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Friedman: Obama needs to speak honestly about education

  • (CHAN LOWE / South Florida Sun-Sentinel)

President Barack Obama will deliver his State of the Union address on 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.

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