President Barack Obama will deliver his State of the Union address Jan. 28, but, for my money, his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, already gave it. Just not enough people heard it.
So instead of Obama fishing around for contrived ideas to put in his speech - the usual laundry list that wins applause but no action - the president should steal Duncan’s speech and claim it as his own (I won’t tell) because it was not a laundry list and wasn’t a feel-good speech. In fact, it was a feel-bad speech, asking one big question.
Are we falling behind as a country in education not just because we fail to recruit the smartest college students to become teachers or reform-resistant teachers’ unions, but because of our culture today: Too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to really excel?
Is this the key cause of income inequality and persistent poverty? No. But it is surely part of their solutions, and it is a subject that Obama has not used his bully pulpit to address in any sustained way. Nothing could spark a national discussion of this more than a State of the Union address.
I’ll get to Duncan’s speech in a moment, but, if you think he’s exaggerating, listen to some teachers. Here are the guts of a letter published recently by The Washington Post from a veteran seventh-grade language arts teacher in Frederick, Md., who explained why she no longer wants to teach. (She asked to remain anonymous.)
After complaining about the "superficial curriculum that encouraged mindless conformity," she wrote: "I decided that if I was going to teach this nonsense, I was at least going to teach it well. I set my expectations high, I kept my classroom structured, I tutored students, I provided extra practice and I tried to make class fun. ... I quickly rose through the ranks of 'favorite teacher,' kept open communication channels with parents and had many students with solid A’s.
"It was about this time that I was called down to the principal’s office. ... She handed me a list of about 10 students, all of whom had D’s or F’s. At the time, I only had about 120 students, so I was relatively on par with a standard bell curve. As she brought up each one, I walked her through my grade sheets that showed not low scores but a failure to turn in work - a lack of responsibility. I showed her my tutoring logs, my letters to parents, only to be interrogated further.
"Eventually, the meeting came down to two quotes that I will forever remember as the defining slogans for public education: 'They are not allowed to fail.' ’If they have D’s or F’s, there is something that you are not doing for them.'
"What am I not doing for them? I suppose I was not giving them the answers. I was not physically picking up their hands to write for them. I was not following them home each night to make sure they did their work on time. I was not excusing their lack of discipline. ... Teachers are held to impossible standards, and students are accountable for hardly any part of their own education and are incapable of failing."
I got an almost identical letter last month from a high school teacher in Oregon:
"Until about 1992, I would have at least one kid in every class who simply wouldn’t do anything. A bad class might have two. Today I have 10 to 15. I recently looked back at my old exams from the ’80s. These were tough, comprehensive ones without the benefit of notes. Few would pass them today. We are dumbing down our classes. It is an inexorable downward progression in which one day all a kid will need to pass is to have a blood pressure.
"The kids today are not different in 'nature.' ... The difference is that back then, although they didn’t want to, they would do the work. Today, they won’t. ... This is a real conversation I had with a failing student who was being quite sincere in her comments: 'I know you’re a really good teacher, but you don’t seem to realize I have two hours a night of Facebook and over 4,000 text messages a month to deal with. How do you expect me to do all this work?'
"When I collect homework at the beginning of class, it is standard out of a class of 35, to receive only 8 to 10 assignments. If I didn’t give half-credit for late work, I think most would fail."
Now you have some idea why Duncan gave this speech to the National Assessment Governing Board’s Education Summit for Parent Leaders. Here’s an excerpt:
"In 2009, President Obama met with President Lee of South Korea and asked him about his biggest challenge in education. President Lee answered without hesitation: parents in South Korea were 'too demanding.' Even his poorest parents demanded a world-class education for their children, and he was having to spend millions of dollars each year to teach English to students in first grade, because his parents won’t let him wait until second grade. ... I (wish) our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools.
"I want to pose one simple question to you: Does a child in South Korea deserve a better education than your child?" Duncan continued. "If your answer is no ... then your work is cut out for you. Because right now, South Korea - and quite a few other countries - are offering students more, and demanding more, than many American districts and schools do. And the results are showing, in our kids’ learning and in their opportunities to succeed, and in staggeringly large achievement gaps in this country.
"Doing something about our underperformance will mean raising your voice - and encouraging parents who aren’t as engaged as you to speak up. Parents have the power to challenge educational complacency here at home. Parents have the power to ask more of their leaders - and to ask more of their kids."
Citing Amanda Ripley’s new book - "The Smartest Kids in the World, and How They Got That Way" - Duncan said, "Amanda points a finger at you and me, as parents - not because we aren’t involved in school, but because too often, we are involved in the wrong way.
"Parents, she says, are happy to show up at sports events, video camera in hand, and they’ll come to school to protest a bad grade. But she writes, and I quote: 'Parents did not tend to show up at schools demanding that their kids be assigned more challenging reading or that their kindergartners learn math while they still loved numbers.' ... To really help our kids, we have to do so much more as parents. We have to change expectations about how hard kids should work. And we have to work with teachers and leaders to create schools that demand more from our kids."
Now that’s a State of the Union speech the country needs to hear - and wouldn’t forget.