Editorial: President has good start on education

For better and for worse, President Barack Obama has been reasonably consistent in trying to put in place as policy some of the broad and ambitious hopes he expressed during his campaign.

Many aspects of his broad vision are alarming to those who see a larger and ever-growing government as more of a problem than a solution. But we have to give him some credit for continuing to challenge certain elements of his political base when he talks about education.

In a sense, of course, it is unhealthy for any president to be discussing education in much detail. Those who attain the Oval Office are by definition more skilled at all the grubby ways politicians garner votes than at teaching or analyzing.

Expecting any president to “fix” education is unrealistic and an aspect of the unhealthy “cult of the presidency” that has made the president in popular culture more of an imperial monarch than a simple executive.

That said, however, it will take a great deal more persuasion before presidents stop acting as if they were the First Teacher. President Obama is showing some constructive courage in that role.

Most significant, in his speech Tuesday to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, was his advocacy of more widespread merit pay for teachers, for making it less difficult to get bad teachers out of classrooms, and for authorizing significantly more charter schools throughout the country.

To be sure, the president had said such things in passing during the campaign, but all these proposals are anathema to the teachers unions, an integral part of the Democratic coalition (odd as it seems that the great preponderance of teachers would be in one political party or another). So there has been some question as to whether the president would continue to express such deviations from orthodoxy once in office.

He has, and good for him.

Not all his ideas are so constructive, of course. The idea of one single standard for testing might seem attractive on the surface, but it has a faintly totalitarian whiff, treating students as uniform units to be made to conform to a single standard rather than unique individuals with unique talents and proclivities who learn in different ways and at different rates. And the efficacy of extended preschool is not as evident as some people believe.

There’s a big difference between making a speech and implementing new policies, of course. But on education President Obama has made a good start.