Obama, Education and America's Teachable Moment

Friday, 13 March 2009 14:18 By Terrance Heath, Truthout | name.

Obama, Education and America

    There is one person in particular I hope got to hear President Obama's recent speech on education. There was a teachable moment in that speech applicable to all of the challenges we're facing and essential for Americans to understand if we're to meet them.

    I don't know his name or who he is. But prior to the election I often saw him - a man probably of retirement age, sitting behind a table gathering signatures to put a property tax cut on the ballot for upcoming county elections. Every weekend, I wondered, as we walked by him with our grocery cart, if he had children. If he did, they were probably grown. I wondered if, now that they are grown and done with formal education, he was protesting having to "pay for other people's kids" - mine included - to attend our area's public schools, or if it occurred to him how many people he relied on who were publicly educated at some point. I thought of him again because there was a moment in Obama's speech that spelled out why education - and more - matters to and for all of us.

    It was a wide-ranging speech that held few surprises, but held so much that there was something in it for just about everyone to find something they like or something they don't. Obama, seeming to return to, or at least allude to, a "bipartisanship" that's proved so successful in other areas, seems open to any idea that works. Yet his speech indicated openness to some that just don't and others that are questionable at best.

    Vouchers received a passing mention, though there's no credible evidence that vouchers work, in terms of improving student achievement, or putting private education within reach for students from needy families. Plus private schools are not held to the same standard of accountability - a theme that ran throughout the president's speech - public schools. Yet, Obama's emphasis on public funding suggests that vouchers, which largely serve to divert public funds to private schools - effectively outsourcing public education - won't be and can't be the centerpiece of any plan to really improve education.

    Merit pay for teachers, by comparison, received far more than a passing mention, with an emphasis on getting rid of "bad teachers." Yet, teachers - dangerous, educated union members that they are - have long been the target of mutli-million dollar campaigns with the goal of seeing that more public school teachers fired, and that those who are left work for much less. Never mind that we are facing a shortage of teachers in public education already. (Obama's plan includes extra money for math and science teachers, of which there is a shortage. But that leaves open the question of whether other subjects, and the teachers that specialize in them, are worth less.) Thus, the emphasis in Obama's speech is disturbing in that it appears to buy into right wing frames that can only serve to undermine public education by increasing teachers' workloads while simultaneously thinning their ranks.

    Maybe I was just lucky, but through the entirety of my education I don't recall having a truly "bad" teacher. There were some teachers who were better at reaching me than others, and some who were better at reaching other students, but no truly bad teachers. (OK, maybe one, but that's out of all the teachers I had from pre-school through college.) Perhaps, instead of making teachers' jobs harder, we should make teaching more attractive. (Full disclosure: My younger sister is a teacher.)

Of course there are bad teachers, but there are people in every profession who are bad at what they do. The main problem with bad teachers not getting fired is connected to the teacher shortage, not due to tenure. If you want to solve that problem by recruiting and retaining new teachers, you need to make the prospect of becoming a teacher more attractive. Part of that means having widely admired political leaders such as President Obama not make public threats to increase teacher workloads, make the profession less collegial, and fire lots of teachers. Such threats are not a very good marketing campaign for people considering a career in teaching. Because what people really want to hear about in our current economic climate is an increased possibility of getting fired.

I taught for five years myself, but I ended up leaving the profession. It is an emotionally draining experience, and it is very difficult to be a good teacher unless you can maintain the emotional engagement all of the time. I think people know this, which is why I don't entirely understand why talk of making teachers work harder, making their profession more competitive, and making their job [less] 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. If, as a nation, we actually want to solve our teacher shortage, part of that is going to mean dropping our constant national threats to make teachers lives more difficult. That is just a really, really bad way to recruit and retain teachers.

    If Obama is serious about improving education, it's much wiser to cast teachers as our best allies in this task. Because, well, they are.

    But at its heart, Obama's was a progressive speech from a president who understands that liberty without the knowledge of that liberty (education) and the ability to act on it (health care) is meaningless, and that a government serious about preserving and expanding liberty must expand and maintain access to both, for as many citizens as possible. It's progressive in that it's clearly founded on the ideas that government can, should, and must play a vital role in solving a problem that impacts all of us. And it does, whether we're parents, students, teachers, or haven't seen the inside of a school in years.

    The statistics speak for themselves; those Obama mentioned in his speech, and then some. As of last year, we're no longer world leader in secondary education, U.S. slipping in education rankings, ranking 18th out of 36 nations. We were beaten out by South Korea, where 93% of high school student graduate on time, as opposed to 75% here in the U.S. As of 2005, the U.S. ranked ninth in the percentage of our population that has at least a high school diploma, and eleventh among nations in the percentage of citizens with at least a college degree - both areas in which we were first in the world just 20 years ago. One million of our students become high school dropouts each year.

    Economics factor in, as well. Or, rather, economic disparity is a major factor. Low-income students with high achievement levels attend college at about the same rate as high-income students with much lower achievement levels, meaning that income trumps achievement in terms of access to education. Our childrens' own brains show evidence of a "wealth gap," as children from lower-income families process information with greater difficulty than most people.

    That "wealth gap" is widening right now, as a direct result of our economic downturn. In fact, our schools may be one of the worst casualties of our economic crash, as states face severe budget shortfalls, due to reduced property tax revenues, as a result of the ongoing foreclosure crisis. (Which, by the way, got worse in February as foreclosures rose by 30%.) That means schools are already facing cuts, and at a time when they're being hit by even more aftershocks of our crashing economy.

    More students are qualifying for free or subsidized lunches, as the economy sags, and at a time when schools are cutting those lunch programs. And school officials across the country have warned that more students are coming to school hungry (and without lunch money, at that).

    And they're not just coming to school hungry. They're also coming to school sick or in need of health care they aren't getting, because when parents lose jobs and health insurance, kids lose theirs too. (And, families dealing with job loss are likely to be dealing with foreclosure, and a host of other issues, as children's needs go unmet.) As a result they are losing out out learning, as schools have to focus on meeting students' medical needs. (The other choice being to ignore those needs and go on trying to educate children whose basic needs aren't being met.)

Growing numbers of uninsured children have made it harder for educators to focus on classroom achievement without first addressing the medical needs of their students who lack health insurance or dental coverage.

Instead of notifying parents when their children are ill, school officials increasingly must help find health care, arrange transportation for sick children and often advise beleaguered parents about the health consequences of their inaction.

Schools that don't accept the extra responsibility can lose those students to prolonged absences that jeopardize their academic advancement.

    Homelessness is rising as a result of our foundering economy, even as cities and states run out of funding for services the homeless need. That includes homeless families, some morphing into "motel families," resorting to what's become "de facto low-income housing," camping out in cramped rooms by the hundreds. Their increasing numbers is the reason why 1 in 50 American children are now homeless. And they are arriving in schools like a tidal wave, bringing with them all the problems that are attendant with becoming homeless.

While the problem may be worse in economically stricken regions like Southern California, where foreclosures and job losses are taking a harsh toll on families, anecdotal evidence suggests it is a growing issue nationally and one with serious ramifications for both a future generation and the overburdened public school system.

Research shows that the turmoil of homelessness often hinders children's ability to socialize and learn. Many are plagued by hunger, exhaustion, abuse and insecurity. They have a hard time performing at grade level and are about 50 percent less likely to graduate from high school than their peers.

"Homeless children are confronted daily by extremely stressful and traumatic experiences that have profound effects on their cognitive development and ability to learn," said Ellen Bassuk, a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor and president of the nonprofit National Center on Family Homelessness. "They tend to have high rates of developmental delays, learning difficulties and emotional problems as a product of precarious living situations and extreme p

... Under federal law, schools are charged with keeping homeless students like Daniel from falling behind their peers academically. This can mean providing a wide range of services, including transportation, free lunches, immunizations and referrals to family services.

But with insufficient federal funding and budgets that are severely strained, many schools are struggling to meet the rising need.

    The problem is only likely to get worse as job losses will probably continue to fuel the ongoing storm of foreclosures.

    It's easy to speak of "moral hazards," and assert that these families shouldn't have gotten into mortgages they couldn't afford or didn't understand (but keep in mind that foreclosures are no longer just for subprime borrowers, but now also for prime borrowers and responsible renters) when it comes to the question of keeping people in their homes, even as we continue to bail out the most irresponsible members of the financial sector. But it's also easy to forget what that means for children whose families become homeless, or even children living in communities blighted by foreclosures, and school districts devastated by budget shortfalls - and what it means for their education.

    The simple truth is that all of the major challenges we face today come to a collision point in the lives of our children, at some of the most developmentally important moments of their lives.

    If you don't yet see the teachable moment in all of this, let the president explain it for you.

America will not remain true to its highest ideals - and America's place as a global economic leader will be put at risk - unless we not only bring down the crushing cost of health care and transform the way we use energy, but also do a far better job than we have been doing of educating our sons and daughters; unless we give them the knowledge and skills they need in this new and changing world.

For we know that economic progress and educational achievement have always gone hand in hand in America. Land-grant colleges and public high schools transformed the economy of an industrializing nation. The GI Bill generated a middle class that made America's economy unrivaled in the 20th century. And investments in math and science under President Eisenhower made it possible for Sergei Brin to attend graduate school and found an upstart company called Google that would forever change our world.

The source of America's prosperity, then, has never been merely how ably we accumulate wealth, but how well we educate our people. This has never been more true than it is today. In a 21st century world where jobs can be shipped wherever there's an internet connection; where a child born in Dallas is competing with children in Delhi; where your best job qualification is not what you do, but what you know - education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it is a prerequisite.

That is why workers without a four-year degree have borne the brunt of recent layoffs, Latinos most of all. And that is why, of the thirty fastest growing occupations in America, half require a Bachelor's degree or more. By 2016, four out of every ten new jobs will require at least some advanced education or training.

So let there be no doubt: the future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens - and my fellow Americans, we have everything we need to be that nation. We have the best universities and the most renowned scholars. We have innovative principals, passionate teachers, gifted students, and parents whose only priority is their child's education. We have a legacy of excellence, and an unwavering belief that our children should climb higher than we did.

    If you still don't see it, let Yvonne Bojorquez explain it for you.

I want children like Yvonne Bojorquez to have that chance. Yvonne is a student at Village Academy High School in California. Village Academy is a 21st century school, where cutting edge technologies are used in the classroom, where college prep and career training are offered to all who seek it, and where the motto is - "respect, responsibility, and results." A couple of months ago, Yvonne and her class made a video talking about the impact that our struggling economy was having on their lives. Some of them spoke about their parents being laid off, or their homes facing foreclosure, or their inability to focus on school with everything that was happening at home. When it was her turn to speak, Yvonne said:
"We've all been affected by this economic crisis. [We] are all college bound students ... We're all businessmen, and doctors and lawyers and all this great stuff. And we have all this potential," she said, "but the way things are going, we're not going to be able to [fulfill it]."

It was heartbreaking that a girl so full of promise was so full of worry that she and her class titled their video, "Is anybody listening?" And so, today, there's something I want to say to Yvonne and her class at Village Academy. I am listening. We are listening. America is listening. And we are not going to rest until your parents can keep their jobs, your families can keep their homes, and you can focus on what you should be focusing on - your own education. Until you can become the businessmen, doctors, and lawyers of tomorrow, until you can reach out and grasp your dreams for the future.

    Those dreams for the future are not merely dreams but imperatives, if any of us are to have a hope of finding a way out of this crisis and into a better future - because none of us will get there on our own. The "You're On You're Own" politics and policies of the past few decades - and the luxury of pretending that what happens to you doesn't have anything to do with me, or vice versa - is what has brought us to the point, and thus cannot carry us forward.

It is called the "ownership society" in Washington. But, you know, historically there has been another term for it; it's called "social Darwinism" – the notion that every man or woman is out for him or herself, which allows us to say that if we meet a guy who has worked in a steel plant for 30, 40 years and suddenly has the rug pulled out from under him and can't afford health care or can't afford a pension, you know, life isn't fair. It allows us to say to a child who doesn't have the wisdom to choose his or her own parents and so lives in a poor neighborhood, pick yourself up by your own bootstraps. It allows us to say to somebody who is seeing their child sick and is going bankrupt paying the bills, tough luck.

It's a bracing idea, this idea that you're on your own. It's the simplest thing in the world, easy to put on a bumper sticker. But there's just one problem; it doesn't work. It ignores our history. Now, yes, our greatness as a nation has depended on self-reliance and individual initiative and a belief in the free market, but it's also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, our sense that we have a stake in each other's success – that everybody should have a shot at opportunity.

Americans understand this. They know the government can't solve all their problems, but they expect the government can help because they know it's an expression of what they're learning in Sunday school. What they learn in their church, in their synagogue, in their mosque – a basic moral precept that says that I have to look out for you and I have responsibility for you and you have responsibility for me, that I am your keeper and you are mine. That's what America is.

    So, I hope the guy I used to see outside my grocery store - protesting against paying property taxes - saw the president's speech and that some part of it reached him. Because the future, our future, will require the businesspersons, doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, municipal workers, mechanics, builders, firemen, policemen, etc., and all of the things that high school students like Yvonne Boroquez and even kindergartners like my son dream of being, can be, and will be someday, but only with our help, right now.

    Whatever the cost may be, meeting the challenges we face in education, health care and the economy are a down payment on our future that must be paid, if we're to have one better than our present.

Last modified on Friday, 13 March 2009 17:10