Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Teaching Underground Grassroots Teacher Response to the State of the Union Address

So tonight we get both a Republican and a Tea-Party response to the President's State of the Union Address, so we here at the Teaching Underground have decided to throw our hats into the ring and offer the official "Teaching Underground Grassroots Teacher Response" to the State of the Union Address.  We've included relevant text from the President's speech tonight below in italics with our comments embedded.  So here we go...

Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science.
     History has shown us that America is at its greatest when we forge ahead and live up to our unique ideals of democracy and progress.  We have seen some our worst moments in times of fear spent chasing after a dream just because a perceived opponent might reach it first.  Innovation is the buzzword of today, but true American innovation is original and "organic."  The sheer size of China and India alone must lead us to conclude that in the future we will relate to them as partners on the world stage.  Perhaps it is time that we learn what our unique role in this partnership will be instead of chasing their dream and pretending that all we need to do is educate our children the same way they educate theirs.

What’s more, we are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea – the idea that each of us deserves the chance to shape our own destiny. That is why centuries of pioneers and immigrants have risked everything to come here.  It’s why our students don’t just memorize equations, but answer questions like “What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?”
     Agreed.  That first line may sum up the reason why most of us entered the teaching profession in the first place.  But in the current environment of accountability through testing, how do we standardize "what would you change about the world."  Our education systems must not lose sight of the value of teaching our students to do more than memorizing equations in it's desire to measure.

Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success. But if we want to win the future – if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas – then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.
     We spent much of the twentieth century producing a quality workforce for America.  When the corporate world found a better deal they took it.  If we want to produce jobs in America, we need to also consider that education is not a race.  A race is something you finish and either win or lose.  When I attended the University of Virginia, students referred to themselves as first, second, third, or fourth years because in the eyes of its founder, "one cannot reach seniority in learning."  We need to understand that education is about Human development, not Human resource development.

Think about it. Over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school degree. And yet, as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations.  America has fallen to 9th in the proportion of young people with a college degree. And so the question is whether all of us – as citizens, and as parents – are willing to do what’s necessary to give every child a chance to succeed.
     Also agreed, but it is about more than just sending kids to college.  A college degree does not guarantee success anymore.  A lack of a college degree is not a death sentence.  Our students need a vision of what they can become.  Ask any number of unemployed or underemployed college graduates what they think about this comment.  Rather than pushing all students into this vague notion of college, we should make sure that our students are thinking about their future and how they hope to give back to the world.

That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done.  We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.
     I appreciate an acknowledgment that the responsibility for the education of our children is not squarely on the shoulders of our schools.  We do need to instill a reality check that hard work and discipline are the keys to success, but also the truth that sometimes even this isn't enough.  We need to learn from personal failure and understand how to positively respond to setbacks.

Our schools share this responsibility. When a child walks into a classroom, it should be a place of high expectations and high performance. But too many schools don’t meet this test. That’s why instead of just pouring money into a system that’s not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top.  To all fifty states, we said, “If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we’ll show you the money.”
     I'm writing this tonight with an eye for the weather, wondering whether we will have school tomorrow or not.  Sometimes we risk our lives to get to school, and other times we sit home in the rain.  If schools were smart, they'd hire a meteorologist to make this decision after all, they're the professionals.  Why wouldn't we let the meteorologists make the call on school cancellations?  It seems that we're becoming more and more willing to let the economists make the call on school reform.

Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than one percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning. These standards were developed, not by Washington, but by Republican and Democratic governors throughout the country.  And Race to the Top should be the approach we follow this year as we replace No Child Left Behind with a law that is more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.  You see, we know what’s possible for our children when reform isn’t just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals; school boards and communities.
     Flexibility is key.  This is why education is best left in the hands of local government.  We spend so much time and resources on National and State mandates for chunks of money that usually doesn't even cover the cost of implementation.  Federal and State governments are essential in setting minimum standards and ensuring equity in education, but their efforts to prescribe policy hurt our ability to effectively and (yes I'll say it) efficiently educate our students. 

Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver. Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college. And after the first year of the school’s transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said “Thank you, Mrs. Waters, for showing… that we are smart and we can make it.”
     OK, and this example tells us what?  Not to be negative, this is a great story, but I'm not sure what it tells us about how to move forward in education. 

Let’s also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom. In South Korea, teachers are known as “nation builders.” Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect. We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.  And over the next ten years, with so many Baby Boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.
     I do like to think of myself as a builder of people more than a nation, but thank you for the shout out.  I can't help but think this is a little bit of a back-door comment however.  We have a system too complex to simplify this good teacher/bad teacher dichotomy.  Part of the reason I'm a good teacher is that I work for a good system, with adequate support and resources.  Within that system I have some of the best students, some of whom would succeed despite my efforts if not because of them.  How do you compare that to a teacher struggling to keep student attention daily because they lack necessary resources and administrative support, and the students they teach come into the class struggling.  In ideal situations, almost anyone could be a good teacher, but on the contrary, in some systems only a few would have what it takes to be an excellent teacher.

In fact, to every young person listening tonight who’s contemplating their career choice: If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child – become a teacher. Your country needs you.
     Yes we do.

These are just a few of my initial reactions, don't judge too harshly.  I used to think that national rhetoric about education was just that, harmless rhetoric.  After all, the federal government doesn't control our schools.  But in the last decade I believe the national rhetoric and the cascade of reforms that it has required greatly impacts the education systems of America.

So there you have the official "Teaching Underground Grassroots Teacher Response" to the State of the Union Address.  What are your thoughts?  Feel free to share using the comments link below.


  1. We need solar powered teachers.

  2. That would be innovative.