How Obama’s Pep Talk Became a Publicity Headache

By Michele McNeil & Dakarai I. Aarons — September 11, 2009 9 min read
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What started as a simple question on a suggested lesson plan tied to President’s Barack Obama’s national pep talk to students ended up as the first major political misstep for a recently minted U.S. Department of Education team that’s launched an aggressive campaign to reform K-12 schools.

While pushing Mr. Obama’s larger message of personal responsibility, hard work, and persistence in education, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his staff spent the days leading up to the Sept. 8 televised address deflecting largely partisan warnings that the president would impose his policy views on a captive audience of schoolchildren.

Within 36 hours of the first charge that Mr. Obama would “indoctrinate” students with his “socialist” agenda—leveled in a Florida Republican Party leader’s press release—the issue had caught fire in the blogosphere, before jumping to talk radio and cable news shows and then the major TV networks.

“Clearly, it got caught up in the larger political climate,” Peter Cunningham, the department’s assistant secretary for communications and outreach, said of the president’s speech at Wakefield High School, in Arlington, Va. “We certainly didn’t think [critics of the president] would make such a big deal about the lesson plan.”

Obama’s Address to Students

The result was a public relations problem for a department that’s launched ambitious education improvement initiatives, said Patrick R. Riccards, a former aide to congressional Democrats and the founder of Exemplar Strategic Communications, a public relations firm based in Falls Church, Va., that specializes in education.

“You really have a growing feeling that the federal government is overstepping its role in public education. People are seeing the stimulus language, they’re seeing Race to the Top, they’re seeing the [innovation fund],” he said, referring to the grant competitions the Education Department will hold to award $5 billion in discretionary federal aid from the economic-stimulus package. “All you need is a minor miscue to start setting everybody off.”

High Profile

Mr. Duncan has been one of the Obama administration’s most visible Cabinet secretaries, making frequent speeches and appearing on nationally televised news programs, including a Sept. 6 appearance on the CBS News show “Face the Nation.” In such appearances, he consistently pushes an agenda that emphasizes common academic standards, an expansion of good charter schools, merit-pay programs for teachers, and dramatic turnaround steps for the nation’s worst schools. To that end, he’s got $100 billion of federal funding from the economic-stimulus package.

And some say that raises the stakes—and the chances of backlash. “Especially in a department that has been given unprecedented resources, and an unprecedented role in shaping education, the bar is raised for them to take care and be inclusive and respect differences in opinion,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market-oriented Washington think tank. “The fact that these lesson plans didn’t raise a flag for anyone over there is really significant.”

Concern Over Lessons

The Obama administration hadn’t kept secret the fact that the president was going to deliver a back-to-school speech. In fact, Mr. Obama used an Aug. 13 on-camera interview with a Florida 6th grader to announce he was planning “a big speech to young people all across the country.” He said he would talk about “the importance of education, the importance of staying in school, how we want to improve our education system and why it’s so important for the country.”

That was three weeks before the controversy ignited.

Excerpts From Obama's Speech

On 4:30 a.m. tutoring sessions with his mother:

But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, ‘This is no picnic for me either, buster.’”

On staying in school:

“No matter what you want to do with your life, I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it.... You cannot drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.”

On tough living circumstances:

“I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old... There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.

Maybe you don’t have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there’s not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren’t right... That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.”

On personal responsibility:

“I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work -- that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things. But the truth is, being successful is hard.

No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work.”

But the fuse was lit on Aug. 25, when Secretary Duncan followed up with an open letter to school principals, e-mailed and posted online, that encouraged them and their students to watch the speech, and directed them to a “menu of classroom activities” available online to help teachers in conjunction with the speech. (The letter, once available on the Education Department’s Web site, has been taken down.)

Simply making lesson plans available is in line with previous Education Department practice. The department’s Web site is full of suggestions for teachers’ lesson plans, on subjects ranging from reading and music to the U.S. Constitution and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Many of these were created during previous administrations.

The lesson plans to accompany Mr. Obama’s speech were designed by teachers participating in the department’s Teaching Ambassador Fellowships, a program started in the final months of the Bush administration under then-Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. (“In Final Months, Ed. Dept. Seeks Teachers’ Advice,” March 5, 2008.)

Buried in the lesson plan for prekindergarten to grade 6 was a suggestion that students “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.” That idea sparked charges of improper politicking and led the department on Sept. 2 to retool that segment of the lesson plan.

Although the teachers—some of whom are based in Washington and others at their home schools—wrote the lesson plans, they were vetted by staff members from the Education Department and the White House, said Assistant Secretary Cunningham, who was one of those who reviewed the suggested materials before their release.

“I missed it,” he conceded. “The lesson here is you have to be very, very careful about these things.”

Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer was among the first to criticize the materials.

“As the father of four children, I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology,” he said in a Sept. 1 press release titled “Greer Condemns Obama’s Attempt to Indoctrinate Students.”

Mr. Greer’s use of provocative language, which he later backed away from, is reminiscent of other political brush fires involving Mr. Obama.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Sen. Obama was accused of “palling around with terrorists,” for example, for his ties to Vietnam War-era activist William Ayers, whom Mr. Obama knew through Chicago political circles. (“Backers Say Chicago Project Not ‘Radical’,” October 15, 2008.)

The latest flap also has echoes of the emotional charges that have been seen from critics of pending congressional health-care measures during federal lawmakers’ town hall meetings this summer.

“I think what you are seeing is the activation of the same folks who are showing up at these health-care meetings,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University. “This gets a huge amount of attention because these folks are so extreme in some of their language.”

President Obama’s speech itself was hardly unprecedented.

Despite Mr. Duncan’s statement in his Aug. 25 letter to principals that Mr. Obama would be the first president to talk directly to a national audience of children about “persisting and succeeding in school,” President George H.W. Bush delivered a strikingly similar televised speech in October 1991, in which he stressed taking responsibility for one’s education, having a good attitude, and realizing it’s “cool” to be smart.

That speech also set off a partisan dispute, with Democrats in Congress accusing the Republican president of using children as political pawns. They demanded that then-Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander—now a U.S. senator from Tennessee—explain why the Education Department had spent more than $20,000 on the event. (“E.D. ‘s Use of $26,750 for Bush Speech Is Scrutinized at Well-Attended Hearing,” Oct. 23, 1991.)

Previously, in a 1988 nationally broadcast speech, President Ronald Reagan gave high school students a history lesson about the American Revolution, urging them to abide by the principles that guided early Americans and to be grounded in their “reverence and faith.”

Schools Tackle Issue

The concerns about President Obama’s speech prompted parents to call school districts around the country, and left many local administrators grappling with how to handle the event.

His 15-minute noontime address posed logistical challenges as well as a political quandary for many schools. It was scheduled to be carried on C-SPAN and webcast live at a time when many districts would be serving lunch; locations also had to be found to place students whose parents had opted to exclude them from viewing. And many districts already were dealing with the complications of a new school year or the return from the Labor Day weekend.

Administrators in the 3,700-student Western Heights district in Oklahoma City were among those who decided against showing the address.

“The majority of parents who did call expressed their desire to personally facilitate their children’s exposure to the speech if they so chose,” rather than have it be a classroom event, said Lisa McLaughlin, the district’s assistant superintendent. Districts in Minnesota, Texas, Virginia, and other states did the same.

While some schools decided not to show the speech to avoid controversy or logistical headaches, others embraced the event—and the attention surrounding it—as a learning opportunity for students.

The White House reported that at least 180,000 people tuned in to the live online feed of the speech. It’s unclear how many teachers actually used the lesson plans, as many districts left it up to individual teachers to decide how, when, or if Mr. Obama’s speech would be used in class.

At East Elementary School in Littleton, Colo., the 5th grade classes used the Internet to have a live chat on that grade’s blog during Mr. Obama’s address, and drew in others from around the country.

Chris Moore, a 5th grade teacher who co-led the effort, said the students discussed the speech online while it was occurring and answered critical-thinking questions that he and fellow teacher Nicolette Vander Velde created based on the speech’s content and student questions.

“We work very hard to encourage our students to ‘push their thinking’ at all times,” Mr. Moore said. “This means that we must always strive to be experts at questioning ourselves as well as our students.”

Clifford B. Janey, the superintendent of the Newark, N.J., public schools, encouraged schools in his 40,000-student district to view the president’s speech and incorporate it into student learning.

In the end, even some of the original critics agreed that Mr. Obama’s speech was appropriate.

“You cannot drop out of school and just drop into a good job,” President Obama told the students assembled at Wakefield High and those watching nationwide. “You’ve got to train for it and work for it.”

“It’s a good speech,” Mr. Greer, the Florida Republican chairman, said to ABC News after the White House posted the advance copy of the remarks the day before the address. “It encourages kids to stay in school and the importance of education, and I think that’s what a president should do when they’re gonna talk to students across the country.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as How Obama’s Pep Talk Became a Publicity Headache


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