President Barack Obama came into office promising to stem the decline of public schools and to implement reforms that would set all students on the path to success.
“The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy and unacceptable for our children,” the president said in a 2009 speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “We cannot afford to let it continue.”
With just weeks remaining in office, the president pointed to evidence that his education policies have been effective. In a conference call with reporters on Monday, the administration announced that the on-time high school graduation rate reached a record high of 83.2 percent in the 2014-2015 school year—with all categories of students making improvements, though students of color lag behind Asian and White counterparts.
The president made the formal announcement later that day at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the District of Columbia, a school that serves mostly African-American students from low-income families, but now graduates 100 percent of its seniors.
Credit for the success at Banneker and other schools across the nation “goes to teachers and families and students in their school community,” Education Secretary John B. King Jr., told reporters.
At the same time, King said that the president rolled out a set of education policies that contributed to the improvements.
President Obama underscored that District of Columbia school officials embraced many of his policies and made the largest improvement (7 percent) in the nationwide high school graduation rate.
Starting with the youngest learners, the president’s Preschool For All initiative established a federal-state partnership to provide high-quality preschool for all 4-year-old children from low-income families.
Federal investment for early childhood education includes $4 billion in the Head Start program, as well as $1.75 billion in Preschool Development grants and Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants.
According to the White House, 46 states and the District of Columbia answered the president’s call and invested in preschool programs. They enrolled approximately 48,000 new 4-year-old preschoolers from 2009-2015.
The president’s policy initiatives also focused on making systemic changes through his signature Race to the Top initiative. Race to the Top is a $4 billion program that offers funding to states in exchange for making reforms aimed at improving teacher effectiveness, encouraging charter school expansion, improving low-performing schools, and increasing college readiness.
According to the Obama administration, Race to the Top has served 22 million students in 18 states and the District of Columbia.
“These efforts helped contribute to a decline in dropout rates, and over the last decade, dropout rates have been cut dramatically for Latino and African American students, while the number of high schools where fewer than six in 10 students graduate on time has been cut by more than 40 percent,” the administration stated.
Another educational goal of the president has been to close the tech gap. To that end, President Obama launched ConnectEd in 2013, which seeks to connect 99 percent of students to high-speed broadband by 2018.
The administration said plans are on track to prepare 100,000 STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teachers by 2021. At the same time, American universities are graduating 100,000 engineers each year for the first time. Also, high schools in 31 states have added computer science as a required course.
College affordability has also been a key policy area for the president. Administration officials said he has doubled investments in financial aid and established the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which provides up to $10,000 in tax credits. The president has also proposed America’s College Promise, a plan to create free community colleges nationwide. According to the administration, at least 36 free community college programs have launched since President Obama announced the plan in 2015.