Obama: About Education and Leadership

I enjoyed the Labor Day extended weekend, managing to survive two five-mile runs on consecutive days. And I’m only limping a little today on my injured left foot and leg. OK. Back to school, work, whatever.

It wasn’t that many years ago when Labor Day marked the last day of summer and signaled the beginning of the school year. And even now when many (most?) schools start classes in August, the day after Labor Day has that semi-official start of the new year to it.

I guess that is why Prez O scheduled his talk on education today. Sort of like tossing out the first pitch on opening day of baseball season. And for many, Obama’s remarks came up short even before he took to the mound.

You know the story. Prez schedules talk that will be beamed into most classrooms in the 15,000 some school districts around the country. Department of Education puts out a teacher’s guide that encourages students to write a letter to themselves about how they can help the president. Shitstorm ensues.

This to me is not a silly argument. In fact, it points to a few big realities that we are dealing with these days. One, the nation remains divided over important issues, not the least of which is health-care reform. Two, everybody who wants one these days has access to a communication platform and a megaphone. Public debate is no longer framed exclusively by the mainstream media. (See David Carr/NYT — “A Struggle Taming Any Debate.”) Three, we’re a country that believes strongly in local control and autonomy for local schools. Four, the lack of trust in government at all levels — and in elected officials — is alarming and has not improved in the least since the elections in November.

And fifth, we desperately need leadership from President Obama. He’s working in the Oval Office for plenty of reasons, one being the lack of leadership displayed by the previous administration. Ah — Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job. And so on.

But here’s the point. No thinking person can disagree with the need to improve education in a way that allows our young people to stay in school and then succeed on the job and throughout life. Can we disagree about the best way to make that happen? You bet. But we can’t ignore the problem: too many young people don’t graduate from high school and many of those who do graduate are not prepared for either work or college.

As I read it, that’s essentially Obama’s message (via New York Times and USA Today articles) today to students, teachers, parents and anyone else. Here’s the speech text — via the Associated Press.

Helping students succeed in school is a defining issue for Obama and for our nation. Here’s from an article I wrote in January as the new administration was preparing to take office.

Here’s a suggestion that would lead to big results. President Obama should shine the national spotlight on the increasingly serious problem involving young people who either drop out of high school or who get a diploma but not the education and skills necessary to succeed. Those young people forfeit their future in our knowledge-based global economy.

The facts here aren’t new, but they provide a compelling call to action for leaders in government, business and education. Consider the following:

  • Close to one in three young people drop out of high school every year. More than 1.2 million.
  • America’s Promise Alliance, established by Gen. Colin Powell, estimates that each year dropouts represent $320 billion in lost lifetime earnings potential.  That translates into diminished consumer spending – and lower tax revenue.
  • There is a difference of about $300,000 between what a dropout and a high school graduate earns during a working lifetime, according to the National Dropout Prevention Center.
  • That same organization estimates that high school dropouts make up 75 percent of America’s state prison inmates.
  • For those who do graduate, as many as 40 percent are not prepared for the workplace of today or tomorrow, based on research conducted with employers by Corporate Voices for Working Families and other organizations. (Disclosure: I initially wrote these points on behalf of Corporate Voices for Working Families.)
  • And while a college degree is not required for successful entry into the workforce, employers in the same study, Are They Really Ready To Work?, project that they will hire more new employees with a college degree and fewer with only a high school diploma.

Our failure to help students succeed in school and on the job is a national crisis touching the lives of more than 4.3 million disconnected young people.  It stretches and often breaks the social services that our community organizations and local governments can provide and undercuts our economy and global competitiveness.

So let’s keep the national spotlight on how to best improve our schools and help our young people succeed — recognizing that a part of the solution involves personal responsibility by students and parents. Excellent classroom teachers make a big difference. But they can’t help students learn and succeed without plenty of help in the classroom and out.

And let’s hope that the president matches his words — with some real leadership.

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