Barack Obama's Education Grade
What the president has done on education gets high marks.
While the nation was gearing up for the Olympics, President Barack Obama was quietly extending his legacy. On July 26, he signed an executive order establishing the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The initiative, which will be administered by the Department of Education, aims to “strengthen the nation by improving educational outcomes for African Americans of all ages, and help ensure that African Americans receive a complete and competitive education that prepares them for college, a satisfying career, and productive citizenship.”
It’s not a surprising action when you consider the president’s stump speeches and his own story. At the National Action Network’s Keepers of the Dream Awards Gala last year, he called education “the civil rights issue of our time,” and said that “giving every one of our children the best possible education…is the single most important factor in determining whether they succeed.”
It’s a philosophy that Melody Barnes, the president's former domestic policy advisor, says is ingrained in who he is as a person and a leader.
“For all of us who understand Civil Rights history, ultimately, the fight for the laws and the changes to the Constitution were a matter of creating greater opportunity for African Americans and others who had been treated unfairly. We’ve seen a lot accomplished because of those laws, but at the same time, we know there are still so many barriers,” she explains. “Having worked with the president and understanding his background and his work in communities where there are a number of people of color, and where there are also people who have been in tough economic straits for some time, I believe that education can be the key to moving forward generation by generation. The president and first lady not only talk about that publicly, but they talk about it personally. The president understands that in a very intuitive way, but also in a practical and economic way as well.”
In our Education Special earlier this fall, we reported that from early education through college, African Americans are typically behind the curve. Here, we examine how the education policies of the president’s first term have addressed the causes of this opportunity gap.
[READ MORE: EXAMINING OBAMA'S FIRST TERM]
For Shirlene Payne, sending her youngest daughter, Samara, to Head Start was a no brainer. The Westwood, N.J., mother of three had firsthand experience that it worked: She had enrolled her oldest daughter, CheyAri (now 12) out of necessity back in 2004.
“I decided to return to school to complete my bachelor's in social work. But there was no way to raise children and work and do the program," says Payne. "I found out about Head Start through a community agency and enrolled her. Because of the full-day program, I was able to go back full-time.”
There are more than 300,000 African American preschoolers enrolled in the program, which provides early education for children whose families’ income falls below the federal poverty line, which currently sits at $15,130 for a family of two.
Payne enrolled her second daughter, Anaya, in Head Start three years later. “It was such a positive experience. The outcomes where great; my other daughters were socially and academically ready for school. I couldn’t possibly think of putting Samara anywhere else.”
Payne was so impressed with the program that she joined the board of directors for the Bergen County Community Action Partnership, which administers the program locally. As the liaison for policy counsel, she’s very familiar with the impact of the president’s $5 billion investment in early learning programs, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
“After going without it for many years, we were able to incorporate [an] Early Head Start program in our county. Now, we have a waiting list!” Payne says. “Also, we’re now able to educate pregnant mothers, and the Head Start teachers were able to get their preschool certification, so there can be no question about the quality of the education.”
That wasn’t by chance, Barnes says.
“This is a theme that runs through the president’s education policy," she says. "We didn’t want to just focus on increased enrollment numbers, we wanted to marry that with better quality. We wanted to make sure that Head Start programs were not just glorified babysitting services, but that our kids came out prepared and ready to go into kindergarten. So many children are starting kindergarten with a huge achievement gap deficit, and when you’re 5 years old and you’re starting behind the ball, it makes it more difficult for you to get the skills you need to successfully finish high school and go on to post-secondary education. That’s why we’re so proud of that investment.”
Payne is pretty proud, too. After two years in Head Start, Samara, now a 6-year-old first-grader, is thriving.
“She acquired so much confidence in the program, it really aided in her blossoming into an independent young lady. She’s doing really well with her math, and she reads well, too,” Payne says.
[READ MORE: NAACP ON BLACK YOUTH AND EDUCATION]
To say that the Closing the Achievement Gap (CTAG) program changed Darion Ervin’s life wouldn’t be hyperbole. As a freshman at Glenville High School on Cleveland’s east side, he was falling behind.
“I wasn’t showing up, and I wasn’t really doing my homework. I always had high test scores, but my grades were the exact opposite,” 16-year-old Darion says.
But when CTAG regional coordinator George Golden approached him about joining the program, which identifies at-risk African American ninth-grade boys and intervenes to help them graduate, he took a chance that paid off.
"Young black men in this country are known as the lowest common denominator, and Mr. Golden wants us to be better. The program exposes us to different environments, helps us do better in high school, and prepares us to make choices for after high school," Darion says.
His newfound program mentors' belief in his ability gave him the confidence to invest in his own future. “They invited me to take honors classes, because they saw that I had the potential to do more. Now, I come to school every day and try to get the best grades that I can. My GPA is 3.2, and I’m trying to get it as high as possible before I graduate.”
[READ MORE: EDUCATING BLACK BOYS]
Today, 11th-grader Darion wants to major in economics at Morehouse College—the direct result of a CTAG-sponsored college tour, which never would have happened without funds from the president’s Race to the Top (RTTT) program. The CTAG program started during the 2007-2008 school year, but lost full funding after just two school years. It was an influx of money from Race to the Top that allowed the staff to provide the service students truly needed.
“It wasn’t until we got the RTTT money that we were able to reinstitute the exposure trips that increase their awareness of post-secondary education opportunities. We also weren’t capable of providing the intense tutoring they need, or the credit recovery program that helps them graduate,” Golden explains.
Now the program is seeing meaningful gains: the Cleveland Metropolitan School District recently graduated its largest class of black males in more than a decade, and the African American graduation rate increased from 60.3 percent in 2007 to 75.1 percent in 2011, in large part due to CTAG’s efforts.
The district is the recipient of just a fraction of the total $4.35 billion Race to the Top budget, which is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Race to the Top encouraged states to compete for grants to create innovative education reform in suffering districts, with the goal of closing achievement gaps, increasing high school graduation rates, developing and retaining effective teachers and principals, preparing students for college and careers, and turning around the lowest performing schools in the nation. The first grants were awarded to 11 states and D.C. in 2010, but to date, an additional 35 states have also put in place internationally benchmarked college- and career-ready education standards, spurred by the challenge. The winning states include 64 percent of all African American students, and so far, math and reading proficiency levels have gone up in 60 percent of participating schools.
“The opportunity to use a significant amount of money to reform our education system is a rare one, and the president wanted to use that opportunity to drive the kind of reform that he promised during the campaign, and that he believes is so essential to moving our education system in the right direction, so that it’s an excellent system for all of our kids,” Barnes says.
[READ MORE: OBAMA'S $400M SCHOOLS CONTEST]
Vaughn Adesina is a confident guy. After graduating from his Long Beach, Calif., high school, he knew he wanted to go to college, but he wasn't sure where. Then he happened to see the Arizona State University track team demolish the competition on television, and he thought he’d like to see the action in person. So he applied to area schools, packed up and headed to Mesa, Ariz., without a doubt that it would work out. “It seemed like a good idea,” he says with a laugh. Arbitrary? Maybe. But it turns out, he was right.
The 19-year-old second-year mathematics major is excelling in a dual program at Mesa Community College and Arizona State, maintaining a 3.73 GPA and a job. But while his confidence was enough to carry him over state lines, it wasn’t enough to pay for school. He credits the president’s expansion of the Pell grant program with that feat. Without it, he would likely have racked up thousands in loans; as it stands now, his $5,500-a-year grant covers the bulk of his expenses.
“I am nothing without my Pell grant! It pays for the majority of my education,” he explains. “With the availability of this program, I’m actually encouraged to pursue college; it shows that the government cares about my education.”
He’s not the only one. Forty-six percent of all African American undergraduate students depend on Pell grants to finance their education.
“The president did something that people said he couldn’t: he changed our lending system so that it would be more reliable for students, which not only created greater stability, but also created savings. He took part of that $68 billion in savings and strengthened the Pell grant system,” Barnes explains.
One result of that change is an additional 200,000 awards granted to black students.
The numbers tell the story: In the 2007-2008 school year, 19 percent of all community college students received Pell grants, with an average award of $2,423 (the national average for all colleges and universities is $2,648). For the 2010-2011 year, that number was 30 percent, with an average of $3,833 per community college student ($3,833 nationally). That’s an increase of 1.4 million grant awards in community colleges alone.
“The cost of college serves as a substantial barrier to college participation," says Norma G. Kent, senior vice president of communications and advancement for the American Association of Community Colleges. "The Pell grant is critically important to supporting both access to, and success in, college; it reduces the financial barrier by providing student aid that does not have to be repaid. It is important to note that the funding supports not only the direct tuition and fee costs, but books, supplies, room and board, and transportation, too.”
The president also extended the American Opportunity Tax Credit and established the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Initiative and increased funding to Historically Black Colleges and Universities—which produce future Ph.D.s at a greater rate than non-HBCUs—by $2.55 billion.
For his part, Adesina draws inspiration from the president himself.
“I admire his work ethic, his nobleness, his character, and his plan for my future. All that he’s done encourages me to stay in college and pursue more,” he says. “And it was very cool of him to increase the Pell grant. Now I can take on more classes and graduate a little earlier!”
Adesina plans to earn his Ph.D. in applied mathematics, and use his wealth to bolster his community financially. But he’s most interested in making his mother proud, and inspiring his 17-year-old brother and 30-year-old sister to follow in his footsteps.
“I want to show them that it can be done,” he says.
[READ MORE OF OUR SPECIAL ON OBAMA'S HISTORIC FIRST TERM: PRESIDENT OBAMA, WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR ME LATELY?]