And now the responsibility rests with students
by Erika Owens on Sep 09 2009
President Obama kicked up quite the storm with his speech to schools on Tuesday and the suggested lesson plans. In the cacophony of complaints, people questioned taking time out of the school day and his presumed desire to indoctrinate students in socialist politics, but there was relatively little discussion about the content of the speech. Again President Obama went back to his refrain about personal responsibility, but this time, instead of targeting parents, he spoke to his student audience.
Luckily, some people are taking a critical look at his speech itself.* The Washington Post's new ed blogger Valerie Strauss discussed the speech with Jay Mathews. Strauss zeroed in on one facet of this focus on personal responsibility--Obama called for students to develop creativity and ingenuity, but there are forces out of the students control that dictate the curriculum those students encounter.
Obama did acknowledge that "a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork." His response? "That’s no excuse for not trying."
Not only is it not an excuse, but Obama says, "No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future." While that sentiment sounds great, it's just not realistic. No amount of doing homework or working hard is going to change a curriculum that isn't working or end the testing obsession Strauss cites. Students taking responsibility won't make up for a revolving door of teachers, schools that are falling apart or waiting to be "turned around," parents with limited literacy skills, or the societal expectation for individual responsibility that allows people to ignore community needs. Also, I don't know that you can untangle this responsibility focus from laying blame on the students--if you make your own future, then that implies it is your fault if that future isn't what you hoped it would be.
I understand the value in giving a "rah, rah, you can do it!" style cheerleading speech, but this emphasis on personal responsibility is not just a motivator, it has other effects as well. I think it puts undue pressure on kids: "So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down." It's not bad enough that kids may feel bad about their abilities or paralyzed by an education system that is not meeting their needs--now they have to worry about letting the whole country down, too? I know the flip side of that can be motivating: "I'm doing this not just for myself, but for my country!" But it's also a heavy burden to place on students. A burden that means that kids must take responsibility and control for their future even when their ability to do that may be limited.
I'm all for doing homework and asking questions and taking an active interest in your own education. But the problems in education are not primarily individual problems, and they will not be addressed by individuals watching out for themselves. Obama said, "I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve." The government hasn't yet lived up to that responsibility--why not ask teachers, parents, students, businesses, and political leaders for help in making schools and communities stronger, rather than focusing on individuals?
"Actually, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, the “best” schools (whatever that means), AND students taking responsibility for their education and still not wind up with academic success at the end of the day. By stressing the student responsibility part of the equation in today’s speech, Obama is implying that all the other preconditions for school success are already in place for students who take responsibility for their education to succeed — which is patent nonsense."