Revision: Education Dept. Changes Suggested Classroom Activities for Students Who Watch Obama’s Speech

By Karen Schuberg | September 3, 2009 | 9:23 AM EDT

Education Secretary Arne Duncan talks about reforming the education system at the National Press Club in Washington on Friday, May 29, 2009. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

( - Amid complaints from some parents and political conservatives, the Obama White House has dropped a recommendation that students write a paper on “how to help the president” following President Obama’s Sept. 8 speech to the nation’s school children.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in a letter to school principals, announced that Obama will address students live from the White House, via the White House Web site and on C-SPAN, at 12:00 p.m. on Sept. 8.
The topic is education. “The president will challenge students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning,” Duncan said in a letter posted on the Education Department’s Web site.
In addition to encouraging all students, teacher and administrators to watch Obama’s speech, the Education Department is encouraging educators “to use this moment to help students get focused and inspired” as they begin the new school year.
Toward that end, the Education Department is offering a “menu of classroom activities” to “engage” students and “stimulate classroom discussions about the importance of education.”
The suggested classroom activities for younger students – Pre-K through 6th grade – included having children “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.” That line in particular drew fire from critics who said the White House was politicizing the event.
By Thursday, as The Washington Times noted, that line about helping the president had been replaced with the suggestion that students “Write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals.”
Likewise, a suggested question for older students read, “What is President Obama inspiring you to do? What is he challenging you to do?” By Thursday, that question had been changed to read, “Is President Obama inspiring you to do anything? Is he challenging you to do anything?”
By Thursday, the Education Department’s Web site also had removed Arne Duncan’s letter to school principals, in which Duncan encouraged them “to use this historic moment to help your students get focused and begin the school year strong.”
Russ Whitehurst, director of the education policy at the Brookings Institution, said it is good that Obama and Duncan are focused on encouraging teachers, students, and parents to raise expectations for educational achievement, but he said the president’s speech won’t be a “magic bullet.”
“It is, of course, relatively easy for the president to give a speech, and it is good that the Department of Education has provided some materials to help schools support that speech, but a lot of other things have to happen for us to have fundamental change in the way students and parents and schools think about effort and working hard and the necessities of academic achievement.”
Bob Morrison, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, said President Obama ought to be focusing on parental authority:
“We think that education has been harmed by the loss of parental influence over the schools,” Morrison said. “We think that the centralization of education in Washington is an ongoing mistake, and we question how much has been achieved by centralizing authority and resources in Washington that would be better directed towards states and localities.”
Morrison also stressed the importance of parental choice in education: “We see that this administration, despite its talk of hope and change, is strangling a voucher program very popular with low-income families in D.C., and this important opportunity to young people in the nation’s capital is going to be closed down to them,” Morrison said.
Barack Obama is a longtime opponent of school voucher programs. In a July 2007 response to the American Federation of Teachers, Obama wrote, “We need to invest in our public schools and strengthen them, not drain their fiscal support. And for this reason I do not support vouchers. In the end, vouchers would reduce the options available to children in need. I fear these children would truly be left behind in a private market system."