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UPDATE: The Obama Administration’s Back-to-School Message: Personal Responsibility

By Michele McNeil — September 03, 2009 3 min read
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To push states into undertaking education reform, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are using $4 billion from the Race to the Top Fund as leverage.

But when it comes to making students and parents take more responsibility for their own educational futures, Obama and Duncan have little more than their bully pulpits—and now a $1,000 cash prize.

When Obama delivers a Sept. 8 back-to-school speech, he will emphasize personal responsibility on the part of students and parents and urge the nation’s schoolchildren to set short-term and long-term goals. These are themes that he touted during his campaign. The noon EDT speech will be carried live on C-SPAN and on (UPDATE: By the way, Obama will deliver his speech at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., which has gotten some love from his administration before.)

UPDATE: The speech, and accompanying “lesson plans” that the education department shared with teachers and school districts, is already causing quite a stir. The department is having to retract one lesson plan that asked students to write letters on how they might “help” the president, according to the Washington Times and Talking Points Memo. Meanwhile, school districts, such as those in the Dallas, Texas area, are struggling with concerns from parents who may not want their children to watch the speech.

In helping the White House gear up for the speech, Duncan taped a promo this morning in his office that will run on MTV on Sept. 8, urging kids to watch the speech by tuning into C-SPAN (and urging MTV viewers to flip to C-SPAN is no easy pitch).

And as part of this back-to-school message, Duncan also taped a commercial that will be featured on YouTube and on a new Web site promoting a contest the department will run called “I Am What I Learn.” (The filming of this was a low-budget operation—no teleprompters. Picture Duncan’s assistant Liz Utrup standing on a chair, holding print-outs of the script, in 40-plus-point-size, taped to a big flip chart.)

The month-long contest, which starts the day of Obama’s speech and ends Oct. 8, invites students to submit videos of up to two minutes long on YouTube that will highlight their personal stories about how they will improve their educations this school year and the “role it will play to fulfilling their dreams,” according to the department. A few celebrity judges (to be named later) will narrow the entries down to 20, and then the public will vote for the winner of the $1,000 prize.

This notion of personal responsibility in education reform hasn’t been raised just by Obama and Duncan. It was raised, albeit in a less-than-tactful way, by an Atlanta-area teachers’ union leader in an Aug. 31 piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Metro Association of Classroom Educators Chairman John Trotter was quoted as saying, in reference to proposed regulations by the Education Department for turning around the nation’s worst schools that call for firing staff: “He [Duncan] wants to replace everyone ... except the ones who matter, the children ... The problem starts with the students. What is Duncan going to do with some so-called students who act like miscreants each day?”

Those statements lit up the blogsphere and Twitter feeds.

But Duncan, who would surely quibble with most of what Trotter had to say, also acknowledged when I asked him about this today, that “unquestionably, without a doubt” students bear responsibility, too, for the state of the nation’s most struggling schools. And that broader message of personal responsibility is what you’ll hear from him and Obama next week.

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