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Posted at 02:54 PM ET, 09/28/2011

The problem with Obama’s speech to students

There’s no reason why a president — any president — shouldn’t be allowed to give a nonpartisan speech to students across the country during the school day that urges them to take their studies seriously.

And there’s no reason why schools — some of which have no problem yanking kids out of class for a pep rally — shouldn’t allow students to see and hear a message of academic responsibility being delivered directly to them by the leader of their country.

It’s just unfortunate that President Obama’s education policies don’t actually match the vision of learning he painted in the speech he gave today at Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington and beamed nationwide to schools.

Obama said many of the things you’d expect him to say in a speech like this to students. According to a transcript issued by the White House:

“I don’t want to be another adult who stands up to lecture you like you’re just kids. Because you’re not just kids. You’re this country’s future. Whether we fall behind or race ahead in the coming years is up to you. And I want to talk to you about meeting that responsibility
“It starts with being the best student you can be. Now, that doesn’t always mean you have to get a perfect score on every assignment. It doesn’t have to mean straight A’s all the time—although that’s a good goal to strive for. It means you have to keep at it.”

But there was a confusing disconnect between Obama’s vision of how he thinks students should be educated and the policies his Education Department is actually pursuing. The latter can’t create the conditions to realize the former.

Obama, for example, told kids he wasn’t always crazy about school, and remembers really thinking that an ethics class he took in eighth grade was a waste of time. He preferred playing basketball. But later in life he realized how much he had learned in that ethics class. He said, according to the speech transcript:

“I remember the way it made me think. I remember being asked questions like ‘What matters in life?’ ‘What does it mean to treat people with respect and dignity?’ ‘What does it mean to live in a diverse nation?’ Each question led to a new one, and I didn’t always know the answer right away. But those discussions and that process of discovery are still with me today. Every day, I’m thinking about what those issues mean for us as a nation. I’m asking all sorts of questions just like those. And I’ll let you in on another secret: I still don’t always know the answers. But if I’d have just tuned out because the class sounded boring, I might have missed out on something that I enjoyed and something that’s still useful to me today.”

Is that kind of education — in which students raise important questions and discover the answers through critical thinking — just what we wish for all students, and not just those in a prestigious private school, such as the one in Hawaii where Obama took that ethics class?

He further said in the speech today, according to the transcript:

“It means you have to work as hard as you know how. And it means that you take some risks once in a while. You wonder. You question. You explore. You color outside the lines every now and then.
“That’s what school’s for: discovering new passions and acquiring the skills to pursue those passions in the future. That’s why one hour you can be an artist; the next, an author; the next, a scientist. Or a historian. Or a carpenter. This is the time when you can try out new interests and test new ideas. And the more you do, the sooner you’ll figure out what makes you come alive.”

Again, sounds good.

Unfortunately the policies that Obama’s administration has pursued in education have been focused more on establishing accountability systems for teachers and principals that are in part — sometimes very large part — linked to students’ standardized test scores.

As a result, more standardized tests in more subjects are being created, and the test preparation that came to characterize the U.S. classroom during the No Child Left Behind era of former president George W. Bush is still thriving, and, perhaps, getting worse. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for teachers and principals to risk much experimentation. Their salaries and jobs depend on improving test scores, even though experts on academic assessment say these “value-added” systems of measurement are not reliable. It’s a bad idea that nevertheless has gotten deep traction in school systems across the country, with Obama administration support.

Obama last week announced that his administration would grant waivers to states freeing them from key measures in No Child Left Behind that have been shown to be virtually impossible to meet, especially the provision that nearly all students score proficient on standardized tests in reading and math by 2014.

Unfortunately, the waivers don’t really provide relief from NCLB’s misplaced emphasis on standardized test scores.

This isn’t the first time Obama has said something about the way education should be that contradicts the direction and impact of his policies.

At a town hall earlier this year he said,

“...We have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at. Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn’t even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn’t study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.”

And he said further:

“So what I want to do is -- one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you’re not learning about the world; you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that’s not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.”

It all begs the question of whether Obama actually knows how his education policies are playing out in schools across the country. One school district, for example, tested out on K-12 students 52 new standardized tests last spring in an effort to set up a new assessment system that would evaluate teachers in every subject on the scores, music and art and yearbook included. That system, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina recently won the Broad Prize for Urban Education.

If Obama does know how his policies are being implemented, why does he give the impression that he doesn’t? If he doesn’t know, why not?

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By  |  02:54 PM ET, 09/28/2011

 
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