Obama’s School Speech: “Dodging the Bullet” or Firing It Into The Backs of Educators?

Posted September 12, 2009

While most are busy analyzing the healthcare speech delivered to Congress days ago—a final push to promote the public option reform and put to rest challenges from the left and right—this piece is concerned with the apparently benign speech delivered to middle and high school students across the U.S. on Tuesday. As a graduate student studying education, I was lucky to hear the speech at a working class middle school in Southwest Atlanta and observe student and faculty reactions. An all-Black school, there was no pre-speech anxiety about “brainwashing” or any other loony accusation pushed by the far right over the last week. This school, like many others in Atlanta, is adorned with Obama “Yes We Can” posters and filled with young people inspired by his example. What preceded the speech instead were teachers printing out discussion guides and thinking about how the lost lesson time can still meet Georgia Performance Standards—such is the reality of education under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), awkwardly lingering in the age of ever-diminishing hope.

Thanks to the D.C. gurus, all of our classrooms were equipped with LCD projectors and laptops capable of screening Obama’s address (purchased while asking teachers to tighten their belts as the student to faculty ratio expands uncontrollably). The sixth-grade students that I’ve come to know over the last month of history classes fidgeted in their seats as my mentor teacher, visibly frustrated, attempted to start the streaming video. Eleven-year olds, eager to offer their expertise, were admonished one-by-one as they yelled out instructions: “Click the camera picture, Mr. B! No, near the bottom!” All it took was one quick eruption, undoubtedly motivated by weeks of unfulfilled promises of extra faculty help by administrators, to ensure graveyard silence in the room for a moment.

Right on time, the video began to stream as Obama reached the podium. It was a short speech, evoking familiar memes of neoliberal capitalism. Student success, the president assured us, was possible under any circumstance. We were regaled with exceptional stories of young people overcoming extreme adversity to attend college. To cite one example, little Andoni Schultz, fighting brain cancer since age three (and, we can imagine, insurance companies and skyrocketing medical costs as well) made excellent grades and went on to study at Brown College. In a sense, I agree with this outlook. Children and young adults overcome incredible challenges every single day to become educated, to make a living, and to simply survive. In the neighborhood where I live and teach, Black residents have been hit with the one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country and have encountered little to no help from the waves of stimulus packages.

Predictably, it’s “bootstraps” for them and bailouts for the vulture banks. The only job creation plan here comes from the waves of families forced into far-flung cities to find cheaper housing, family help, or in some cases, to live on the streets. Even in tough times, many find petty entrepreneurial hustles to keep them afloat, or to keep their children fed and clothed in their required uniforms. As President Obama requested in his address, these resilient working class people “don’t let failures define [them]” and continue to live through the everyday struggles. Memo to President Obama: We don’t need you to give us examples of strong people, because they are all around us. But I digress…

The speech, in a word, was vacuous. When taken in the context of an assault on education to rival Bush II, though, the speech was simply insulting—to students, to educators, to everyone. The grand theme was “blame the victim.” Just as the United Auto Workers were blamed for their extravagant benefits “wrecking” the domestic auto industry (you know, like the health care benefits that the state wouldn’t provide), and just as conservatives blame working and poor people’s lifestyle decisions on rising health care costs (despite the “food deserts” ever-present in low-income neighborhoods like mine, where only expensive and unhealthy groceries are available), students were blamed for failing schools. If that isn’t insulting enough, Pres. Obama followed his “Horatio Alger” stories with a word of caution: “I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball…when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.” As if making it in the hip-hop or sports world doesn’t involve incredibly hard work! Sadly, the ethos of NCLB, which de-funds challenged schools on the basis of standards with debatable merit, was unmistakably paralleled here. This speech wasn’t just a PR victory because it “was not political,” as the far right predicted—it was a PR victory because the subtle politics included were those which unite conservatives with centrist liberals like Obama. His campaign strategy of appeasing the right, no matter how vicious and racist their attacks may be, didn’t end in November.

It’s hard to tell what exactly the students thought about the speech. Did it remind them of their parents, lost in their own problems, who seem to never understand? Perhaps it recalled the urgings of a guardian, grandparent, preacher, or imam…whatever the case, the content of the speech did not inspire discussion. Instead, students preferred to discuss the so-called controversy surrounding the speech. What drove the backlash, more than a few students figured, was racism. “Why can other presidents address schools while Obama can’t?” From there, discussion moved quickly to the other sharp contradictions in their lives—foreclosures, profiling, lack of opportunity, and so on. Freed from the standards, these children exercised their critical and curious minds, asking more questions than the teacher or I could handle and, in a rare collective moment, broke with the contrived teacher-student hierarchy and talked to each other about these issues. But all too soon, it vanished—the uncontrollable chatter (which was relatively mild and noticeably “on task”) provoked another outburst from my mentor teacher.

This time, however, the hammer dropped with a presidential seal of approval. “Didn’t you just hear our president asking you to behave? Aren’t you proud to have a Black president? You, you, and you, out in the hall NOW,” he shouted at several students, guilty of excitedly having their own discussion about these issues. From here, it was just a downward spiral of condescension, paternalism, and victim-blaming. The rant that followed quickly moved to cover “causes” of degeneracy, like sagging pants and too much TV. Logically extending Obama’s argument, the teacher reminded these 11-year olds that their personal shortcomings would hold back the entire Black community. Yikes. Needless to say, the dialogic engagement was broken and teacher and student were once again principle antagonists. I left for the hall to talk to the “problem students” and ease their anxiety, as they did nothing wrong.

While we’re, erm, thankful for the selective Hallmark stories and overtures about our “great” (underpaid and overworked) teachers, what we really need immediately are serious reforms. Since we’re on the subject of education, how about a bailout for public schools? All over the nation, schools languish due to incessant budget cuts. According to a Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report updated last week, the state of Georgia (ranked nearly at the bottom of states for education) has cut $112 million from its equalization component established to close the gap between wealthy and working class school districts. However, as conservatives and liberals alike claim, simply “throwing more money at the problem” won’t solve it. We desperately need changes that they won’t deliver—like bucking NCLB altogether, ending the back-door privatization that is the charter school phenomenon (see this excellent review in the International Socialist Review), and building more militant and community-responsive teachers unions.

Thanks to examples on the ground, these are changes that we can believe in as well. United Teachers of Los Angeles continues to build an impressive fightback to the incredible cuts imposed on education in California, widely supported by students, parents, and community leaders. The Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE) has recently won an impressive (and unfortunately long-awaited) victory against Arne Duncan-supported charterization in Chicago. Radical teacher resources, like Rethinking Schools, continue to provide inspiration and tools for critical pedagogy amid standardization of everything. More than anything, we can believe in these changes because they come from us, and only we have the determination and power to make them real.

Fortunately, Obama is dead wrong—we’re the solution, not the problem, and we’re all capable of a hell of a lot more than individuated, personal “success” amid great challenges. This speech is just one more reminder the change has to come to, not from, Washington. Not from Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who royally screwed Chicagoans in his short tenure there, proving he had the stuff for the Cabinet job. Surely not from the leaders of national teachers organizations who, bizarrely, took the occasion of recent announcements that the three pillars of education reform would be merit pay, stricter standards, and more charter schools to publish statements of loyalty (“Finally, we have an education president,” AFT head Randi Weingarten gleefully noted). It’s time to tackle the real challenge and build movements, independent of the Democratic Party, that can start reforming education from the bottom-up. This may be getting more active in their teachers union, PTSA, or community organization fighting for quality public education.

What is going on in your region and how are you fighting back? Let us know in the comments section below!