President Obama's speech to America's students began in a familiar way. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's first word upon mounting the podium was "shush." The President's first phrase was "sit down."
There we go. "Reform" which looks an awful lot like my classrooms of long ago. School is silent, passive, still, and information is one-directional.
I have heard Barack Obama speak to crowds before. I've seen him speak to attentive crowds of standing people, even standing young people. I've seen him speak to rowdy crowds, crowds who talked back, chanted, laughed, interacted.
But there's something about entering the school building which changes the conversation - "shush" and "sit down."
Changing schools requires something much more than telling kids to "try harder" and "keep trying." Especially since kids aren't that stupid. They actually know what is going on. They see "Zero Tolerance Policies" which tell kids that one mistake is all they get. They see voters choose to fund football stadiums over classrooms. They hear their parents and leaders denigrate teachers almost every day. They see that the only way they can be treated like an "adult" before they are 21 is to commit a crime. They see cutbacks in school funding while any talk of altering funding for senior citizens is met by howls of protest. They see politicians and even religious leaders lying and cheating. Mostly they see their leaders not listening to them. They know it's a game, a game rigged against most of them.
So I really would've like President Obama to converse with America's students. Even if they were standing up, lying on the floor, or walking around. I really would've liked him to tell students that if "you take responsibility, we will too." That we'll stop pretending that testing is education. That we'll stop comparing education to a "race" where we already know who the winners will be. That we'll have "zero tolerance for zero tolerance," or for schools which fail to take advantage of this century's learning technologies.
I'd like him to have promised our students that they'd have the best teachers because those teachers would be paid well, treated with respect, and offered every opportunity to build their own knowledge. That our schools would have fair funding, with the most money going to the schools where needs are greatest. That universities would stop admitting rich kids based on daddy's contributions. That classes and curriculum would have relevance.
But instead I heard him and his Secretary of Education tell kids they weren't trying hard enough, and of course, to sit down and shut up.
Just another day at school in America.
- Ira Socol