Federal Opinion

The President’s Laugh Line

By Daniel Wolff — August 25, 2009 3 min read

In President Barack Obama’s first major speech on education, in March of this year, he presented five “pillars of our education reform agenda.” Only one of them got a laugh.

As well as better standards and assessments and more charter schools, he proposed merit pay for teachers. Plenty of controversies there, not so many punch lines.

But at one point, the president declared: “Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea—every year. That’s no way to prepare them for a 21st-century economy.” He suggested that we have to “rethink the school day to incorporate more time.” That was met with applause from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce he was addressing.

And then he got his laugh.

“Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas,” he said, adding as the laughter built, “not with Malia and Sasha—not in my family, and probably not in yours.”

Anybody who’s been to school or sent a child to school knows why that’s funny. In many ways, the joke is as old as American history. Ben Franklin, writing as Poor Richard, declared: “A learned blockhead is a greater blockhead than an ignorant one.” His Autobiography basically argued that he had become a great American, scientist, and political thinker by spending less time in school, not more.

Abraham Lincoln read Franklin, and when he ran for office made sure to portray himself as a largely uneducated backwoodsman. Henry Ford believed too much schooling could ruin a mind. And John F. Kennedy, for all his presidential rhetoric about the importance of education, thought his time in prep schools and then Harvard mostly silly: The socializing was fun, the learning of little to no consequence.

But in the 21st century, President Obama insisted that “education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it’s a prerequisite for success.” He pointed out that high school dropouts earn about half as much as college graduates, and that 50 percent of America’s dropouts come from just 2,000 high schools “in cities like Detroit and Los Angeles and Philadelphia.”

If economic success is so firmly tied to the time spent in school, one might ask why the South Korean economy—with that extra month of learning—hasn’t surpassed ours. But that would be missing the president’s main point. “It’s that most American of ideas,” he said in his speech, “that with the right education, a child of any race, any faith, any station can overcome whatever barriers stand in their way and fulfill their God-given potential.”

Here, then, is the flip side of the American tradition of distrusting education: the belief that schools can solve all problems. Especially if, as the president suggests, the kids we’re focusing on are from those 2,000 inner-city high schools. In hard times, with single parents or both parents working, with streets full of crime and drugs, school amounts to a safe haven. Leaving is not an option: “Don’t even think about it!” the president said. And that directive apparently includes not only dropping out, but also heading home at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

Yet, consider what’s lost with a longer school day. Some kids go home at 3 p.m. to look after a younger sibling. Or to see their parent in the hour or two between day job and night shift. Or that may be the time, after school and before dark, when a kid can safely do some part-time work that brings home much-needed income. Finally, this may be the one chance for a student to relax, having already put in an eight-hour day and with homework still ahead. Mandating a longer school day eliminates these options, regardless of the individual child’s situation and needs.

Is there a more flexible, alternative solution? A school building is—or should be—a major community resource. Here are computers, basketball courts, cafeterias, and libraries the public pays for, but which are closed in the evening and on weekends. If the president wants a more educated population, and also wants to create jobs, why not institute a program that transforms our public schools into community centers? Have them open and staffed for kids who need extra help with their homework, but also for parents who are trying to learn English, fathers and daughters who need a place for a pickup basketball game, and the elderly who need a snack, a checkup by a nurse, or just a room to chat in.

Instead of making kids take more education like they’d take cod-liver oil (laughter), why not reconnect the school to the neighborhood and benefit all our citizens? (Applause.)

A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2009 edition of Education Week as The President’s Laugh Line


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