Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Obama's speech

For all of the controversy over Obama's speech to schoolchildren, the actual speech turned out to have some valuable advice. The following sounds like something that I've said many times, almost verbatim:
But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.

Education reformers usually focus on all of the supply-side questions: how to spend money on schools, how to get good principals and teachers, how to inject competition and choice, what are the right standards and curricula, what are the right pedagogical techniques, what are the best accountability systems and merit pay, etc.

But all of that leaves out the demand-side: the students' willingness (or not) to learn. We can deliver the perfect curriculum via perfect teachers led by perfect principals in perfect schools operating under perfect accountability standards and choice, but if the students have the attitude that "I refuse to learn, because it's not cool, or it's acting white," they won't learn very much. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

In fact, I might classify the cultural factors -- whatever affects a student's willingness to learn -- as more important than anything we do with the schools themselves. A motivated child can learn a lot on his or her own (say, by checking out books from the library) even if the school system is poorly run from top to bottom.

On the other hand, consider this alternative speech that Obama could have delivered.


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