10 March 2009

Your Plan, Mr. Obama?

Today, President Obama is supposed to roll out his approach to “fix” schools in the US. Expect more money to flow into schools and school-related programs in order to “help” keep student in school through graduation and to “recruit” high quality teachers. And then, expect more talk about tough standards, high expectations, and rigor.

The reader may note the use of quotation marks above. They are meant to imply cynicism and sarcasm. At the root of both is a fundamental question: what role does the federal government have in local public education? My answer is: none.

But in this time of ever-growing government “oversight” and “bailouts,” there’s no reason to expect that Mr. Obama will make any move to reduce local dependency (especially in urban areas) on federal dollars. There is no reason to expect that there will be less oversight; more dollars would seem to necessitate more “oversight.” But the single, most important thing that Mr. Obama, the first black president the United States has elected, could do would cost nothing – or perhaps just the jet fuel needed to fly the president to a location of his choice for the press conference.

Mr. Obama could, and should, make it clear that gaining an education is not a matter of money or privilege, not a matter of subsidies or stipends. A well-educated mind is the result of persistent work with difficult subjects. Too often, kids of all skin tones belittle and mock academic achievement – indeed, mock even turning in assignments – as “being white.” For a troubling number of kids, there is more prestige in being bad, in not doing what is expected of them, than in making themselves better people through the hard work of education. Telling these kids that that attitude is absolutely wrong would be a strong and resounding message for Mr. Obama to send. It would do more, I suspect, than the billions he will no doubt propose.

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