Monday, September 7, 2009

The President's educational address

There appears to be a little confusion in our school district about what's happening with Obama's educational address. One day, we're told that it isn't happening via an e-mail from Ian's school:

September 3, 2009

Good afternoon,

As many of you may already know, President Barack Obama is broadcasting an address to students online next Tuesday, September 8, at noon. The district has attempted to take a neutral position regarding the broadcasting of the address in school by offering students the option of viewing or not.

However, since yesterday we have received significant feedback from our school community regarding the broadcast in our schools. We also have just learned that the address will be available on C-Span for recording, as well as posted on the White House Web site ( for viewing at any time.

Parents will now be able to access and share the broadcast with their children at their own discretion. The district will not broadcast the President’s address in the schools on Tuesday {emphasis mine}. We hope this decision will address the concerns of all our parents and prevent the disruption of our students’ school day.

Then, the next day we're told via that same e-mail group that the address will be shown:

Message from the Superintendent

The {Name Removed} School District learned of President Barack Obama’s student address scheduled to air at noon on Tuesday, September 8, just two days ago from several concerned parents. Since then, we have been overwhelmed with phone calls and e-mails both in favor of and against airing the broadcast in our school buildings on Tuesday.

As a district, we take a non-partisan view towards this address. The President of the United States is our nation’s leader and a world power who will be addressing the youth of our country. The intent to speak to students is not unprecedented, as other Presidents have done the same. For educators, this address presents a teachable moment for our students. As a system, it is our responsibility to provide educational opportunities for our students.

As Superintendent of this district, I always make an effort to listen and be responsive to community concerns. This issue has resulted in a divided community outcry that cannot be ignored. In an attempt to bring some calm to our community and be responsive to the concerns on both sides of the issue, I have decided to permit our schools to air the broadcast on Tuesday {emphasis mine}. Students whose parents prefer they not participate will be provided an alternative activity during the 15-20 minute address.

I understand this decision will be met with mixed emotions; however, I believe it offers an educational opportunity that should be made available to students.

{Name Removed}

What a mess. And it didn't have to be this way. As president, what he has to say should certainly carry some weight and be worthy of attention. But the president made some rather serious errors in judgment with this address.

1.) The president should never have allowed the initial inclusion of the assignment-heard-'round-the-world in his auxiliary materials. Namely, that students were to draft letters to themselves discussing "what they can do to help the president." Here's a tip - if you don't want people getting creepy mental images of school-aged indoctrination videos, please don't blindly assume that everyone agrees with your policies or that anyone actually wants to help you achieve the goal of driving this country off a financial cliff, thanks. That material was since removed, but the damage was already done.

2.) If you want to talk about kids staying in school, that's a great message. But it seems to ring hollow as college tuition skyrockets and recent grads find themselves unable to get jobs. Staying in school isn't a message that's helping our kids achieve their goals. Many of them are now forced to limit their educational potential due to the faltering economy. Unemployment is at 9.7%, which is the highest in 26 years.

3.) When you subvert the usual channels of material distribution, and don't release a transcript of what you're going to say to our kids, then parents of elementary aged children will be rightfully concerned. Middle and High School students are certainly capable of filtering material and making up their own minds. However, elementary aged students are more impressionable, and less able to articulate what's happening to them at school when asked. Here's another tip - if you have a good message and want to present it to kids, put that material out there for parent's to review first! Otherwise, the apparently clandestine attempt to subvert parental involvement will undermine your cause.

As a parent, I don't have any problem with my children hearing differing viewpoints. In fact, I believe very strongly that censorship is a poor substitute for good parenting. One of the marks of a mature adult is the ability to recognize when you're wrong, and respond appropriately. Another mark is the ability to recognize when you're right, and boldly defend your point while showing respect towards those with whom you disagree. Those skills will never be learned without practice at genuinely understanding all sides of the story. I welcome exposure to age appropriate debate for my kids, but this situation is nothing short of a fiasco.

I'm reminded of the Cosby show episode where Vanessa brings home her new fiancé, Dabnis Brickey. See it here, and start playing at 2:15. It's all about the presentation. The president has taken a message that we can all agree on - "kids should work hard and stay in school" - a proverbial steak-dinner message, and he's presented it on a garbage can lid.