Education Opinion

President Obama’s Manufactured Crisis Speech

By Diane Ravitch — March 31, 2009 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I want to go back and discuss President Obama’s big speech on education. At the time I heard it, I was surprised by some of his statistics about how terrible things are, but I didn’t have time (or inclination) to do the fact-checking on my own. I was too busy working on my book, trying to finish a chapter on a different topic.

Just the other day, a friend sent me an item that was posted on FactCheck.org, which is published by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. A group of diligent researchers at FactCheck.org did exactly what needed to be done. They went through every single statement in the speech about the condition of American educationand posted the results on March 18. I highly recommend it.

FactCheck notes the irony: President Bush left office boasting of the great improvement in U.S. education performance as a result of No Child Left Behind. Then comes President Obama, painting a dismal portrait of a nation whose education system is locked in steep educational decline.

Three specific assertions capture the essence of FactCheck’s findings:

1. President Obama said that the high school dropout rate had tripled over the past three decades. In fact, says FactCheck, “it has actually declined by a third.”
2. The President said that our 8th graders had “fallen to ninth place” in the world, but FactCheck says that “U.S. scores have climbed to that ranking from as low as 28th place in 1995.”
3. He said that we should have a national goal of “having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” by 2020, but it turns out that we are within reach of that goal already. Says FactCheck, “The U.S. is already second only to Norway in the percentage of adults age 25 to 64 with a four-year degree, and trails by just 1 percentage point.” Perhaps we will reach President Obama’s not-so-ambitious goal in a year or two, not by 2020!

So, I ask you, Deborah, what gives? Why is the President fear-mongering about the schools? Heaven knows, it is an old and well-established tradition to claim that things are worse than ever as a way to demand drastic changes. In my graduate school days, I recall discovering a “crisis in education” in almost every decade of the 20th Century.

Maybe that is the accepted way to prepare the public for big changes, but it ought at least to be based on credible data (which the President’s staff and speechwriters certainly could have easily obtained from the U.S. Department of Education). Clearly the President wants the American people to believe that things are so awful that a radical transformation is needed. What do you think he wants to do that requires this groundwork?


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