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Posted at 9:02 AM ET, 09/ 8/2009

Valerie & Jay Debate The Speech

By Washington Post editors

The Answer Sheet and colleague Jay Mathews, of Class Struggle fame, staged a head-to-head debate over President Obama's speech at Wakefield High. Their material: an advance text of the speech and who-knows-how-many years of education reporting experience.--The Editors

strong>JAY MATHEWS: As I expected, this is a fine speech. He's planning to say all the right things about how hard school can be, how education gives us better choices in life, how striving and failing can become the way to success, how staying in school helps us help our families and our country. If it was to be delivered before school opened or after it closed for the day, I would have no problem with it. But instead, it is cutting into precious class time, and does not tell students anything they had not heard before. Don't you think it would have worked better if it had been delivered yesterday, a national holiday, when families could have watched it together at home?

VALERIE STRAUSS: I have to say, Jay, that I did not mind at all that the president chose to deliver this message to kids during school time. In fact, I think it was kind of cool. By speaking to them during their school day, the president made the point that the lessons he was delivering are as important as anything they could be learning in school--and I think they were. So what if they've heard these messages before? They hear a lot of things in school they've heard before. Hearing it from their president makes it different. So I don't agree with you that precious school time was wasted.
But I confess that as I read the speech I thought President Obama would have been better served if the person(s) who wrote it knew a little more about today's education world.
Yes, the president said many of the right things about the importance of education to a student's individual future and to the health of the country. And he spoke about perseverance in a personal way that I think kids will remember: His own mom getting him up at 4:30 a.m. to take lessons from her that he wasn't getting at school.
But this sentence got me thinking: "You'll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy."
Well, for one thing, people don't "develop" creativity and ingenuity in order to build new companies to boost the economy.
Besides, the truth is that creativity and ingenuity are being squashed in schools today that have regimented curriculum geared toward standardized test taking. It isn't really the fault of the kids that they --but it is the fault of one education secretary after another. Suggesting to kids that they are completely in charge of their own education is not true and it is not fair.
So wasn't there anything in the speech that you would have written differently?

JAY: Whoa. Nice change of subject. I don't think hearing the same messages from the president makes them different. He is one more important person not really part of their lives, like the local rock star or the school board president, imposing on their time in class with good-hearted words that don't teach them much. It is their relationship with their teacher, someone who is part of their lives, and that give and take that produces learning.
But your critique of the president's message on creativity and ingenuity is too provocative to pass up. Alleging that standardized testing stifles creativity, and that this is the fault of successive secretaries of education, goes way too far. Testing has been a large and intimidating part of education since schools began. It used to be the teacher's tests that put pressure on kids. Now, in some ways, it is the states' tests. But old and new, they have the same purpose ---to gauge how much has been learned, so that teachers can address weak spots and so, these days, parents and taxpayers can know if the schools are doing a good job. Secretaries of education did not impose this system in the schools; we voters did. The electorate chose politicians who said schools should be accountable to us. I think that's good.
Does such testing hurt creativity? I haven't seen a shred of evidence of that. Most of the research shows that students cannot think critically and creatively about a subject until they know its content well.

VALERIE: I grant you that it is not only successive secretaries of education who are responsible for high-stakes standardized testing. Other people are to blame, too. I apologize. (I should know that I can't get away with anything when I'm talking to The King of Education Writers.)... Of course, tests have forever been a part of schooling and are necessary. I'm not suggesting that all testing quashes creativity. But we do have to look at just how important we have allowed the results of a single standardized test to become, and we have to ask whether our tests are good enough to warrant such importance. After all, careers and reform efforts costing millions of dollars rise and fall on test results. Yet testing experts say that our standardized tests are still nowhere good enough to be used in the high stakes way they are today.... Do I think that many teachers have opted to do more drill and kill and less creative work in classrooms in this high-stakes standardized testing era? Yes, I do, because many have told me so.

Now, back to the Obama speech. I don't agree that the president is just one more important person not really connected to the lives of kids. Presidents set agendas and policy that affect kids every day. What presidents say matters--whether kids know it or not. It's probably better that they learn this earlier rathern than later. Besides, if anybody else other than the president had said, "Don't ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" might have had a lot less resonance.... I do, of course agree with you that a student's relationship with their teacher is all important when it comes to learning, That is a key reason why I would have left it up to teachers as to whether their classes saw the president's speech during school time. The hullabaloo that surrounded this speech--and even those silly activities linked to the speech provided by the Education Department--was really uncalled for. You'd think people would realize we have real issues to face, like the importance of standardized testing, and paying teachers for performance, and, well, you know. Not when the president can tell kids to work hard in school.

JAY: You are right, of course. The controversy over the president's speech was, I thought, an intriguing opportunity to highlight what I consider our lazy attitudes about the importance of making every instructional minute count. But there are other subjects that demand our attention. You and I should keep our eyes and ears open to what readers are telling us, and see what other topics might put us at odds. That should be good for our creativity.

VALERIE: I would love to continue our conversation, Jay--though let's not just wait for times when we disagree. I don't think it is healthy for anybody to argue with you too much. Nobody likes to lose that much.

By Washington Post editors  | September 8, 2009; 9:02 AM ET
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Valerie & Jay,

You are both way to civil to each other to be debating in this day and age. Where are the character assassinations, sweeping generalizations and accusations of various -isms? I will pile on Valerie's bandwagon regarding the testing, not because I oppose some level of accountability and measurement, but because the pendulum has swung too far, at least in DC. As the President is talking about creativity today, DC students will be taking the first of 5 standardized tests known as the DC BAS and DC CAS. This is in addition to individual assessments done by the teachers for each student.

Posted by: Etch | September 8, 2009 9:26 AM | Report abuse

Your newspaper pitched a fit when George H.W. Bush spoke to schools in 1991. Where is your outrage now? Hmmmmmmmmmm? There is obviously no outrage when you are in the tank with Obama. Your bias is so obvious it is no wonder that you are losing subscribers.

Posted by: blaze2453 | September 8, 2009 9:56 AM | Report abuse

Of all the stupid non-issues we have had in this country, the debate as to whether the President should speak to children and instill a sense of responsibility to children is laughable.
Why do so many people have to politicize a speech to kids? What is so objectionable about asking kids to stay in school, get good grades, aspire to help their country, be kind to other human beings and animals.

Is the level of hate in this country do profound that the idea of a BLACK President speaking to students is so objectionable?
But hey, if you think that keeping your child home from school solely for the purpose of excluding your child from a classroom activity actually benefits your child, then that is sad. You are only instilling the continued hatred and bigotry that has escalated hate in this country to new disturbing levels.

Posted by: kare1 | September 8, 2009 10:13 AM | Report abuse

I have two children in the Fulton County, GA school district..

This morning I called my 7th grader's school to find out that the principal had chosen require that parents fax in a note requesting that their children view the Presidential Address to School Children. Infuriated, I told school administration that I had no intention of faxing in a note, and that it should be precisely the other way around. If I do not want my child to say the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning, I have to send in a note. A Presidential Address must be treated the same way or the message that we are sending our children is that their Allegiance to the United States of America is unrelated to their allegiance to its leader. Such a position is hypocritical, inconsistent and irreconcilable. Children are not stupid, they live and feel this inconsistency.

I have no problem with a few extremist Republican parents choosing for their children not to view the video. It is their constitutional right to do so. But, I do have a problem with those individuals imposing their will on the rest of us.

This "controversy" is borderline un-American, and undermines the value we traditionally place on our President. I have long put up with the "Pledge of Allegiance" despite that it conflicts with a couple of my views concerning God and country in order to respect the time-honored tradition, and because I believe that it imparts an important sense of belonging to a community. But, if our schools are going to begin selecting which President's messages are appropriate to communicate to our youngest citizens, then I'm afraid I'm going to have to opt out of all of them - including "The Pledge of Allegiance". It's all or nothing, folks, otherwise it's hypocrisy.

Posted by: puterman | September 8, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

In 1991, President Bush provided the following televised address to students:

At the time, the Washington Post reported (4 Oct 1991):

- - - - - - - - - -

House Democrats criticized President Bush yesterday for using Education Department funds to produce and broadcast a speech that he made Tuesday at a Northwest Washington junior high school.

The Democratic critics accused Bush of turning government money for education to his own political use, namely, an ongoing effort to inoculate himself against their charges of inattention to domestic issues. The speech at Alice Deal Junior High School, broadcast live on radio and television, urged students to study hard, avoid drugs and turn in troublemakers.

“The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the president, it should be helping us to produce smarter students,” House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said. “And the president should be doing more about education than saying, ‘Lights, camera, action.’ ”

Two House committees demanded that the department explain the use of its funds for the speech, an explanation that Deputy Secretary David T. Kearns provided late in the day in a letter to Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander was out of town. [...]

- - - - - - - - - -

It just goes to show that both parties have fringe elements that rational people should be willing to repudiate.

Posted by: FYIColumbiaMD | September 8, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

What is sooooo absolutely ludicrous about this whole ordeal is that these are the same parents who allow their children to watch all kinds of filth on TV, listen to all kinds of obscene filth on their iPods, and who don't really have a clue as to the type of "education" they are getting from their peers in the locker room, in the hallway, behind the steps, under the bleachers, etc. President Obama's message is going to be a shock to their systems only because most of them have already been "indoctrinated" by the garbage coming out of their parents' mouths and the mouths of their friends.

Posted by: gitouttahere | September 8, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Given the vitriol coming from the GOP establishment (not the fringe wingnuts- birthers/limbaugh/beck), the GOP party chairman in Florida and Pawlenty, "the great white hope" should apologize and resign for the statements they have made about the President's education speech. The republicans have no shame.

Posted by: Republicanshavenoshame | September 8, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

FYIColumbiaMD -- good post, and it does point out that Presidents get criticized.

However, I think there are substantial differences between what House Democrats were complaining about in 1991, and what House Republicans are complaining about in 2009. I don't recall school systems refusing to carry President Bush's address due to hysterical fears of conservative indoctrination. I don't recall Democrats claiming that President Bush was attempting to turn this country into a right-wing plutocracy (although that seems the direction Republicans are headed in).

The difference, I think, is that the "fringe element" is in charge of the Republican Party. You put the Republican leadership in a position of having to repudiate itself, and to cast loose their irrational base.

Posted by: dpc2003 | September 8, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

People let's be honest these Republicans are not "fringe" they are mainstream Republicans and in leadership positions. Start calling them what they are the "spokespeople for the Republican Party".

Posted by: rlj1 | September 8, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Ms. Strauss, you said: "Well, for one thing, people don't "develop" creativity and ingenuity in order to build new companies to boost the economy."

I'm not sure quite what to make of this. There are several interpretations, none of which illustrate(s) an understanding of "today's education world" that you say is missing from the speech.

Does it mean that you believe that creativity and ingenuity cannot be "developed"? That's clearly wrong. Is it simply meant to connect the dots between the rise of standardized testing and the decline of subjects like art and music? Or are you just mocking the speech's connection between students developing creativity and ingenuity and (some of) their subsequent careers? How are you readers interpreting this?

To Jay's point about the timing of the speech: the reality is that if it was given on Labor Day, only a tiny fraction of students would hear it, and the ones who need to hear it most are the least likely to actually do so. The message would have been totally lost. For many/most schools, today (Tuesday) is the first day (or one of the first days) back, so not a lot of hardcore instructional time will be lost today by watching the speech in school. And the speech - about the value of working hard in school - just makes a lot more sense in the context of a school setting, at the beginning of the new school year, when everyone starts with a blank slate. And this President, especially in sharp contrast to the last one (ahem), is such a great role model when it comes to academic excellence and achievement.

I'm dismayed by the negative reaction to this speech, but hopeful that it will come back to bite those who make such blantantly partisan and intellectually devoid statements (and I don't include Mr Mathews and Ms Strauss in this group).

Posted by: TonyFo | September 8, 2009 1:20 PM | Report abuse

we never saw the speech "dear leader" tried to give, that got stopped cold.
does the "dear leader" have to use "I", "me" "myself" more than any other word every time he speeks?

Posted by: infantry11b4faus | September 8, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

We have been debating healthcare with incredible energy. The President goes to a high school to bring attention to Education, nothing but good can come of it. Let's talk about failures, look at what we spend on Education for what we get. To paraphase...give a man a fish and he can eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he can feed himself forever...It our education system succeeded there would be no healthcare issue. People would have jobs to pay for it. I think Obama could have taken a page from Bill Cosby's book and talk about the importance of Education and the Family's responsibility...however, just his going to a school gets us talking about the failings...who knows maybe soemthing good can come of it.

Posted by: rhino2 | September 8, 2009 1:28 PM | Report abuse

I had an image of a group of parents with protest signs marching and chanting in front of my son's high school. Among the signs:

Obama unfair to bullies!
Kids -- More talking back!
More XBox, Fewer Books!
Kids -- Blame Others!
Why should I have to talk to my kids?

For this year's speech competitions, I hope that some young man or young woman introduces their Dramatic Interpretation as the speech that was banned on ___ school campuses in America and then begins a three-minute version of excerpts of today's speech.

Posted by: dprogers64 | September 8, 2009 1:45 PM | Report abuse

lets talk education.
first the left is in bed with any union they can find - like the teachers union. when the teachers union asks for more funding for education what they really mean is "give teachers a raise". Really, they need a raise for NOT teaching our children to read and write?
and how can children learn when they are bussed for 2 hours a day?
and the education departments of the states spend as much on bussing as they do on teachers.
the feds should kill the fed department of education and eliminate every report they require. the money should go to the states in block grants and slowly be reduced on a 10 year basis.
also the states should put in place vouchers. lets give the parents some ability to control their kids education.
i dont care if there is a small building that teaches 50 kids, as long as they can pass a test for each year accomplishments.
knock of games - they can play after school. have the school close enough that they can walk home, or ride a bike, for lunch.
too much money is wasted in administration for huge school districts. the los angeles school district lost 1/3rd of a BILLION dollars building on a toxic site, while some schools are going without repairs.
a school district should only need one administrator - and one sec - and no more than 5 elementary schools feeding into jurion high and one high school.
mix the grades in a local school. there is nothing better than having an older child help with a younger. the younger will see that is the way it should work, and will do the same.
teach AMERICAN history and world history. no politics, just facts please, but if the parents want a political slant, its their money and they can have it too, but everyone must pass the test for the appropriagte year completed BUT WITHOUT POLITICS.
that is a start.
did i mention, only AMERICAN CITIZENS or resident aliens with appropriate approval, get the vouchers.

Posted by: infantry11b4faus | September 8, 2009 1:54 PM | Report abuse

When I was a kid you said The Pledge of Allegiance and that was that. If the President spoke to the nation, you got to hear it on the PA speaker. Period.

I was in high school during the latter part of the Vietnam era. Some of us felt lock-step patriotism failed to address a war that wasn't winnable. I was allowed to stand out in the hall while the other students recited the pledge. That lasted for all of one week. I got tired of being an outsider.

Why do today's neo-cons espouse social non-conformity when it comes to President Obama? This guy is as middle-of-the road as you can get. I can guess a huge committee vetted his speech in advance so as not to prick anyone's sensibility anywhere. Judging by the above "debate," this vetting was successful and the President's message of what can be described as "be cool, stay in school" was in every way a huge success.

By the way, you learn how to be creative in spite of tests, not because of them. I suppose back when Obama was in school he found tests to be challenging, my kids find them to be stifling.

Posted by: tony_in_Durham_NC | September 8, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

As the parent of a Wakefield High School graduate and sophomore, I was proud that the administration chose this diverse, high-achieving school for the President to address. If the rest of the country mirrored Wakefield's diversity, teachers, counselors, administrators and principal, there would indeed be tremendous hope for our country's future!! I'm glad my children have Wakefield as an example of excellence in education and not a school that banned the speech.

Posted by: wakefieldparent | September 8, 2009 1:58 PM | Report abuse

If today's educational philosphy can be blamed for stifling creativity please tell me how yesterday's philosphy of rote memorization was able to create the new innovative businesses of that era? As an educator I can tell you that the methods used in the classroom today require much higher level thinking and creativity. After all, isn't that what the right has been complainig about for years, the move away from "traditional" educational methods they recall from their past?

Posted by: Albie1 | September 8, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Valerie & Jay:
After reading these comments, I will be amazed if you do this again. The stuff that spews out of some people's minds and through their fingers to others is startling. Your brief "debate" was a very nice surface treatment of some serious issues: standardized testing (BTW - teachers have always taught to the test, it's just that the test used to be theirs); how and why creativity is taught, if it can be taught at all; and how best to use the too-brief time students are in class. Good stuff. I'd love to read more from both of you on any of those subjects.
But I really don't want to read more comments like most of these here. They dismay me, and I cannot imagine how they make you feel anything but sad and frustrated.

Posted by: LoveIB | September 8, 2009 2:23 PM | Report abuse

this is in response to tony in durham -
you are a perfect leftist.
you are one of those that says a fair debate has three members - a communist, a marxist and a socialist, that represents only the views that you think are fair.
obama is not center - he is a marxist.

Posted by: infantry11b4faus | September 8, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Valerie for opening the question of creativity in the classroom.....I am increasingly upset that the discussions around creativity are linked to business concerns.

If creativity is so important,

1) Why do we not emphasize Visual arts more, which directly facilitates the ability to visualize and prime the imagination,

2) Add more theater classes so that students can learn skills like improvization and how to "suspend disbelief" - an important way to
not limit one's ideas....very tiresome of big business to only use "think outside the box" metaphor

3) Add great classes like Architecture that invest students in the study and application of the built environment and all of the amazing issues that come with that territory....

4) Encourage filmmaking.....

5) Poetry.....

6) Bring back the CRAFTS (hands-on, sequential study, practice, history are all imbedded, not to mention the links to

Additionally, the CREATIVE arts allow precious time to make dreams a reality, experience personal joy and, actually, problem-solving; each creative enterprise has its own very special set of problems to be solved before it may come to fruition.

Thanks for reading!
Arts teacher for 28 years

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 9, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

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