Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Obama Speaking On Education

Yesterday, President Obama addressed the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on improving education in the U.S.A.

The good news; this was a superior speech to any which would have been given by the likes of John McCain, Sarah Palin, John Boehner, or Rush Limbaugh. The bad news: that's an awfully low bar to surmount.

After the obligatory pander of "Si se puede" ("yes, we can"- what?) and standard, well-meaning rhetoric, Obama declared "I think you'd all agree that the time for finger-pointing is over."

At which time the President resumed a speech focused on finger-pointing. Offering no evidence, Obama claimed "from the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents, it's the person standing at the front of the classroom." (Translation: I'm not one of those old-time liberals who believe we have to address the matter of poverty.) He argues "if a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there's no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences."

Ironic that a President who preaches accountability and accepting consequences would advocate the promulgation of charter schools, which take public money and are spared some regulations which apply to public schools. He contended:

But right now, there are many caps on how many charter schools are allowed in some states, no matter how well they're preparing our students. That isn't good for our children, our economy, or our country. Of course, any expansion of charter schools must not result in the spread of mediocrity, but in the advancement of excellence. And that will require states adopting both a rigorous selection and review process to ensure that a charter school's autonomy is coupled with greater accountability –- as well as a strategy, like the one in Chicago, to close charter schools that are not working. Provided this greater accountability, I call on states to reform their charter rules, and lift caps on the number of allowable charter schools, wherever such caps are in place.

The money is not inexhaustible. Public funds allocated for charter schools- or for merit pay, which the President also endorsed- are funds not allocated for public education and its related expenses, such as school construction, school lunch programs, after-school programs, or more teachers to improve the student-teacher ratio.

And now this fantasy, so shopworn it's almost a cliche:

Now, even as we foster innovation in where our children are learning, let's also foster innovation in when our children are learning. We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed for when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day. That calendar may have once made sense, but today it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children -- listen to this -- our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea -- every year. That's no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy. That's why I'm calling for us not only to expand effective after-school programs, but to rethink the school day to incorporate more time -– whether during the summer or through expanded-day programs for children who need it. (Applause.)

No matter how many Presidents or members of America's elite class push the idea, the time spent by American youngsters in school is not going to increase, and for at least two obvious reasons:

1) Young people (aside for children) do things outside of school- athletics and other school activities, and work. If Obama wanted to demonstrate the courage he claims (disingenuously intoning "Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas"), he would criticize the increasing obsession in American society and schools with athletics at the expense of academics- but video (below) of the President playing basketball is so much more entertaining and manly.

2) Expense. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that at least 46 states have faced or are facing budget shortfalls in this and/or the coming fiscal year. Unlike the federal government, at least 37 states must balance their (operating) budget annually. And do it they must, without printing money or borrowing from mainland China. Raising taxes can be injurious to the political health of a governor or a state legislator.

And the standard criticism of the adults:

No government policy will make any difference unless we also hold ourselves more accountable as parents -- because government, no matter how wise or efficient, cannot turn off the TV or put away the video games. Teachers, no matter how dedicated or effective, cannot make sure your child leaves for school on time and does their homework when they get back at night. These are things only a parent can do. These are things that our parents must do.

This is always a safe ploy. Many parents, hearing such criticism, assume the academic or policymaker is talking about some other kid's parents- certainly not themselves. President Obama might instead have acknowledged (other than in the insufficient, patronizing manner he attempted) the awesome odds against many parents-especially single-parents, and especially in a careening economy.

At Open Left yesterday, Chris Bowers made these and other points, more eloquently. And he noted, in an insightful rush of political incorrectness:

I don't entirely understand why talk of making teachers work harder, making their profession more competitive, and making their job secure is so common in America. We don't talk about making the lives of other people who work in public service, such as soldiers and first responders--or even health care workers--in such a foreboding way.

It is risky in polite society not to mention that soldiers, police, and firefighters have uniquely dangerous and difficult jobs. They are spoken of as first responders and protectors of the nation- not as dreaded government workers or as individuals with singular responsibilities to the public, standards to which we hold teachers. And never, never would we suggest that they are failing a whole class of Americans- as we do of teachers in their obligation to students. It is a stunning double standard.




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