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Work Hard—No Excuses—Obama Tells Nation’s Students

By Alyson Klein — September 08, 2009 7 min read
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In a speech that triggered advance controversy—and logistical headaches for school officials—President Barack Obama today urged America’s K-12 students to study hard and stay in school, saying, “What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country.”

His remarks to an assembly at Wakefield High School just outside Washington, which were broadcast and carried online nationally, capped days of criticism, primarily from conservative opponents of the president, who asserted that Mr. Obama might use the address to persuade children to support his political agenda.

In the end, after school districts across the country grappled with whether to show the speech—allowing parents to make the decision for their children, in many cases—the president delivered a message focused on personal responsibility and students’ own educational goals rather than broad policy.

“[N]o matter what you want to do with your life, I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it,” he told the students in an address that officials said drew about 180,000 live viewers to the White House Web site. “You cannot drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to train for it and work for it.”

Mr. Obama’s speech was the first time in 18 years that a sitting president had delivered an address specifically for the nation’s K-12 students, said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who joined Mr. Obama at a round-table discussion with 9th graders at Wakefield High before the speech.

The White House had scheduled all Cabinet secretaries to make appearances at schools across the nation today to reinforce the message, which hit on themes that past presidents, including Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, have used in talking to U.S. schoolchildren.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu talked about the importance of science and technology with high school students in Alexandria, Va., while Labor Secretary Hilda Solis traveled to a Rhode Island residential education and job-training facility to watch the speech with students.

Critics Evident

Suspicion about what President Obama would say was evident at Wakefield High here in Arlington, across the Potomac River from Washington, a few hours before the address: A small cluster of protestors was gathered a few blocks from the school, although there was no visible disruption.

Of particular concern to some critics nationally were suggested lesson plans and classroom activities (for younger and older students) made available by the U.S. Department of Education to accompany the speech. Some conservatives said the materials violated restrictions against the federal government setting curriculum. Tom Horne, the superintendent of public instruction in Arizona, an elected Republican, said the activities called for a worshipful, rather than critical, approach to the speech.

A earlier draft of the materials, which was revised after criticism was first aired, had suggested, among other activities, that students at the pre-K-to-6 level could write letters to themselves on how they could help the president.

But others in the GOP, including former first lady and teacher Laura Bush, defended the speech.

Secretary Duncan said the controversy illustrates one of the problems in education policy: the tendency to “focus on adult issues and adult drama,” instead of on the challenges facing school systems.

He said the suggested lesson plans were put together by some of the best teachers in the country—participants in the Education Department’s Teaching Ambassador fellowship program. He conceded, however, that some of the original wording had focused too heavily on the president’s goals, and that the lessons were tweaked to stress students’ individual goals.

The secretary stressed that viewing the speech was entirely voluntary—students could watch in school today, online later, or not at all, he said.

School districts took all three approaches.

Clifford B. Janey, the superintendent of the Newark, N.J., public school system, encouraged schools in the 40,000-student district to view the president’s address and incorporate it into student learning. Those in more than half the district’s schools watched the speech live, said schools spokeswoman Valerie Merritt.

In the 3,700-student Western Heights district in Oklahoma City, administrators decided against showing the president’s address after receiving phone calls and e-mails from parents.

“The majority of parents who did call expressed their desire to personally facilitate their children’s exposure to the speech if they so chose,” said Lisa McLaughlin, the district’s assistant superintendent.

In addition to parent concerns, the Western Heights school administrators believed that a business-as-usual approach would be best in a week already shortened by the Labor Day holiday, Ms. McLaughlin said. Teachers may choose, however, to incorporate the speech into lessons at a later date.

Similarly, many principals decided against showing Mr. Obama’s speech today in the 38,000-student St. Paul, Minn., district to make sure this year’s first day of school went as smoothly as possible, said schools spokesman Howie Padilla. Although some schools showed the speech, most St. Paul schools taped it or are planning to access it online later, he said.

Reversing an earlier decision, the Harford County, Md., school system decided to “conduct conversations of an instructional and motivational nature regarding the address” with its students by Thursday. The 39,000-student district had previously said it wouldn’t show Mr. Obama’s speech because of guidelines requiring the schools to review broadcasts and give staff members time to work them into the curriculum before showing them to students.

Well-Received by Students

Students at Wakefield High, meanwhile, seemed to dismiss the criticism.

Timothy Spicer, 17, the senior class president, who introduced Mr. Obama at the assembly, called the response “pointless.” And freshman Elizabeth Brantley, who attended the roundtable discussion with the president and Mr. Duncan, said the backlash was “kind of dumb.”

Another 14-year-old, Max Rosenberg, had even stronger words, saying people who didn’t want Mr. Obama to address students are “racist” and don’t agree with the president’s politics.

Wakefield High School is a racially and ethnically diverse school where about 50 percent of the students qualify for federally subsidized lunches. The school, which is located in the same district—Virginia’s Arlington school system—where Secretary Duncan’s children attend public school, has met the achievement targets set in the No Child Left Behind Act.

None of the conflict leading up to the speech was evident during the 20-minute roundtable discussion in the school’s library with about 40 incoming 9th graders, according to participants. They queried the president about how his life has changed since the election—and how one of them might become president.

Mr. Obama advised any of those who might aspire to his job to be careful about what they post on Facebook and other social-networking sites, because that material could come back to haunt them. And he encouraged them to set their goals early and stay focused. He echoed those same themes in his speech, encouraging students to view their education as an investment in their own and their country’s future.

Drawing on his own childhood experiences during a period when he lived in Indonesia, he told students that his mother had gotten him up at 4:30 every morning to make sure that he was exposed to rigorous coursework. While he was growing up, his father was absent, and his mother sometimes struggled financially, he said.

“There were times when I missed having a father in my life,” Mr. Obama said. “There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in. So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have.”

But, he told students, he was given second chances, was able to get a college education, go on to law school, and pursue his aspirations. Stressing personal responsibility, he said that “the circumstance of your life—what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have—none of that is an excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude in school. ... There is no excuse for not trying.”

Although he steered clear of political rhetoric and discussion of policy in the speech, Mr. Obama did briefly mention some of the K-12 proposals that his administration has advanced.

“I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working, where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve,” Mr. Obama said.

And what might be taken as an allusion to education funding efforts championed by his administration, the president also said, “I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books and the equipment and computers you need to learn.

“But you’ve got to do your part, too,” he said. “So I expect all of you to get serious this year.”

Staff Writer Dakarai I. Aarons and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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