It was a big, big day for the students at James C. Wright Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin, when the President came to town.
"The President of the United States is here in the same place where you walk the halls, where you learn," Wright principal Nancy Evans told the students. "Take this moment in history as nourishment."
Wright is a charter school with a mission to promote community involvement. It is also the school with the largest percentage of minority students, and students in poverty, in the Madison Metropolitan School District. Obama's visit lit up the crowd. Before the President walked into the gym to deliver a speech on education and pitch his "Race to the Top" initiative (a competitive federal grant program states must apply for), he met with forty students in the school library. The students who were picked for that meeting filed wide-eyed into the gym, where the rest of the school was assembled, just ahead of the President.
Eighth grader Deion Ford had shaved Obama's name into the back of his head.
The staff were giddy, too. "I learned today that I respect our President more than anyone in the universe and I respect his support for public education," the school band teacher enthused.
Obama's symbolic impact is hard to overstate.
The substance of his speech--an education policy talk that left the sixth, seventh, and eighth graders glassy-eyed--left plenty to be desired.
For too long, Obama told the crowd, "we've let partisanship and petty bickering stand in the way of progress. It's been Democrat versus Republican. it's been voucher versus public schools, it's been more money versus more reform. In some cases, people have seen schools as sort of a political spoil having to do with jobs and contracts instead of what we're teaching kids."
So began the pitch for what one activist education professor, Todd Price, who joined protests outside the school, called "No Child Left Behind on steroids."
Obama introduced "one of the best secretaries of education we've ever had," Arne Duncan, and explained the Race to the Top: States can get a chunk of $4.2 billion in federal grant money if they comply with certain requirements. The most controversial of these is the rule that they get rid of so-called firewalls, laws that, in some states, forbid linking teacher assessment and compensation to student test scores.
Obama criticizes some of the worst aspects of No Child Left Behind, including teaching to the test: "That's the last thing we want," he said. But he is still a proponent of standardized testing. The important thing, he said, is "not more testing," but to "get testing right." Tests need to measure "critical thinking, entrepreneurship, team work" "We are not just interested in 'can they fill out a bubble'?"
Still, the buzzword of the speech was "competition"--students must be more competitive with their counterparts in other countries, schools must compete to stay open, states must compete for resources from the federal government.
All that competing makes you wonder: Why must there be winners and losers in America's education system? Why can't we just make it federal policy to deliver the best education possible to all kids?
The competitiveness and personal responsibility themes carried right through Obama's speech up to the end, "There are always excuses for why schools can't perform," he said, "but what we want is an environment where everyone agrees . . . there is no excuse for mediocrity." Communities can compete for and win extra money from the Feds if they show that they can focus on underperfoming schools, "replacing a school's principal if it's not working, and at least half its staff, close a school for a time and then reopen it under new management, even shut down the school entirely."
"Lifting up American education is not a task for government alone," Obama said, moving on to the personal responsibility section of the speech. "It will take parents getting more involved in their child's education . . . . students accepting more responsibility."
In Bill Cosby mode, he told an anecdote about his own daughter, Malia, coming home with a 73 on her science test, and how she had to work to improve her grade.
"Malia and Sasha are just wonderful kids and Michelle is a wonderful mother," he said. But "there are times when kids slack off. There are times they'd rather be watching TV or playing a computer game than hitting the books."
In that crowd-pleasing, humorous-but-firm paternal style, the President described how he and his wife hold their own kids to high standards. He got a big round of applause from the parents and teachers when he told how his daughter thought getting 80-something on a test was good. "Our goal is 90 percent and up," he said when he straightened her out.
"Here is the interesting thing," the President continued. "She started internalizing that. So she came and she was depressed, 'I got a 73.' And I said, 'Well, what happened?' 'Well, the teacher -- the study guide didn't match up with what was on the test.' 'So what's your idea here?' 'Well, I'm going to start -- I've got to read the whole chapter. I'm going to change how I study, how I approach it.' So she came home yesterday, she was-- ' got a 95' -- right? -- so she's high-fiving. But here's the point. She said, "I just like having knowledge." That's what she said. And what was happening was she had started wanting it more than us. Now, once you get to that point, our kids are on their way. But the only way they get to that point is if we're helping them get to that point. So it's going to take that kind of effort from parents to set a high bar in the household. Don't just expect teachers to set a high bar. You've got to set a high bar in the household all across America."
Obama closed his speech on this shared-responsibility note: "It will take each and every one of us doing our part on behalf of our children and our country and the future that we share."
The President's role-model-in-chief routine has been heavily scrutinized. It strikes some people as condescending to African American families; on the other hand, the crowd at Wright Middle School loved it.
The more important question is, what is the Obama Administration doing about education?
Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle, speaking before Obama, joked that members of the audience at Wright Middle School should collar Arne Duncan and push Wisconsin's application for Race to the Top funds.
But those funds, even if the state qualified, would represent just a fraction of the money the governor recently cut from education funding in his state budget.
"We cut and reallocated over $500 million in Wisconsin from education in the state budget, and we are jumping through hoops for $80 million in Race to the Top funds," said Thomas J. Mertz, a history instructor at Edgewood College in Madison, and a parent of a Wright Middle School graduate who came out for the Books Not Bombs protest. "It just shows how desperate states are," he added. "It's like holding out a little piece of cake before the states and saying we may give you a bite if you jump through these hoops. It's cake, not the bread the states need, because it's targeted money for special initiatives."
Professor Todd Price, a teacher of education at National Louis University in Chicago and Kenosha, who also spoke at the protest, objects to the whole competitive, free-market education reform model. "States are in need of money not on a competitive basis but on an equitable basis," he said. The corporate speak particularly bothers him in light of the massive bank bailout by the Obama Administration. "If we taxpayers have already bailed out Wall Street, why do we have to compete for funds?"
Another group that came out to protest included Latina high school students who want the President to make good on his campaign promise to pass the Dream Act, which would help undocumented immigrants go to college.
"Our message is we want to go to college, too," said Madison East High School student Maria Santa Cruz. "We are still waiting for President Obama--he said it would be easy to do this right away when he got in office," Cruz said.
As the protest broke up, the students chanted "Sí se puede"--a poignant reminder of the Obama Presidential campaign.