My wife and I attended Obama’s address this morning at Stebbins High School in Riverside, OH, just outside of Dayton. It had been a thunderously rainy night but the skies cleared just in time for the early arrivals and only a few stray drops misted the crowd while we waited to go through security.
Waiting in line we met another couple and began to discuss the current state of affairs. Joe is a retired research physicist who noted that his family had had to move when Dayton initiated its first urban renewal project and that he had benefitted from public education and from the much lower cost of higher education when he was young and when one could much more easily get government assistance. Jan is a retired high school teacher who, after volunteering for an Obama event was asked (and agreed) to be a team leader.
The event was held in the high school gym, with bleachers and seats on the first floor and additional seating above. The first to greet us was a young man whose name I could not hear but who is a Field Organizer for the campaign. He noted that he was from a Chilean family of seven; he and his siblings all attended public schools and public colleges and were very grateful that this country provides such opportunities to those willing to work hard. He was followed by a parent of a high school student who spoke about the importance of being involved in one’s children’s education, to read to them when they are young, to see to it that they do their homework as they get older, and to support their other endeavors. He finished by saying that he had been a registered Republican until the primary and that it was his son who convinced him to look closely at Obama’s policies and who was responsible for his conversion. He noted, with pride I believe, that parental involvement is a two way street – parents and kids all benefit from it.
Senator Obama was greeted with loud applause and shouts of “Yes we can!” He opened by saying that his daughters had just started school this past week and recounted that when he’d asked a 5th grade teacher what to expect this year for Malia, she replied “Boys.” He countered that he was relieved that his running for president meant that the girls each had Secret Service protection.
He then spoke for about 30 minutes, touching on the problems with the state of education in America. He highlighted the reason that change is needed: the country’s long term security is at risk if we don’t take full advantage of the potential of every individual. He said that criticizing the “No Child Left Behind” law is not an education policy, that he agreed with its goals but not its implementation and not the failure to finance it fully. He said that children and teachers all lose when so much time has to be spent teaching to the test that creativity and imagination can not be sparked to their fullest, including having to drop music and art from the curriculum to accommodate mind numbing (my words) drills. The Senator addressed the risks we face if we continue to fail to teach all students the science and math skills they need to succeed, either at higher education or at high skill jobs. He said that it is in America’s heritage to lead the world in scientific innovation but that we will lose that lead if China and India turn out more math and science Ph.D.’s than we do.
Obama then laid out his plans, including bringing 30,000 highly skilled new teachers a year into America’s classrooms where they are most needed, whether in inner cities or in underserved rural areas, by giving grants or other aid in exchange for a promise of service in these schools. He made it very clear that responsibility for the success of any educational program is shared among students, teachers, parents, and government. He wants to introduce technology into schools so that parents can see, on a daily basis, if their child was in school, if he or she turned in that day’s homework and how their child did on quizzes or tests. He said that accountability should extend to teachers and that their performance should be measured in ways that are worked out within each district between the teachers and the school board so that they are relevant and meaningful. He emphasized, in an audience he knew to have a large complement of educators, that teachers who underperformed should be given help to improve, and that if they didn’t improve they should be removed from the classroom. And these words were greeted with loud applause.
Senator Obama differentiated himself from Senator McCain in his emphasis on early childhood education, noting that children who have benefited from quality preschool programs do better in school, are much less likely to fall below grade level, and are much more likely to graduate from high school and to attend college. And for any lower or middle class child who does attend college he wants to implement a $4,000 tax credit (fully refundable, meaning – as I understand it – that if the child or family does not pay enough in taxes to get the full credit, they would be reimbursed the rest).
What I took away from this speech is that Barack Obama recognizes the shortcomings in American public education and that he has a clear view of what needs to be done to address the problems. Right at the beginning of his speech he noted that every candidate for president promises to improve education, recalling that in 2000 Bush said he wanted to be known as ‘The Education President’ yet the numbers have gotten worse for high school graduation rates and dropout rates. In my mind he clearly wants all students to have the best education possible and is willing to commit government resources to it.
…And my commitment for Obama involves working with a committee to set up an early October fundraiser here in Dayton focusing on healthcare issues, hosting an Obama Field Organizer until the election, and doing whatever she asks me to do for the campaign. What are you doing?