Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Obama's Controversial Speech to Schoolchildren that Wasn't

I am all hot and bothered over President Obama's speech to schoolchildren yesterday, September 8, 2009, and it's not because the (actually rather bland) speech turned me on. It's because of all of the dramatics surrounding the speech. I procrastinated writing this post, or producing any other type of writing I should have on my first full day of childcare, by picking debates on the topic with people on facebook.

I think we can all agree that the idea of Obama's addressing the nation's schoolchildren to stress the importance of education is a fine one. That he was going to "indoctrinate" the children or "brainwash" them with his "Socialist" (I wish!) agenda is laughable. And there is absolutely nothing in the content of the speech that is political or harmful. But by giving these right-wing extremist ravings coverage, the media was able to stoke the fires of polarization. Unfortunately many liberals took the bait, obscuring what were valid reasons for school districts to show the speech, but also valid reasons to opt not to.

The speech was a decent one with an admirable focus, but to ask the nation's educators to make time during the first day of school for this speech was asking too much. I know the first day in my classroom was always a very important one, one where I was worked damn hard to establish myself as a challenging teacher my students could trust and to establish my classroom as a safe and stimulating place. The last thing I would need on that day would be for some politician, even if I did vote for him and even if he were a Democrat, to be beamed in on the television pontificating in the same predictable educational-inspirational sloganese students hear all of the time and see plastered on the hallways of public schools: work hard and stay in school and achieve your dreams and don't talk back to your teachers. Then you can get accomplished, rich, and important like me and send your kids to private school so they can avoid being with riffraff such as yourselves (okay, that was cheap, that's his personal life, but wait, one-third of the speech was premised on his personal life, so perhaps the topic is fair game and I have to wonder if he nixed giving the speech in a D.C. public school because he imagined the irony of telling students to stay in a school he wouldn't send hs own daughters to). But back to the topic at hand. I have my own way of telling my students why my class is important and I don't need the President to do it for me. Furthermore, does he have any idea what it means for a principal to stop the school day and air a speech? How disruptive that could be? Obama says the most important thing in any student's education is the quality of the teacher they have, so I am perplexed by his beginning the school year by usurping those teachers' time and supposing that twenty minutes of his words would suffice to snap the nation's schoolchildren into shape.

I am glad that my own first graders weren't plopped down in front of a television the first day of school. They were busy enough keeping their teachers' names straight, avoiding getting lost on the way to the cafeteria, and remembering their bus numbers. Furthermore, I think the speech was fine for secondary students but I'm not sure it was appropriate for younger elementary school students, and I don't know what they would have gotten out of it. Hanover County, Virignia, Public Schools published this statement, which brought on accusations of being politically motivated and "anti-Obama." Maybe the school board is full of Republicans and maybe their statement was coded language for "we are not exposing this arugula-eating socialist to our students because he's going to brainwash them and we have a gubernatorial election coming up and don't want to give the Democratic candidate any kind of advantage," but I don't think so and even if that were the case, I still agreed with the spirit of the statement. (Hey, I wouldn't be above showing the Obama speech if I thought it would help defeat the rabid right-winger McDonnell.) I thought Hanover County's, and other school districts with a similar approach, handling of the situation was perfectly reasonable and appropriate: it may be disruptive on the first day and we don't want to pressure our teachers and principals; we are recording the speech, making instructional materials available, and letting the teachers decide when and how to show it. If teachers can prepare for showing and discussing the speech without having to also prepare for the beginning of school madness, then they can tie it to their curriculum and lesson plans, then actually the students would get more out of the speech than they would otherwise. I wish the Obama administration would have done the same thing and also consulted with educators to see what would be the most meaningful and least intrusive way to give the speech.

I appreciate him asking our nation's schoolchildren to work hard and to contribute to our society, and honestly, I would not have protested had it been aired in my kids' school and I might have shown it to my own students were I teaching right now, but it would have been better to do so in the context of a major historical event or the unveiling of education policy initiatives. How about promising to fix the problems of No Child Left Behind? I had plenty of E.S.O.L. (English for Speakers of other Languages) students who were told to work hard and stay in school and they did so until they figured out they had little chance of passing the standardized tests they needed to to get a high school degree and dropped out (speaking of which, was the speech made available in translation for E.S.O.L. students? In sign language for deaf students?) How about talking about pressuring our colleges and universities to make the college admissions process more equitable and not based on someone's ability to pay for SAT-prep classes? How about promising to de-emphasize high stakes testing and the low quality education that ensues because of it? How about talking about how our students perform and are employed relative to other industrialized countries? Obama doesn't have much new to offer about education policy: as I explained in my March 23, 2009 post, his administration's policies are rather more of the same of what we saw from Bush.

The speech had some inspiring moments and some nice rhetorical flourishes and I'm sure at least some students learned something from it. I liked what he had to say and reading over the speech before writing this blog piece, I liked it even more, but it's hard for me to get past the lofty empty cliches and the speech was nowhere as powerful as his masterful Philadelphia speech on race , his gracious presidential acceptance speech, or his rousing Inaugural speech. I hope his health care speech today is better. To me, the speech and the hoopla surrounding it amounted to much ado about, well, nothing significant, or as a friend of a facebook friend commented, "
to quote my daughter, 'Yeah...some guy talked to us on the tv about a bunch of boring stuff.' " With all of the test prep Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants, aren't our nation's schoolchildren exposed to enough boring stuff already?


CPL said...

great blog! i think it was a missed opportunity, too -- one of many lately.

Rachel Levy said...

This has been cut and paste by the author from a facebook comment thread:

Rachel Steele Schafer: Very balanced, and I agree. And I was a bit pissed he sent his kids to Sidwell. Hardy Middle was good enough for Amy Carter, right? Really, very balanced and non-lunaticy. Nice work. And I totally agree about the first day thing, too. And your right about the ESL students. Right on, Rach!

Any George Brown: Well done, Rachel!

Eleanor Oliver: Alice Deal has too many doors. Security for the children of the President has gotten very complicated since Jimmy Carter's time. We all remember that Rachel's sister was witness to a shooting at the bus stop outsice of Wilson 20 yrs ago. Have things changed.?

Rachel Levy: I appreciate your reading and commenting, Eleanor and your point is not a minor one. I've made it myself. That being said,

a) I respect the Obama's sending his kids to private school, but he's gonna have expect to lose some credibility points for doing so, especially when he wants us the rest of us, including the students he addressed, to invest in public education and when he is supposedly enamored with the current DCPS leadership and their kind. Also, Obama sent his kids to private school in Chicago way before he was an elected official and there were any security concerns.

b) The Secret Service provides security for the President and his family all over the world. If they can't secure Alice Deal JHS then they've got bigger problems (doors or no doors).

c) Do you think that said shooting would have happened with the Secret Service there? I hope not. If yes, then as I said before, they have bigger problems.

Rachel Steele Schafer: As she said. I didn't know that about your sister.

Beth Greenstein: I am a public school teacher who happily sends her daughter to a private Quaker school. I respect him for his choices and that is his right, just as it is mine. Families make the best choices based on their needs and wants. I don't fault him for that. At. All.

Rachel Levy: Hi Beth! I am sorry if you felt judged by either what was a flip aside in the blog post or by this comment thread--that was not my intention. If you have the opportunity to do so, I can see why you would send your daughter to a private Quaker school. I wasn't always happy or fulfilled as a DCPS student and at the time, I don't know that I would have sent my children to the high school I went to. As to the Quakers, I think they are fantastic educators. My first teaching job was at a private Quaker school and except for the wildly varied salaries (which seemed to be based on whether you were married to the headmaster or not and how well you could haggle with him behind closed doors, but that's another story) it was great. I learned a lot. I wish Obama would hire some Quakers to help run our nation's public schools or maybe some of the folks from U-Chicago lab school who base their practices on Dewey's ideas.
But instead he hires and listens to people who run the very school systems he hasn't sent his own children to. And that's what I take issue with, not with his, and certainly not with your, right to send his and your kids to private schools. But the education policy decisions he makes (a lot of which I don't agree with) affect the education of my children, whom I can't afford to send to private school, as well as affect how I do my job as a (potential) public school teacher. To me, it feels as if he is sending a message that those educational practices he espouses are good enough for public school children, but not for his own. And there's something hypocritical and exceptionalist in that. Beyond the fact that I don't agree with many of Arne Duncan's (or Joel Klein's or Michelle Rhee's ideas), the fact that Obama won't expose his own children to their practices undermines my confidence in the policy choices he's making.

Rachel Levy said...

Rachel Steele Schafer: Yay, Dewey! Can we throw a little Montessori in there, too? I agree, it undermines my confidence, too.

Eleanor Oliver: Let's remember that The Prez attended Poonaho, the Sidwell Friends of Honolulu.

Rachel Steele Schafer: What does that prove? I think the President, while of course having the right to educate his children as he sees fit, could certainly have set a nice example by using public schools. That's all.
And the rest of it:

Beth Greenstein: I don't think anyone should use their children as examples. Me, the president...anyone.

Rachel Steele Schafer: But I don't really think of it as him using his children as "examples." I think it is more about showing faith in the pub. ed. system, which is all many of us can afford.

Joe Riener said...

Indeed. I think Duncan is this administration's weak link. I'm sure it was his idea. "Oh, let's have the president address schoolchildren on the first day! It'll be great.

The TV in my room (I teach at a high school in DC) um, doesn't work. And besides, it was lunchtime. Who wants to listen to some adult during the one time all day you can actually have an uninterrupted talk with your friend or sweetheart? Gotta love teenagers. Some of the social studies teaches recruited some students, so there were some young faces for the TV cameras that came, but everyone else was outside, enjoying the nice day.

Joe Riener