Jay & Valerie Debate The Speech
Class Struggle and colleague Valerie Strauss, of The Answer Sheet, 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
JAY MATHEWS: As I expected, it is a fine speech. He is 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 were delivered before school opened or after it closed for the day, I would have no problem with it. But instead, it cuts 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 is kind of cool. By speaking to them during their school day, the president makes the point that the lessons he is delivering are as important as anything they could be learning in school--and I think they are. 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 is being 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 says 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 speaks 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.
Washington Post editors
| September 8, 2009; 9:02 AM ET
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