Today, President Obama went to a high school in Arlington, Virginia, and gave a televised address to school children across the nation (video is available at whitehouse.gov). His remarks were controversial in advance of their release on Monday, but as it turned out, the bulk of the speech was a very acceptable encouragement to students to work hard and do their best and complete their education. Any president—or governor, or school board member—could have delivered most of this without any controversy whatsoever.
There were a few lines of the speech which he could have done without ["I'm working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn."], but the quotes below are actually quite accurate and worth the time required to speak them:
"But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world - and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.There comes a time when it is appropriate to agree with something your political opponent says, simply because it's right. As a parent and a teacher, I have no problem agreeing with the President on the quotations above. Student do need to recognize that education is important, that it sometimes requires a lot of effort, and that some things are more desirable or easier than others; and they must remember that perseverance is a desirable and important quality. As teachers and parents, we need to expect great things and great efforts from our students.
And that's what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education."
"And no matter what you want to do with your life - I guarantee that you'll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You're going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can't drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You've got to work for it and train for it and learn for it."
[Personal Note: In my professional employment, I meet a lot of school dropouts who would have done much better had they heeded those last two sentences.]
"Maybe you don't have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there's not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don't feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren't right.
But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life - what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you've got going on at home - that's no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That's no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That's no excuse for not trying."
"But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won't love every subject you study. You won't click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute."
[Personal Note #2: I am a math teacher. That last sentence is unalterably true. Focus on the word "seem."]
"So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you."
If the President had given me the responsibility of delivering the speech, aside from a handful of edits, I could have done so in good conscience with a smile on my face.
The only other issue was whether schools should have showed the speech to their students. As with many other public school things, I think this is an issue best left to local consideration. The local superintendent, principal, or appropriate authority figure should have been able to make the call.
As it turned out, public pressure probably forced the President to shift his focus to the above, less controversial topics. That's a good thing. There is nothing wrong with the President of the United States delivering a non-political encouragement to school students to give their best efforts. Indeed, it's a good idea!