Sunday, September 27, 2009

Obama Speaks to Kids -- commentary

President Obama announced he was going to address the school students nationally during their school day. The predictable outrage materialized. If I remember right, President George Bush did a similar thing and a similar outrage materialized from the other side. No matter the President, I would oppose his/her addressing the school students in school time.

First, let me say I will not impugn President Obama’s motives. I take him at his word that there was nothing political involved. The message he delivered needs to be given to students, though it might be more effective coming from their parents. Though, if the President had ever spent much time in a modern classroom, he wouldn’t have made his speech so long and boring.

We certainly have to give the President credit for taking on this complex task. After all, we do have to take into account the fact that the speech must traverse at least five time zones, maybe six if you want to include Hawaii. You want to avoid first period because the students are not awake yet and the speech might really zonk them out. It is bound to be first period somewhere. Nor do you want it right after lunch as the students are usually too hyper to listen to much of anything. And it is bound to be lunchtime, somewhere. Give the man credit for tackling a truly presidential challenge.

My opposition to any president intruding himself into the public school classroom comes from a belief that the federal government has inserted itself too deeply into public education. The President’s speech to the students symbolizes this reality which is counterproductive to what schools should be in a free society. Remember, originally this speech was also going to include lesson plans from the Federal Department of Education.

Throughout most of the last century, public schools were truly local schools, controlled by local school boards and they reflected the communities they served. With the development of a Federal Department of Education, along with increasingly more powerful state Departments of Education, most local control has been lost. Our public education has become more and more bureaucratized and centralized. It is still public, but not local.

Though local school boards still exist, there is little they can do that is of significance beyond hiring or firing a superintendent and even this was threatened in a recent legislative session. The most meaningful thing school boards can still do is to build buildings, but the what and the why of that is controlled elsewhere. Because of mandated testing schedules, even the school calendar is controlled by the bureaucrats

Of course the curriculum is also controlled by the various departments of education and must be followed whether it makes sense for a community or not. So, all kids in Arkansas are required to have four years of math and four years of English among their academic classes in order to graduate. The bureaucrats, who are always fussing about the high school dropout rate seem oblivious to the fact that their mandated curriculum guarantees it.

If you are a student approaching your 18th birthday and you have flunked a year of math or a year of English and can’t make it up by the end of your senior year, what are you going to do? Dropout! This student has probably used up most of his electives making up other math and English classes which he failed. Having missed electives that might have meant something to him, he has sat bored through required classes he will probably never use.

The most important thing a student is going to take from his English classes is the ability to write well. If he hasn’t mastered that skill by his senior year, sitting through another year of English isn’t going to help much. And though math might teach him reasoning skills, does he really need four years of it? The bureaucratic answer seems to be, “it depends on what he might do, so he’d better take it just in case.” And so, it becomes a part of the curriculum for them all.

The justification for this intrusion is that Federal monies are used to fund education so the federal government has the right to set the rules. Let’s not kid ourselves; federal money is just a euphemism. The federal government takes its money from local economies and in turn sends it back. All federal money is really local money that has been diluted by the politicians. Should they have the right to make the rules just for having diluted and redistributed the funds? Should they have taken the money out of the local economies to begin with?

Though I applaud the President for wanting to give a positive pep talk to the students of America, I see his doing it as symbolic of a destructive Federal intrusion into local, public education, which is rapidly losing its local flavor and context. The power to make meaningful decisions has been taken out of the hands of local school boards and transferred to far away bureaucrats.

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