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Posted at 4:00 AM ET, 02/ 2/2011

Should Obama be commencement contest prize?

By Valerie Strauss

Just like he did last year, President Obama is holding a contest for public high schools with himself as the prize. Obama will deliver the commencement address at the winning school.

The contest is officially called “Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge,” and competing schools are invited to demonstrate how their school best prepares students for college and a career.

The effort is a way for the administration to highlight Obama’s campaign for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

The application includes essay questions -- for example, “Why should your school win? Discuss what makes your school unique” -- and statistical information, and must be submitted by Friday, February 25th at 11:59 pm EST.

So what’s the problem? Aside from the fact that Obama seems to have turned too much in education into some kind of contest, I suspect this is ultimately more about the adults in the school building rather than the kids. I can picture administrators already scheduling meetings about this.

Here’s one of the winning essays from the 2010 winner, Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan:

“Kalamazoo Central is a diverse, dynamic and dedicated community of students and staff committed to our district’s mission: Every Child, Every Opportunity, Every Time. We challenge ourselves to take more AP classes (an increase of 221% in 4 years); we involve ourselves in our community through activism such as PeaceJam; and we take classes such as aviation technology and construction trades that prepare us for careers and college. Our relationships with teachers and staff empower us all to form a united bond and a belief in our end goal: changing the world through education. Since 2006, 91% of all Kalamazoo Central graduates have attended college, affirming a college going culture in a vibrant community of 1700. The Kalamazoo Promise—free college tuition for all—gives us the opportunity to achieve our college dreams. Our superintendent phrased it best:

‘If you’re looking for a community where going to college is a birthright, then Kalamazoo Public Schools isn’t it; but, if you’re looking for a community trying to send a whole host of students to college, then Kalamazoo Central is a model of that success.’

"We no longer merely hope for a future; we are confident that we are the future.”

I’d be surprised if students wrote that on their own.

Last year, the winner was selected out of more than 1,000 applications which were narrowed to six finalists by the White House Domestic Policy Council and the Department of Education. The public then rated the online applications of the six, and Obama himself chose the winner from the three high schools with the highest average ratings.

Meanwhile, commencement speakers at some colleges and universities have already been announced, including:

* Emory University: Janet Napolitano, U.S. secretary of homeland security.
* Franklin & Marshall College: Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.).
* Northwestern University: Stephen Colbert of "The Colbert Report."
* Stanford University: Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, president of Mexico.
* University of Vermont: Billie Jean King, the tennis player and women’s sports advocate.

Follow my blog every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | February 2, 2011; 4:00 AM ET
Categories:  High School, Race to the Top  | Tags:  commencement contest, commencement speaker, commencement speech, obama commencement, obama commencement speaker, president obama and commencement, race to the top contest, stephen colbert  
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So, the idea of having a contest to have the President of the United States of America speak at commencement is a bad idea? It sure beats the old way...going to the h.s. graduation ceremony of the alma matter or where the campaign contributors point him or where the PR people put him. All in all, there are more than thirty six thousand high schools and only one president...let me put those words into numbers so you might be able to achieve perspective: 36,000:1

And it seems that past Presidents have gone to the same schools around Washington, D.C. So, how should the President schedule himself for commencement in a way that is fair to everyone? How would you do it?

Your complaint is hardly worth anything, as there are bigger worries than a commencement address, and if that is the worst you can throw at any President, then he must be doing a decent job. Otherwise, it shows how petty you are.

Posted by: cgallaway2000 | February 2, 2011 7:07 AM | Report abuse

If he's First Place Prize, will Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid be Second? Stupid...extremely stupid.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 2, 2011 7:38 AM | Report abuse

This contest sounds like something Saturday Night Live should take up. "Win a President for Drinking the Privitize Education Kool-Aid." Sheesh. Didn't the President study civil rights history in his exclusive public school in Hawaii? Instead of desegregating public schools in the south, they closed the public schools, opened private ones (for the white kids) and black folk were forced to open freedom schools. Sounds like history repeating itself. Maybe I should offer to speak at Sidwell Friends School so at least his daughters might "get it."

Posted by: charlottehummel | February 2, 2011 12:20 PM | Report abuse

The suggestion by Ms. Strauss that students didn't write this essay is insulting. She is insinuating several things: 1. School officials are liars. 2. School teachers are incapable of teaching students to write as well as these students did. 3. The top flite colleges that accepted the essay writers as students made errors in who they have accepted. All three insinuations are untrue in this situation. Here is a school that has instuituted reforms, focused on increasing student achievement, and been recognized at the state and national levels for making positive gains in education and Ms. Strauss in one glib comment tries to negate all of that. Surprise Ms. Strauss, students did write the essay and shame on you for not checking before publishing. But maybe your school didn't teach you that, perhaps you should check out Kalamazoo Central.

Posted by: JBdelaSalle | February 2, 2011 1:03 PM | Report abuse

I don't care much about the contest, so say what you want about it. But whatever possessed you to accuse students of not writing their own entrance essay? Upon what do you base that assessment? I won't do you the disservice of assuming it was just a general disregard for the abilities of young people. So really, what was it?

Posted by: Rosemary1 | February 2, 2011 5:45 PM | Report abuse

I think that Ms. Strauss should do at least some minimal reporting before making accusations that students did not write the Kalamazoo Central application.

Based on reporting by Kalamazoo Gazette writer Julie Mack, it appears Ms. Strauss's guesses are incorrect:

I suggest that Ms. Strauss should either support her accusations with real reporting, or apologize for her comment and withdraw it.

Posted by: bartik | February 2, 2011 8:35 PM | Report abuse

Maybe it's because I grew up "in the provinces" as my grandfather once described it, but I just don't understand why you need to have an important adult/celebrity speaking at a high school graduation. The kids and the parents are there to hear the names, not to have some outsider give a policy speech.

Posted by: Rob63 | February 3, 2011 12:17 AM | Report abuse

Before the author goes about casting doubt on the abilities and willingness of the students at Kalamazoo Central to create such an essay, perhaps she should investigate and be prepared to back up her statements.

The fact that K-Central's entry was entirely student driven and created was well documented in the local media in Kalamazoo.

The author owes K-Central and its students an apology.

Ms. Strauss, please do some research next time, isn't that part of your job?

Posted by: KZoo_Dan | February 3, 2011 3:00 AM | Report abuse

Ms. Strauss's comments are an insult to the hard work and intelligence that was displayed by the students at Kalamazoo Central High School last year. This was an extraordinary example of team work and talent and should be celebrated. I'm quite sure she could not reach that level even at this point in her life. Please do entry level journalism, like checking your facts, before writing a column Ms. Strauss.

Posted by: rdarin | February 3, 2011 11:12 AM | Report abuse

I think the fact that Ms. Strauss is able to write a Blog without having done any research on her topic is amazing. She has insinuated that the students at Kalamazoo Central are incapable of composing an essay of this caliber on their own. What she has failed to find in her lack of research is that the piece was entirely written by students at Kalamazoo Central, and spearheaded by Simone Boehme, who appears in the new video with President Obama. Ms. Strauss failed to see that it was the enthusiasm of a few students who, when they pulled together, brought a school, a district and a community together for a historical occasion.

The winning essay was only one piece of work completed from Kalamazoo Central Students displaying the high standards that our students consistently achieve. We have set our expectations high and are proud when we see our students rise to those expectations. If Ms. Strauss had done her research she would have been provided with several examples of the high level of excellence that are demonstrated on a daily basis at Kalamazoo Central.

I suppose that anyone can have a Blog and write their opinion. Perhaps Ms. Strauss could have modeled professional behavior for our students by researching her blog. Maybe it is she who needs to learn a lesson from the students at Kalamazoo Central.

If you want to check your references you might want to ask President Obama himself. After meeting the students at Kalamazoo Central I am sure that he does not have a doubt the winning essay was composed entirely by the students.

One more thing Ms. Strauss … You may want to remember the name Simone Boehme. There is a good likelihood that you may be calling him President Boehme in the future.

Posted by: pkazoo | February 4, 2011 11:45 AM | Report abuse

My first thought on reading this "article" was that Ms.Strauss forgot to finish it. After listing a few more speakers, the "blog" just ends with no conclusion.
Strangely enough, my daughter was taught in kindergarten that every story has an end, and that ending goes back to "tie up" the main parts of the story. Would you believe that she is a Kalamazoo Public Schools student?
As many of the above posters have noted, Ms. Strauss was very insulting to our students, our teachers, our administrators, and our entire community.
Many of the teachers and other adults in the K Central, and the entire KPS system did not even know that the students had entered this contest until well into the process.
Perhaps all our students should aspire to is to have a inspiring person such as Ms. Strauss as their commencement speaker.
This "article" just proves the point that any person with a computer and an opinion is an instant expert, and that if it is written, it must be so.
I am left wondering what Ms. Strauss is basing her statements on. Is she anti- Kalamazoo, anti-Obama, anti-education, or just anti-children?
Come visit us in Kalamazoo, Ms. Strauss, and spend some time with our children, our educators, and our community leaders. Perhaps some of the students would be so kind as to assist you in writing your next blog piece.

Posted by: jbgst430 | February 4, 2011 6:16 PM | Report abuse

charlottehummell... i'm one of the many white students in the 2010 graduating class at kalamazoo central. you should research your facts before you make a fool of yourself to the public.

Posted by: kcgiant2010 | February 8, 2011 9:04 PM | Report abuse

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