Tuesday, March 10, 2009

President Obama tackles education

President Obama's speech before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce this morning was on "A Complete and Competitive Education".

The beginning of his remarks relate education to economics. The meat of his argument, however, comes here, discussing the root of the troubles with American education:
it's because politics and ideology have too often trumped our progress that we're in the situation that we're in...
Really? It's "partisan bickering" alone that cause our problems?

He goes on to propose increased funding of early childhood education--no big argument there, particularly for kids who don't get the background they need for later education at home. However, I (and I'm sure many early childhood educators) would be interested in how he proposes evaluating them. If this is going to mean that nonsense of giving kids who are three standardized tests, then let's not go there.

And then those words we've all heard so much: standards and assessments:
Now, this is an area where we are being outpaced by other nations. It's not that their kids are any smarter than ours -- it's that they are being smarter about how to educate their children. They're spending less time teaching things that don't matter, and more time teaching things that do. They're preparing their students not only for high school or college, but for a career. We are not. Our curriculum for 8th graders is two full years behind top performing countries. That's a prescription for economic decline. And I refuse to accept that America's children cannot rise to this challenge. They can, and they must, and they will meet higher standards in our time.
Is it the teacher in me that thinks that public speakers should have to cite their sources? I'd love to know where this piece about two full years behind comes from. Also, are we comparing apples to apples? America, striving for meritocracy that we are, educates all children equally; we don't channel our kids into tracks until, at the earliest, high school. This is not the case in other countries. If we're comparing Sweden and Japan's highest performers to everybody in America, we can be as patriotic as we want, but it isn't a fair comparison.

Shout out to Massachusetts in here:
Standards like those in Massachusetts, where 8th graders are -- (applause) -- we have a Massachusetts contingent here. (Laughter.) In Massachusetts, 8th graders are now tying for first -- first in the whole world in science.
(any MA science teachers have a theory on that?)

Here's an encouraging point, hinting that maybe he gets it a bit:
And I'm calling on our nation's governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.
These are, after all, the skills that the rest of the world has traditionally trailed America on, and why other countries have often sent their kids here for college. If you drill on bubble tests, you lose this, and the importance of these skills can't be overestimated.

And what about teachers? Well, he's making sure that we have enough money that we don't have to fire a bunch of them this year. A start. And a call for new teachers:
And so today, I'm calling on a new generation of Americans to step forward and serve our country in our classrooms. If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation, if you want to make the most of your talents and dedication, if you want to make your mark with a legacy that will endure -- then join the teaching profession. America needs you. We need you in our suburbs. We need you in our small towns. We especially need you in our inner cities. We need you in classrooms all across our country.
But I don't think the rest of what he has to say is going to make current teachers very happy: more pay for science and math teachers (I am holding my fire as an former English teacher here; I'll let someone else tell you about essay correcting), merit pay for teachers (that's not going to get teachers in inner cities, where the scores are lower), and expanded day and year programs (more time is not what this is about). And while he has some strong words on drop-outs, he doesn't do much more than blame the schools for high rates of them and scold the kids who are thinking of dropping out.

Interestingly, I think it's his final few paragraphs, which are a lovely ode to the work his mother did to get him a good education, that show why he doesn't get it. For all that he doesn't come from money, President Obama is the child of two college educated parents. There was no question that, no matter where he was, no matter what his parents did, he was going to get a good education to the extent that it was in the power of his parents. What he doesn't recognize is how few children in America have that advantage. Those kids aren't the kids we need to worry about: they have parents for that. It's the parents who aren't fighting tooth-and-nail to get them the very best education around who need the rest of us to support their kids. Those kids have parents who might be getting up at 4:30, like his mom did, but it isn't to squeeze an extra lesson in before school: it's to catch the first of several buses to get to work on time to just keep food on the table and a roof over their kids' heads. And some of them aren't managing that, in this economy, as cited elsewhere on homelessness.

Kids in charter schools are self-selected; they have supportive parents. Kids who are high achieving on standardized tests generally come from supported households. These aren't the kids we should be worrying about. It's the kids he speaks least about--those dropping out, those failing the tests, those who are too busy wondering where they'll sleep tonight--that most need help.

They're going to have trouble finding much of it here.

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