President’s Day 2012

It’s President’s Day, and it’s time to weigh in on something that’s been bugging me.

In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama said a number of thoughtful and hopeful things, which is what a State of the Union address is supposed to be about.   Most of what he covered isn’t the province of my work, and this not being a political blog, I will keep my opinions to myself.  But Mr. Obama did talk about education, an arena in which I am deeply invested and rather opinionated.

The President spoke to the profound impact of excellent teachers.  He voiced a belief in creativity and passion in teaching, and suggested that we stop teaching to the test.  These are good values, not just to acknowledge, but to hold as a high priority relative to the State of our Union.  I am glad they were addressed.

Yet there is a vital inconsistency between these values and what Mr. Obama’s own Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is pushing through his Race To The Top (RTTT) initiative.  RTTT elevates, rather than decreases, the emphasis upon standardized testing in schools.  And standardized testing is almost always at odds with creativity and passion in teaching.  I’d like to hear the President say that the difficult work of developing more sophisticated evaluative tools – tools congruent with a flexible and creative classroom – is a priority of his administration.

Mr. Obama didn’t stop there.  He went on: “When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better. So tonight, I am proposing that every state requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.”  At that statement I had to roll my eyes, a response I have perfected through exposure to teen role models.  What is he suggesting that we do, incarcerate dropouts?

While there is little question that it is better for kids to be engaged in school, to mandate attendance is to approach the problem backwards.  What if, instead of expanding mandatory attendance laws, we worked to make education truly meaningful and valuable to kids?  What if we listened to their views on what they wanted to learn, and sought to increase choice, rather than compulsion, as a student motivator?

Our challenge is to make attending school a truly and unquestionably better choice for teenagers.  The strategies to achieve this are readily available – we’re generating them continuously – and implementing them will give all our kids a richer, more meaningful education.  And when a kid opts out, as some inevitably will, the cost of that choice will be more promptly and vividly obvious.  Which, of course, is a lesson in itself.

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