These last few weeks, America’s classrooms have come to life. Schoolchildren from coast to coast have completed an annual rite of passage: the first day of school.
For many students, this year’s first day was unusual. The rituals of meeting new classmates and teachers and reminiscing about summer vacations were overshadowed by a virtual classroom visitor whose speech sparked national controversy even before it was delivered.
When President Barack Obama announced plans to speak to the nation’s students, it’s unlikely his administration anticipated the uproar that would ensue. After all, Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush delivered similar messages during their presidencies, albeit without the technological flair of today’s chief executive.
Commentators have blamed the controversy on a coarsening of our political discourse or the heightened partisanship of a deeply divided Washington.
I believe something else is at play.
Certainly, no one can take issue with the president’s underlying message that students ought to work hard in school, set and achieve lofty goals, and take personal responsibility for their future success. It’s a message I worked to instill in my own children and continue to impress upon my grandchildren.
And yet, the public outcry was swift and severe. Parents and school leaders in both red states and blue, from rural communities to large urban centers and everything in between, were taken aback at the administration’s approach to this classroom conversation.
It turns out there was more than a simple conversation being streamed over the airwaves and the Internet. To accompany the president’s speech, the U.S. Department of Education released a “menu of classroom activities” that included background research, poster and puzzle making, artistic interpretations of the speech, letter writing, and much more.
To call the move unusual would be an understatement. Not only does the federal government have no formal role in developing curriculum or pushing teachers to adopt specific lesson plans, such activities are expressly forbidden by federal law—Section 9527 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
To add further confusion to the situation, the administration did not initially announce plans to release the full text of the speech before its delivery.
In light of the lesson plan’s unprecedented federal intrusion into the classroom, and the added uncertainty about what the president had to say, it’s no wonder parents and educators had serious questions about this address.
I, for one, thought much of the uproar could be quelled with the rather simple step of releasing the text of the speech well in advance. I asked the president to do as much last week, and I’m grateful that he obliged.
I requested early release of the text not because I expected it to contain some nefarious message unsuitable for children, but because I believe parents and local educators can do the most for students when they are fully involved in the learning process. With advance access to the speech, parents would be able to review the text and engage their children appropriately.
Unfortunately, there was no such obvious solution to the bungled release of the curriculum to accompany the speech. While some of the most objectionable provisions were quickly edited out of the public documents, the nagging fact remains that the federal government—not local teachers or school boards—developed a very specific lesson plan for implementation in classrooms all across the country.
Parents and local school leaders were not wrong to be skeptical about this federal foray into curriculum development. Rather than chalking it up to simple partisanship, perhaps it’s time to look deeper into this incident to truly understand the outcry. This is what they call a teachable moment, and it’s one we should not allow to pass us by.
The objections from parents and school leaders were not simply a matter of political preference or rash ideological rejection. Rather, it was a very visible demonstration that in this country, education is largely viewed as both a local right and a local responsibility.
Parents, teachers, and local school leaders believe they—not the federal government—are best equipped to design courses and develop assessments to ensure educational excellence for their students. The federal role has traditionally been very small, with targeted investments to improve opportunities for disadvantaged children and support the cost of educating children with disabilities.
Even as we invest in these two specific federal objectives—and, not surprisingly, a host of many smaller ones that have been created by politicians over the years—the federal government is still only responsible for approximately one-tenth of all education spending. And yet, many local communities are growing frustrated as they perceive a more active, intrusive federal government making more and more decisions about how their children are taught.
President Obama delivered a positive, uplifting message to students this week. The fact that many Americans were rubbed the wrong way by what amounted to a federal recommendation about what to teach, and how to teach it, is a signal that no matter how well-intentioned, education reforms simply cannot be dictated from Washington. That’s the lesson policymakers should have learned on the first day of school.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as The President’s Teachable Moment