Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Obama's State of the Union remarks on education: a response

President Obama made clear in his State of the Union address that he is completely clueless about education. This is a very sad state of affairs indeed, since all the teachers that I talk to are well aware that things in school are getting worse all the time.

Let me discuss some points the President made:

  1. The President said: Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education.

Let us remember that a high school education means: algebra, geometry, history, literature, physics, chemistry, economics etc. And it means memorizing facts about these subjects and passing tests. How would this qualify anyone for a job? Of course new jobs require more education that that. It is however possible to change the high school curriculum and teach things that make one employable. The only companies that hire high school graduates are those who intend to re-train them on the job like fast food outlets, or construction companies, or hotels, or airlines. We could fix this very easily Mr. President. Change what is taught in high school!

  1. The President said: as many as a quarter of our students aren't even finishing high school.

And right they are to quit. Unless you intend to go college a high school education is useless and most students realize that.

  1. The President said: The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations.

Perhaps, but why should we care? First you are talking about test scores again. I assure you Mr. President that you couldn’t pass any of the science and math tests. today. They are just about temporary memorization and you have forgotten it as well you should have. So others nations memorize better. So what?

  1. The President said: America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.

Why, Mr. President do you think that college degrees are so important? Is it because you know that high school is useless? Or is it because you really want people to know more about literature and history? Or, are you under the illusion that colleges teach people how to get jobs or how to think? I assure you Mr. Present as a veteran of 35 years of professoring, college teaches students how to game the system, how to party, and how to figure out how to graduate. Thinking isn’t really taught all that well and job skills are almost never taught.

  1. The President said: We launched a competition called Race to the Top. To all 50 states, we said, "If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we'll show you the money."

Sounds good Mr. President. But “Race to the Top” is all about test scores and it is driving responsible teachers, principals, and superintendents mad. Have you talked to people about the effect of Race to the Top? Most professional educators agree that it is a disaster.

  1. The President said: And over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.

There you go again about science and math. What is this fixation about? I know plenty of unemployed PhDs in Physics and Math. We have plenty of scientists. And this country does just fine in producing great science in any case. Do you really think that we need more scientists? What for? Who would employ them? If you think learning science and math makes you more innovative you would have to work hard to prove that. If you think that doing well in science and math courses means you can build a business or create competitive advantages for the US economy, which must be what you think, I find it hard to agree.

You might Mr. President, start thinking about how we can teach our citizens to think clearly and to do things that matter. School does not teach doing or thinking. It teaches memorizing facts, in part due to the so called reforms you and your predecessor have put in place.

Our schools are a mess because the curriculum they offer is mostly useless information that comes up only on tests. Stop with the testing and start teaching kids to do things, and to think clearly, and innovation will follow.


  1. Roger Schank for Prez!!!

    Seriously, genius work my friend. I love you. A lot.

  2. Time for a Roger Schank Institute. Forget about fixing the system it's hopeless.

  3. Interestings remarks, Roger. The problem is that the revolution education needs can not come from the top, from the rulers. Convince and train the the teachers and the students: they will do the change.

  4. I must agree with your description of what happens in most schools and universities throughout the Country, including Puerto Rico, where I live. Some six or seven years ago, your words became my inspiration, when you visited our Island for a Conference. I was really amazed with your work and propositions. So I followed my inspiration and decided to try to emulate your doings, although not having the same resources available as you do. So I improvised and initiated my graduate students in authentic environments for learning. Now they learn by performing as if they were already experts, while solving real educational design problems. We work as a team. And they know that what they do is a product which will be subjected to public and expert scrutiny. In one course, for instance, they had to design a course in Moodle on training evaluation. So it was expected they would learn the content while researching and designing the course, while I provided coaching and scaffolding. The course was to be presented to the University's Center for Faculty Enrichment and Educational Technology staff, as they are in charge of approving any new redesigned course to be used with Moodle. The experience had its goods and bads, but it was an amazing learning experience in general. Thanks.