The president gave an innocuous and useless speech on education yesterday. Some on the right charged politics-in-the-classroom, but, really, get a grip folks. The problem was not its offensiveness; it was screamingly boring. There was a message he could have delivered that would have been of real importance, but no chance.
To talk to the nation’s K–12 students, Mr. Obama went to an Arlington, Va., high school that Jay Mathews — the Washington Post’s splendid education columnist — has called “an amazing place.” I believe it, but the president made no mention of the source of the school’s success — its important formula.
Whites and Asians together make up only a quarter of Wakefield High’s student population; the school is 47 percent Hispanic and 27 percent black. About half the students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch. But it was a recipient last year of a National College Board Inspiration Award for its commitment to challenging all students to take advanced and Advanced Placement courses. The result: Last year, 39 percent of the graduating seniors had at least one passing score on an AP test. That’s more than double the national average.
Wakefield High’s secret is clearly defined on its website. The school sets “high expectations academically and behaviorally”; its coursework is “demanding”; and it encourages students to “learn from mistakes, value perseverance and strive for excellence.” It describes its results as creating a “passion for excellence through the collaborative efforts of staff, students, parents and the community.”
Thus, at Wakefield High itself, the students were already familiar with the president’s message. “We can have the most dedicated teachers,” Obama said, “the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world — and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.”
Hard work is the key to success, he continued. The “circumstances of your life . . . [are] no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny.”
That destiny “could be a good writer . . . an innovator or an inventor . . . a mayor or a senator or a Supreme Court Justice.” Well, yes, but . . . He did have the wits to add nurse, police officer, or member of the military to the list, but in his imaginary occupational universe no one does anything so déclassé as to run a business or work for one.
Had conservatives and libertarians who objected to Obama’s speech focused on his blinkered view of the world of work, they would have had a real point. But the rest of the speech was harmless. Oh yes, the Department of Education did initially suggest an accompanying lesson plan that suggested students “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president,” but criticism forced the administration to drop that requirement. Students were encouraged instead to write on their own goals and how they might achieve them.
Nevertheless, the bells of alarm continued to ring. For instance, the estimable Clint Bolick, who has been so important to the school-choice movement, yesterday complained that the president was indoctrinating “highly impressionable young minds.” Would that it were so. What a happy thought: Obama able to convince kids in crummy schools — in, say, inner-city Detroit — that they should pay attention in class, do their homework, and read books on their own, because it was highly unlikely they would find fame and fortune playing for the NBA or rapping.
In fact, of course, presidential sermons won’t make a whit of difference in educational outcomes. Pres. George H. W. Bush made much the same speech in 1991: “Let me tell you something, many of you may find very hard to believe this. You’re in control. . . . Take control — challenge yourself. . . . If you don’t work hard, who gets hurt . . . you do.” Neither speech was objectionable — and both were futile.