I remember one time, back in the 1950s — when I was a Brownie — I was taught how to make a hat out of artificial flowers and set up to demonstrate this minuscule skill at some sort of vast public exposition. The Governor showed up. "This is Governor Boggs," I was told. For some reason, he was very interested in how to make a crappy lady's hat out of cloth-and-wire flowers. I understood that the man was very important. And I understood that he cared about my hat-making. And that was what you call "Governor." It puzzled me for a long, long time.
So some kids in Madison got to witness the President in person. How edifying was it? He began with introduction and praise for various Democrats — "I want to first of all just say that Jim Doyle is not only one of the finest governors we have in the country, but is also a great friend, a great supporter; his entire family has been wonderful" —which was 100% not useful to kids. He continued:
You know, one year ago, Americans all across this country went to the polls and cast ballots for the future they wanted to see. (Applause.)Gah. Campaigning.
Election Day was a day of hope...This is campaign swill. At least it's showing kids what a President does. No flowered hats. No books about fuzzy animals. Just flat-out political speech.
Facing this reality, my administration had two fundamental obligations. The first was to rescue the economy from imminent collapse... We acted boldly and swiftly...
We've put a tax cut into the pockets of 95 percent of hardworking families. We created or saved over one million jobs...
... we've taken steps to unlock our frozen credit markets...He's not taking any notice that he's talking to children. Here kids, look. This is a President. Wind him up and he talks President. I'm cutting a lot of generic stuff — puffery about his achievements and so forth. At some point, he gets to the topic of education:
The United States, a nation that has always led the way in innovation, is now being outpaced in math and science education. A handful of states have even gone in the wrong direction, lowering their standards at the very moment that they should be raising them. We used to rank number one in the number of college graduates and advanced degrees. That's not the case anymore. Meanwhile, African American and Latino students continue to lag behind their white classmates -- an achievement gap that will ultimately cost us hundreds of billions of dollars because that's our future workforce.Should you really stand in front of a big group of middle schoolers and brutally inform that that the minority kids are doing worse? What does that sound like to a kid? It's especially harsh since he's expressing concern not for the personal fulfillment of the individual but for the fact that it's costing some amorphous "us" a whole lot of money. Students matter not because they are human beings but because — as a group — they are "our future workforce." They aren't even workers. They are to be merged into a mass called The Workforce.
When I was a teenager, talk like that stirred rebellion in me. I'm trying to imagine how I would feel if I were not doing well in school and I were a member of a group the President stigmatized as lagging. I've got to assume I'd feel more rebellious.
Of course, these problems aren't new. We've heard about them for years....Everything is new to kids! Why isn't he speaking to the kids?
He's got a big spending plan to tout. Of course, if there is to be federal involvement in education, it will need to draw on the spending power and it will necessarily require throwing out amounts of money that will be sufficient to tempt state and local government away from their independent educational policymaking.
... In the coming weeks, states will be able to compete for what we're calling a Race to the Top award. We're putting over $4 billion on the table -- $4 billion with a "b" -- one of the largest investments that the federal government has ever made in education reform. But we're not just handing it out to states because they want it. We're not just handing it out based on population. It's not just going through the usual political formulas. We're challenging states to compete for it....The details of how to compete — how to impress federal officials that you've got the right ideas — are far beyond what children can understand. The children are really, therefore, just a backdrop for a speech to the country generally.
Now, before a state is even eligible to compete, they'll have to take an important first step. And this has caused some controversy in some places, but it shouldn't be controversial. Any state that has a so-called firewall law will have to remove them. Now, here's what a firewall law is: It basically says that you can't factor in the performance of students when you're evaluating teachers. That is not a good message in terms of accountability. So we said, if you've got one of those laws, if you want to compete for these grants you got to get rid of that law....Wisconsin is a state that has that firewall law. We have it because we as a state want it. And we have excellent education here. But who wants to be excluded from a distribution of billions — that's billions with a "b" — of dollars in federal money? If we want to "race" for the money, we've got to tie teachers' salaries to student performance. The hypothetical rebellious student that I would become would be devilishly pleased to know that my refusal to jump through the government's educational hoops would cost my oppressor-teacher money.
There is much more to the speech, and some of the ideas are good. Yes, please support young people who want to become teachers, especially as they take on the work of educating disadvantaged children. There is an amazing section of the speech where he totally violates his daughter's privacy for the greater good:
So Malia came home the other day. She had gotten a 73 on her science test. Now, she's a 6th grader. There was a time a couple years ago when she came home with like an 80-something and she said, "I did pretty well." And I said, "No, no, no. That's" -- I said, "Our goal is" -- "Our goal is 90 percent and up." (Applause.)It's hard to see just what it was that made Malia feel that she just liked "having knowledge." Was it the harsh slap of a bad grade? There's a long section of Obama's speech about testing. Is a lot of standardized testing good or bad? He dances all around that point and gathers some applause, but in the end, I think he's saying that we need the standardized tests and we will continue to require them — and hinge teachers' salaries to them. That's not going to end. That's going to be more powerfully incentivized.
Here is the interesting thing. 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 -- "I got a 95" -- right? -- so she's high-fiving. (Applause.)
But here's the point. She said -- 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 our [sic] way. But the only way they get to that point is if we're helping them get to that point.
And what can possibly inspire