By Charles Cullen
DECATUR, Ga. — President Obama chose Valentine's Day to give a speech misleading and confusing a generation of schoolchildren. Impressionable young minds were subjected to the idea that Commanders in Chief really do care about education and the task of elevating youngsters to a level playing field on which they may be judged by talent and drive, instead of prenatal economic circumstance.
I am, of course, joking, but it was striking to see the President act upon his State of the Union nod to Georgia and Oklahoma as models for opportunity to set a solid groundwork for success later in life. Advancement, in other words, through high quality pre-K programs.
Before an enthusiastic crowd in Decatur, Ga., President Obama on Thursday briefly outlined his plans to turn every city into a hotbed of exceptional early education. In attendance were Congressman Hank Johnson, newly elected Decatur Mayor Jim Baskett, and the Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed. Obama acknowledged them all and then asked them to role up their sleeves to “make this a national priority,” laying out a case for the immediate necessity of his plans.
Echoing the sentiment of the State of the Union, Obama referred to education as the “true engine of American growth,” and was careful to point out that “fewer than three in ten four year olds” are enrolled in high quality early education programs.
For its brevity, Obama's speech was striking in its passion and specificity. This wasn't just a stopover in a red state. Taking issue with the idea that early education exists mostly as a way for parents to deposit their children under the watchful eye of an adult during work hours, he reminded the crowd that “this is not babysitting, this is teaching.” He also made the case that those children deprived of effective early education would suffer from it; partially because they would know that they were beginning the academic race already behind their peers. “They know they're behind at a certain point,” the President argued, “and they start pulling back.”
President Obama cited the need to train 100,000 new teachers in disciplines like science and technology. In an effort to further level the playing field — for all students — he asked that children with disabilities not be separated from non-disabled children. He also mentioned his administration's newly released “college scorecard” as a useful tool for students and parents as they continue the shared academic journey of the American student.
He acknowledged that teaching is a labor of love, noting that “behind every child who's doing great, there's a great teacher,” and “you don't go into teaching to get rich.” And he continued to argue for the universal benefit of this undertaking. Children's prosperity will benefit all of us, he reminded the crowd, “we'll all prosper that way.”
Those who've followed Obama will point out (rightly so) that his enthusiasm for excellent teachers and the value of education is nothing new. But there does seem to be a new or perhaps renewed urgency to his insistence that the United States accept education reform as a real and essential part of our efforts to move forward as a nation. Inaction, he seems to be saying, is unacceptable. And leaving things as they are is not an option.
Charles Cullen is a writer in Atlanta, Ga.