See photos

Tiffany Taber
Office of Communications and Outreach