Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Students Missing From Education Reform

Education has attained the status of weather: Everyone talks about it but no one does anything about it.

Well, not exactly. President Obama made education a centerpiece of his campaign. He talked about the central role of education in his life to get to where he was. He promised to follow up on his educational vision if he became the president.

In an address to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce today, the president fleshed out his vision. He called for more charter schools ("laboratories of innovations"), merit-based pay for teachers while holding them more accountable, emphasis on early education, tougher curriculum standards, and renewing commitment to learning from cradle to adulthood. “It is time to give all Americans a complete and competitive education from the cradle up through a career,” said Obama. “We have accepted failure for too long. America’s entire education system must once more be the envy of the world.”

The president had done his homework on teachers. He is determined to push the same methods used in Finland and Singapore, two countries with the finest public education systems in the world today, to treat “teachers like the professionals they are .... New teachers will be mentored by experienced ones. Good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement, and asked to accept more responsibilities for lifting up their schools.”

The president made a compelling case for raising the quality of education in America. Where it fell short was in his lack of emphasis on the responsibility of the students themselves. “It is time to expect more from our students,” the president declared. We have known that for years, but how? We talk about teachers, teachers' unions, administrators, parents, communities and school districts but leave out the most important element in the ecology of education: students.

Teachers and schools can never take over the job of educating a child completely. And they are not meant to! It may take a village to raise a child, an awfully nice-sounding idea, but it is a partial remedy at best. The critical question to ask is, why do so many of our kids suffer from lack of motivation? It’s a phenomenon that cuts across race, gender, income and social standings. You can blame lack of parental guidance, high-tech distractions, a noxious culture, whatever, but ultimately the mystery remains. If you are the parent of a school student whose only aim in life seems to be entertainment and hanging out with friends, how do you instill in him or her discipline, motivation, hunger for knowledge?

All across America, parents and teachers who dutifully offer everything asked of them to educate their wards are asking: “What are we doing that’s not right?” Who will tell them that they are doing the best they can, that it is most often the kids who have to shape up, who have to shun the path of ignorance and get on the road to knowledge?

I hope President Obama focuses exclusively on students next time he talks about education. He is an inspiration to kids. His life story evokes wonder. He can be more persuasive on our children than perhaps any parent or teacher at this particular juncture of history. He can use his talent, eloquence and his own story to energize and motivate them to acquire knowledge. If he can pull off this feat, there is a chance that our educational system will once again become the envy of the world.

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