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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.

By Washington Post editors  | September 8, 2009; 9:02 AM ET
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Jay, I can't for the life of me see what you found wrong in taking up time for the president to speek directly to school kids. Can you give an example of a better use of 20 minutes that schools waste every day? An assembly? A substitute teacher? A field trip? I can think of nothing more important to a kid than having a young president talk directly to them. You only need to see the reaction of the kids in the auditorium after the speech to know it was important to them.

So maybe, Jay, you should consider a new line of work since it seems you really do not know what motivates school kids, what gets them to do what many only think adults are capable of: making commitments, gathering resolve, understanding the importance of subjects they cannot see ever using in their daily lives, determination to do well and work hard.

As for the birthers and deathers, I realy don't care what you think because the word "think" does not apply. If the republican party is going to support your paranoia it will find itself losing more seats in 2010 than they ever imagined. What the republicans don't understand is that the birthers and deathers do not support the republican party, they support their own paranoia. They really don't care if the republicans disappear or not. And now, after raising a ruckus over this speech and in town halls they have shown themselves to be paranoid and unAmerican. America is ready to move on without them.

Posted by: Fate1 | September 8, 2009 12:47 PM | Report abuse

That's my point. You are saying, "Well, we waste so much time in school anyway, why not let the president speak?" For schools that are like that, I agree with you. What the president will give them will be much better than what they had in class.
But I have visited many schools that have forsaken the old time-wasting ways, and visited many more that would like to. I can think of many ways they would use 20 minutes that would be more valuable to those students than watching the president's speech: 20 minutes watching their latest essay be edited by the teacher, or by a student who is a better writer; 20 minutes working through a clear demonstration of the division of fractions, with the teacher checking everyone's work; 20 minutes of a class discussion on how television affected the 2008 election, with the teacher asking questions of every student, and demanding more when she gets pat answers. That is a real education, not watching TV.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | September 8, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you're probably of an age to remember the days of Project Mercury. Alan Shepard went into space; we watched the coverage in class. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth? We started watching during the countdown and followed all of the coverage during the school day. Most of us turned out okay.
The problem is that the high-stakes standardized testing has imposed narrowness and rigidity on the curriculum such that people do worry about minutes lost here and there. It's not as possible as it was years ago to take a presidential speech and turn it into a valuable history or government lesson; that wouldn't contribute to keeping the school's scores up on the almighty state test. And that is part of the reason why we urgently need to remind students as often as possible that education is important--not just to them, but to their communities and the country. That message was in "A Nation at Risk," but too few people remember that.

Posted by: jlhare1 | September 8, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

"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?"

What? if it were scheduled before school opened or after it closed, it would be the same as not having the address at all...AND the additionl uproar that would have occurred would make a pit bull tuck tail and run.

Almost as crazy.....delivering it on a national holiday where any reasonable person (not trying to throw stones here) would hazard a guess that 40% of families that actually spend time together would not be home. Parent(s) and children who do not normally spend time together probably would not watch it.

But I agree with everything else you said....pretty much.

Posted by: 4taz | September 8, 2009 9:52 PM | Report abuse

I strongly disagree that President Obama's speech should have been seen outside of school hours. The point is that he is ONLY speaking to the children. The start of the school year is the perfect time. My son's elementary school did not show the speech so I had to show him an online version. He is 8. He was absolutely thrilled that the President of the United States would take time out of his busy schedule to speak to kids. He thinks President Obama is "so cool" and that he seems to know kids very well. When I said to him yesterday that it was nice to see him reading he said "well President Obama told me to.

Posted by: lebrown1 | September 11, 2009 2:22 PM | Report abuse

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