I was unable to see the President’s recent speech to the nation’s school children as it took place, but I did manage to watch portions of it on the evening’s news coverage. As expected, the President delivered a message which urged school kids to take their work seriously, not to drop out of school, and to understand the critical importance of education. Despite some noise to the contrary, there wasn’t much to take issue with. Nonetheless I struggled to identify why I thought the talk missed the mark by such a wide margin. Frankly, I found the speech to be oddly bland and devoid of any real urgency.
In defense of the President, some have said he was playing it safe after intense criticism from a vocal minority of conservative politicians and parents. However, White House insiders say otherwise. They say the content of the speech was set and was unchanged by extremists’ arguments. The detractors did succeed in making themselves look silly by claiming the President wanted to “indoctrinate our kids.”
However, as a political conservative, I view such claims a distraction from substantial and principled differences that exist over this President’s views on healthcare, foreign policy, Supreme Court nominees, and the economy. I view objections regarding the President’s talk to students largely to be a manifestation of the wacky “birthers” movement which argues that Obama really isn’t a U.S. citizen, and the related claim that he is … a closet Muslim.
But let’s be clear - folks who believe this sort of anti-intellectual rot would object if Obama publicly read the label on a cereal box. Extremists exist at both ends of the political spectrum. Loonies on the left – the Michael Moore, Code Pink, Rosie O’Donnell types – claimed for eight years that George Bush was the personification of evil. The “Bush derangement syndrome,” has now turned into the “Obama derangement syndrome.”
It is a truism that there is a need to inspire kids, particularly urban minority students, and direct them toward educational excellence. Nationally, black and Latino youngsters fare poorly when compared to the educational attainment levels of their white or Asian peers. The yawning racial educational gap that exists between these groups has been well-documented and despite efforts like the “No Child Left Behind” program, has not shown any real improvement – in fact, as recent studies have demonstrated, the gap may be growing. The College Board’s 2009 SAT scores of college-bound high school seniors shows that the racial learning gap has widened and is sadly larger than it was two decades ago.
It took my reading of an article that appeared in National Review, written by my good friend Abigail Thernstrom, to help clarify my reservations about Obama’s talk to students. She argues that the President’s speech was “screamingly boring” and that he missed the opportunity to deliver a message “that would have been of real importance …”
Among liberal politicians and educational bureaucrats, there is opposition to “standards,” “testing” and “demanding” coursework. For example, in California, as well as other states, they have challenged exit exams for high school seniors – claiming such testing “culturally” discriminates against black and Hispanic school kids. This is, of course, nonsense. Studies of exit exams have shown that they actually improve graduation rates, particularly among this struggling student demographic.
Obama missed a chance to take on these entrenched forces, and make it clear to students that they and their parents need to demand “change” among the educational and political elites who conspire to retard their chances of success in a highly-competitive environment.
Thernstrom argues that:
“Obama’s innocuous speech was actually a missed opportunity. Instead of platitudes about the importance of hard work, he could have taken on the anti-testing crowd. Standards-based tests, he might have said, are an essential tool in assessing the skills of those applying to law-schools – but also in deciding who is qualified to be lieutenant in a fire department. Hostility to such assessments in the K-12 years is not a civil rights position. It betrays a callousness and indifference to the future of disadvantaged kids.”
While some misguided, perhaps paranoid, conservatives believed that the president intended to “politicize” the classroom, the real criticism is that he didn’t go nearly far enough.