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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 09/14/2010

Obama picked wrong school to give speech

By Valerie Strauss

The Philadelphia school chosen for President Obama’s second annual “back to school” speech to students around the country is consistently ranked as a top public college-preparatory institution. That’s why he should have picked a different school to visit.

Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have focused federal education policy on turning around failing schools, though there is little evidence that their initiatives -- expanding charter schools, linking student test scores to teacher pay, etc -- will help anything.

Why not give the speech at a school that was forced to restructure as a result of his policies, or where his motivational speech would be heard live by kids who rarely hear such talk?

This year’s speech has not, thankfully, been the subject of the same derision as the president’s first “back to school” address last year.

Critics pounded Obama last year before the speech, complaining that he would deliver a political speech to the kids. He didn’t. Others, including my esteemed colleague Jay Mathews, argued that Obama was wasting instructional time, a position that Jay took again this year in this post on his Class Struggle blog.

There’s nothing wrong -- and something right -- about the president of the United States talking to kids about the importance of education, even during class time. That message delivered by the president, any president, gives it special import. If any educator is worried about wasting time, he/she can stay in class during, say, one of those assemblies in which kids catch up on their sleeping.

The administration's misstep here is the location of the speech.

Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School is certainly one fine school.

It serves 1,150 talented students in grades 5 through 12 from around the city, all admitted according to their academic ability, and parents do everything they can to get their kids accepted. Forty-four percent of the students are white, 28 percent are black, 18 percent are Asian, 6 percent are Hispanic and the rest are labeled “other.”

According to the school website, its students are given a “rigorous and enriched curriculum” that challenges them intellectually and fosters “the development of the whole individual.”

Masterman offers a range of co-educational, interscholastic sports on both the varsity and junior varsity level including basketball, cross-country, soccer, tennis, track and volleyball and participates on unified teams with other schools in gymnastics and swimming.

And there are a slew of co-curricular activities, too, including musical ensembles, choir and other vocal ensembles, student government, dramatics, yearbook, newspaper, an award winning literary magazine, a nationally-ranked chess team, a championship mock trial team, competition in academic contests, science fairs, and many clubs.

Masterman is routinely ranked as a “National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence,” and, well, you get the picture.

Masterman’s kids already get positive attention from all kinds of adults. They don't need the president to show up.

Nobody in the White House asked me (again), but I would have recommended a school that was in the direct line of fire of Obama’s reforms.

How about Elliott School in Lincoln, Nebraska, where the principal, De Ann Currin, was reassigned because the school is being chosen to be restructured even though everybody, including Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent Susan Gourley, said Currin was terrific and she didn’t really want to move her.

How about T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., which landed on a federal list of schools in “urgent need of reform” because of bad test scores, even though it sends more than 80 percent of its graduates to college, offers two dozen Advanced Placement classes and a free laptop to every student.

What about Central Falls High School in Central Falls, Rhode Island, where earlier this year Obama publicly supported the firing of all of the teachers? Eventually a deal was reached with the union and many of the teachers were returned, though the principal were replaced.

Now THAT would have been a newsworthy event!


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By Valerie Strauss  | September 14, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  central falls high school, elliott school, obama and back to school, obama and back to school speech, obama and masterman school, obama and school reform, obama and speech, obama and speech and students, obama speech, president obama and back to school, president obama and school reform, restructured schools, t.c. williams, t.c. williams high school, urgent need of reform list  
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I attended Masterman from 5th through 8th grade and then Girls' High, another magnet school after that. Barack Obama has no business at Masterman. This school rejects entirely all of the "reforms" under RTTT. This school is already at the top.

OTOH, our president could drive about 20 minutes and give a speech to a sorely disillusioned community at West Philly High School. This school was truly transformed under the leadership of Saliyah Cruz. This principal came into the school 3 years ago when the school was violent, arson-ridden and chaotic with a demoralized staff and community. In 3 years she impproved and stabilized the teaching staff at the school so that West Philly became a school where teachers wanted to get hired and talented teachers (many of them) stayed. The routine arson fires that disruped education disappeared and a climate of respect and support came into West Philly HS.

Too bad the district didn't get the memo. The higher ups in our district decided that this HS should become a Promise Academy (an Ackerman baby) and nothing would get in their way. Certainly not the will of the local community who voted to partner with Johns Hopkins last year, only to have their plans discarded by admin downtown through scandalous accusations against the caring, committed people who dedicated their time to rebuilding theior school.

Now, West Philly High's terrific teaching force is GONE. There are a slew of new faces and a different principal. Mrs. Cruz was rewarded for her talent by been trnaferred. The vast majority of the teachers jumped ship at the very end of last year when they found out their plans for partnering with Hopkins had been derailed by the district. What do you guess West philly HS will be like this year?

Posted by: Nikki1231 | September 14, 2010 6:24 AM | Report abuse

Window dressing! Obama will display himself amidst a lovely building before bright and compliant children dressed in appropriate attire, all of whom have been selected due to academic ability to attend this glorious school. Well now. Yes, a fine venue for a presidential speech and soothing to this president's self-image.

Posted by: shadwell1 | September 14, 2010 9:08 AM | Report abuse

Or the Philly high school where the Asian students were attacked and then they refused to go to school for a few days.

Posted by: edlharris | September 14, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

Here is the post I placed on the Philadelphia Public Schools Notebook blog regarding Obama's visit to Masterman: We'd love for President Obama to come to the William Penn School District an inner ring suburb where for 30 years, with ever diminishing resources, we have been forced to innovate and create to provide opportunities for our kids. Overreliance on property taxes is killing our communities (we are mostly residences), the inequity between districts is demoralizing and we do not benefit from at least the attention paid to education in major cities (at least they get someone like Obama to shine a light - albeit one on Masterman - one of the THE PREMIER public schools in Philadelphia).

On top of all that, we are faced with the nonsense of race to the top, school improvement grant competition, over testing and undereducating our kids and vilifying the people on the front lines including parents...none of which is proving helpful - it is indeed more detrimental.

So, the William Penn School District will continue to innovate for and with our kids, take help from the State and Feds where we can get it, and toe the party line on some of the "new reforms" but only where they make at least a modicum of sense. More importantly, we are committed to standing up against any and all "new reform" craziness that will undermine what our kids really need - what we all need - engagement, mastery and purpose. Here in William Penn, we are wearing our own Ruby Slippers!
Thanks for all you do Valerie!

Posted by: charlottehummel | September 14, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

What school is the right school? Our President didn't have to venture to another city to get the so-called right school. Just like the school in Lincoln, Nebraska we are experiencing the similar heartburn. At Eastern, they are scheduled for the 4th time to set before the 3rd panel of candidates for the newly remodeled school. Again, the Chancellor, politicians, parents, students, alumni and citizens speak highly of the current principal but the 10-month national search for the so-called "right principal" is continuing. If we [voters] are being told on this give an incumbent a second chance...then I would think our Chancellor would follow her bosses advice and give the current principal his second chance to phase in the school. Again, the President wouldn't have to venture the school is located on Capitol Hill.

Posted by: PowerandPride | September 14, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

come on people no matter which school he would have chosen you would have will be the color of his socks, you know you're grasping at straws.
did anyone complain when the cheney-bush regime started a war on false intel and downright lies, where thousands died?
you are very obvious.

Posted by: ninnafaye | September 14, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

"though the principal were replaced" and you are writing on matters of education,strauss?
you have more pressing issues than where the prez choose to speak to ALL american students.
again very obvious.

Posted by: ninnafaye | September 14, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

"though the principal were replaced" and you are writing on matters of education,strauss?
you have more pressing issues than where the prez choose to speak to ALL american students.
again very obvious.

Posted by: ninnafaye | September 14, 2010 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Thank goodness the president cares enough and is paying enough attention to education to give any speech at all to kids. I can't even remember a president ever doing this before. I find it very inspirational and gladly support a few minutes of instructional time for this.

Posted by: hockeymom1 | September 14, 2010 2:46 PM | Report abuse

Duncan and Obama need to start visiting the schools they are threatening.

Posted by: jlp19 | September 14, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

I, too, attended Masterman for many years and graduated from its high school. This was back in the day when only about 30 students a year graduated from their public high school (which ran from 10th-12th grades). Believe me, a high school with a total of about 90 kids doesn’t get a whole lot of attention…either in Philadelphia or elsewhere. Back then we were still a very diverse student population, but we had little else. As for sports, we had a co-ed bowling team and a women’s volleyball team…but you certainly weren’t getting any college sports scholarships with your Masterman degree. Your ticket to college needed to come from your academics…and most kids like me still ended up at public colleges because that’s all we could afford and all we could get accepted into. Yes, we also had to be “accepted” into Masterman even back then, but this was still an inner-city public school…complete with all of the standard issue Philadelphia School District problems. From what I understand, it’s not much different in that regard today.

The appearance today by President Obama at Masterman is simply an honor well-deserved by that school, as well as an honor a long time overdue.

Critics of the President can’t have it both ways. They can’t simultaneously criticize his very presence in a school to make speech, and then also claim he’s should have gone to other, more deserving, schools to make speeches. As someone else noted on this posting board, those who criticize the perfectly sensible choice of a fine school like Masterman, would certainly not be happy with ANY choice this White House made.

Nobody seemed to have a problem when, on 9/11, George Bush chose to hang out and read “The Pet Goat” to an elementary school class. Did Valerie Strauss or someone at the Washington Post complain on 9/10 that the President was wasting his time by going to Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida that day? Did they evaluate the relative merits of the choice of that specific school?

Frankly, I find all this chatter here about Obama’s choice of Masterman to be disgusting behavior for adults. First and foremost, just be happy for the students at Masterman. But also, be happy for the teachers at Masterman, and all those who work in the Philadelphia public school system. Be happy for the hard-working people of Philadelphia who hosted this ceremonial and honorable event today. Of all the towns and of all the schools, The White House chose a little inner-city school that has long been working hard to provide the best possible sort of public education. Shame on Valerie Strauss…and congrats to my alma mater!

Posted by: RStevens_in_LA | September 14, 2010 7:44 PM | Report abuse

I thought it was a good speech. Full video is available at

and you can give your two cents on it!

Posted by: beth25 | September 15, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

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