Obama’s Teachable Moment Will Teach What?

The Flash Report, September 8, 2009

The biggest problem with President Barack Obama’s speech to students, which will be broadcast and be available to the nation’s schools on September 8th, may not be what he actually says in his speech. Rather, the bigger worry involves the Obama administration’s recommendations to teachers as to how to guide student discussion and activities after the president’s talk.

Opponents of the president’s speech have voiced concern that students will be indoctrinated. Administration officials counter that the president will focus on more innocuous themes. “The president will challenge students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning,” says U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “He will also call for shared responsibility and commitment on the part of students, parents and educators to ensure that every child in every school receive the best education possible so they can compete in the global economy for good jobs and live rewarding and productive lives as American citizens.”

Yet, behind the seemingly innocuous themes are real and contentious policy issues. For example, although Mr. Duncan says that President Obama wants shared responsibility between students, parents and educators in order to improve the quality of education, the president does not want parents to share in the most critical education decision of all – which school to send their children. He opposes school-choice voucher programs, which attach funding to a child so that parents can choose the public or private school that best meets the needs of their child.

Yet, beyond what Mr. Obama may or may not say in his speech, the more troubling aspect of this episode could occur in the classroom in the aftermath of his address. Tom Dooher, head of the Minnesota teachers union, which endorsed Mr. Obama last year, argues that the speech will be a teachable moment for students and educators. However, the Obama administration wants that moment to be taught in a very particular way.

In its menu of recommended classroom activities for the speech, the administration suggests that K-6 students listen to the speech and ask themselves: “What is the president trying to tell me? What is the president asking me to do? What new ideas and actions is the president challenging me to think about?” Nowhere on the menu are there any questions that ask students to think critically about what Mr. Obama will say. For instance, there are no questions that ask: “What is your opinion of what the president has said? What are the things you agree with the president and what are the things with which you disagree, and why? Are there things that you wish that the president had said but did not?”

The menu of activities for students in grades 7-12 includes the recommendation that teachers guide student discussion after the speech by asking: “What resonated with you from President Obama’s speech?” and “Is President Obama inspiring you to do anything?” Any discussion guided by these recommendations will end up narrowly focusing only on furthering the goals brought up by Mr. Obama. There will be little discussion of students who were inspired by the president’s policies, but not in a manner to the liking of the administration.

When President Obama and Congress decided to halt the awarding of new vouchers to low-income children in Washington, DC, hundreds of children participated in rallies to protest the president’s policy. Some made signs, some made videos, and some made speeches. A balanced approach that included voices both supportive of and dissenting from the president’s education policies would have given some credibility to the administration’s classroom recommendations, but advocacy and self-glorification, not balance, have become the Obama trademarks.

As parents across the country express concern about Mr. Obama’s politicization of education and decide to pull their kids out of school rather than have them subjected to presidential cheerleading tactics in the classroom, it is becoming clearer that rather than uniting the country Mr. Obama’s heavy-handedness is making him the divider-in-chief.

Lance T. Izumi is Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy (PRI), California’s premier free-market public-policy think tank based in San Francisco.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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