Dear President Obama

Dear President Obama,

I watched the 2012 Democratic National Convention. I listened as Michelle told of your ritual of reading letters from ordinary (perhaps extraordinary, too) Americans each night. She said that you believed these letters are a key to being better informed. That impressed me. I hope you don’t mind if I publish my letter here.

You spoke at the DNC with passion about how “Education was the gateway to opportunity” for you and for Michelle. That sentiment resonated with me. As you said it, I nodded my head, yes, and wondered who I would be now, if not for my education. I have always been middle class, born of middle class parents and grandparents, and my siblings and I were truly the first generation in our family to believe we could go to college. For my children, higher education was expected for success in life. You could not be more right about how important education is.

In your speech, you summarized your position on what education initiatives might look like in your second term as president:

Government has a role in this. But teachers must inspire; principals must lead; parents must instill a thirst for learning, and students, you’ve got to do the work. And together, I promise you – we can out-educate and out-compete any country on Earth. Help me recruit 100,000 math and science teachers in the next ten years, and improve early childhood education. Help give two million workers the chance to learn skills at their community college that will lead directly to a job. Help us work with colleges and universities to cut in half the growth of tuition costs over the next ten years. We can meet that goal together. You can choose that future for America.

Embedded in what you say are laudable ideas (Community College especially), but if you don’t mind me saying so, you also make a statement based on a widely accepted fallacy: that American students are not, at this time, able to compete with other countries, especially in math and science. At the moment, I teach writing to gifted students enrolled in Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth. Believe me, these are some knock-your-socks-off smart kids!

The truth is our students are able to compete.  We are already at the top, if you look at the data differently.

Here is what scholar Stephen D. Krashen says:

Students from well-funded schools who come from high-income families . . . outscore all or nearly all other countries on international tests. Only our children in high poverty schools score below the international average (Payne and Biddle, 1999; Bracey, 2009; Martin, 2009) The US has the highest percentage of children in poverty of all industrialized countries (25%, compared to Denmark’s 3%). Our educational system has been successful; the problem is poverty.

The problem is poverty.

In her September 2011 blog post for The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss says “the numbers are nauseating,” as she introduces readers to the real life effects of poverty.  And while you remarked that “no child should have her dreams deferred because of a crowded classroom or a crumbling school,” you avoided dramatizing the real threat to American democracy, which is not ineffective teachers (who are better trained and more idealistic than ever before) or even poor administrators (the new crop of principals is amazing). It is poverty that prevents a growing number of American children from learning and succeeding.

It’s not their classrooms that are crumbling, it is their lives.

Yes, as you say, students must do the work, and believe me, I have known many capable middle class students who could benefit from a bit more gumption when it comes to education. But I have also known too many for whom “doing the work” is literally impossible. They simply don’t have the requisite skills to succeed in school, and everything seems stacked against them.

I know the prevailing wisdom is that we can make our schools better by holding teachers and students accountable for what they’re learning, by testing them, and testing them often. I suggest this obsession for measuring has more to do with a societal distrust of teachers than anything else, and may I suggest an even more cyncial view–that the testing craze has made more than one corporate CEO extraordinarily wealthy.

The danger in not addressing poverty can not be understated.  “Inadequate education contributes to the cycle of poverty by making it more difficult for low-income children to lift themselves and future generations out of poverty,” says Strauss from an American Psychological Association report.

What our students need–the pooerest of them, those who really do want to learn but simply cannot–is simple. They need, as Krashen so poignantly tells us, “food, health care, and books.”  What they don’t need is another test that robs them of class time and simply makes them feel even more inadequate as learners.

Which brings me to one more point. You ask us to help you “recruit 100,000 math and science teachers in the next ten years.” Math and science are truly important–students need math and science to excel in technology and engineering.

But students need stories even more.

Far too many children come to school having had no exposure to the printed word. As preschool children they do not sit comfortably on their father’s lap and learn to read as Scout Finch did. Instead they are more like Scout’s classmates, “. . . the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, [who] were immune to imaginative literature.”

Just like Harper Lee’s children of the Great Depression, our children of poverty have great needs. How can we expect them to reach self actualization when they’re hungry and their shoes are too tight? And yet, once those immediate needs are met, they still need something more.

You say it is the job of teachers to inspire. One way for you to help us do that is to release us from the burden of standardized tests and common standards that do not recogize any one child. Instead, give  us time, give us books, and give us smaller class sizes so we can share the world of books with our students.

We have a lot of negative narratives in this world. All one has to do is watch political ads to know that. An escape from real life into a wild Sendak landscape might be a child’s  first step in realizing that there is more than one way to know the world and discovering through ideas, through imagination, and through creativity that all things are possible.


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