Education is A Right, Not a Dream: Obama Speech Before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

On March 10, 2009, President Obama gave a major speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce outlining his plans for education. During the speech, Obama emphasized the presence of and showed his support for Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis. Duncan was highlighted as an enforcer of “innovation” through his executive use of monetary “incentives” given to him through the recent stimulus package (ARRA).

A main feature of the speech was to use the current economic crisis to further push the test-prep for global competition agenda. He called for more high-stakes testing along with “national standards”, more corporate-style charter schools, financially rewarding teachers who produce high test scores, as well as other changes such as extending the school day and year (an initiative that is not only linked to “closing the achievement gap” but also linked to eliminating unions and collective bargaining, as contracts block corporate charter schools from imposing sweatshop conditions on young teachers). These initiatives are taken up under the banner that education be limited to “prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world.” Other countries, Obama claims, are “spending less time teaching things that don’t matter, and more time teaching things that do. They’re preparing their students not only for high school or college, but for a career. We are not.” While many critics focus energy on debating Obama’s claims with respect to U.S. graduation rates, international testing, etc., the real problem is the aim of global competition that is given to education.

Most Americans have rejected the notion that they should prosper at the expense of the world’s peoples. And, after eight years of the testing requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, public opinion is clearly against sending children to school to prepare for arbitrary tests so as to serve the monopolies in their quest to win “global competition”. Public opinion is also clearly in favor of more art, music, media, physical education, and so on, all which continue to be cut to make space for testing. According to a recent study prepared for the Alliance for Childhood, test preparation now dominates the kindergarten experience.

While many themes are present in the speech, the emphasis given to the American Dream is particularly significant as an effort to restore credibility of the U.S. as “land of opportunity.” In fact, Obama began his presentation by chanting “Si se puede,” (yes we can), a popular slogan defending the rights of immigrants in response to on-going government attacks. But Obama did not speak of winning rights in his speech. He instead spoke to re-invigorate the American Dream, presenting his ascension to power as evidence of the vitality of the Dream. After pointing to current economic crises and presenting some statistics about the failure of the U.S. education system to compete with the rest of the world, He said:

What’s at stake is nothing less than the American Dream. It’s what drew my father and so many of your fathers and mothers to our shores in pursuit of an education. It’s what has led generations of Americans to take on that extra job, to sacrifice the small pleasures, to scrimp and save wherever they can, in hopes of putting away enough, just enough, to give their child the education that they never had. It’s that most American of ideas, that with the right education, a child of any race, any faith, any station, can overcome whatever barriers stand in their way and fulfill their God-given potential.

In order to confront the current economic crisis, Obama imposes on Americans the past, with their role to protect “the dream of its founding for posterity.” “This is a responsibility that’s fallen to our generation,” he said.

Obama’s emphasis on the American Dream is significant in part because Americans increasingly see the Dream as just that: only a dream. In 2006, a CNN poll reported “that more than half of those surveyed, 54 percent, considered the American Dream unachievable.” In 2008 this trend continued. The American Dream in the Balance survey reported, “Only 52 percent believed that the American Dream was alive and well. Similarly only 48 percent said that the American Dream was an important part of their family history.” After reading Obama’s speech, one has the impression that being identified as not believing in the American Dream is somehow anti-American and a threat. “To any student who’s watching,” Obama threatens, “I say this: Don’t even think about dropping out of school. Don’t even think about it.”

Having just rewarded Wall Street failures with trillions of public dollars Obama says, speaking of education: “I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high.” This points not simply to Obama’s double standard but to the problem he is trying to solve. How to secure the allegiance of the American people to a system that denies their rights, while simultaneously training them to accept the blame for things they have no control over.

A major thesis of the speech is that low quality education has resulted in the Dream being unattainable for many. Teachers, students and parents are, in turn, blamed for low quality education. “Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world,” Obama asserts, ignoring the vast inequalities in school funding across the U.S., “we’ve let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us.” Repeating the Bush doctrine that the problem is the attitudes of students, teachers and parents, he says: “It’s time to expect more from our students. It’s time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones.” Students, who inherit this crisis-ridden system, are actually blamed for America’s decline: “America cannot succeed unless our students take responsibility for their own education,” Obama says. And for parents: “Teachers, no matter how dedicated or effective, cannot make sure your child leaves for school on time and does their homework when they get back at night.”

These admonitions reflect a profound detachment from the problems facing most people, ignoring the growing, crushing poverty and economic insecurity, segregation, police brutality, and all the attending social and health problems from violence to asthma to lead poisoning. The system of unequal funding is completely ignored and will actually flourish under Duncan’s corporate charter model. In short, Americans are to ignore their experience of a government that denies rights as a matter of course, demanding that more and more people go without, while working longer and harder, if they can find a job. They are to ignore the fact that society has developed to the point where needs of all can be readily met. Instead of taking rights as a starting point, Obama calls on Americans to “to scrimp and save wherever they can” and ensure children show up at school on time!

The blame placed on teachers, students and parents is to be made acceptable with the detached “positive psychology” of “anything is possible if you try”. The call “yes we can” win rights by immigrant groups is transformed by Obama into a demand to pull oneself up by their bootstraps…or else, where academic failure is rendered as a threat to America: “dropping out is quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country, and it’s not an option — not anymore.”

Given the widespread rejection of the direction Obama and Duncan are pushing education, the new administration has resorted to bribes to push people to do what they would otherwise not do. This is referred to by Obama as “incentivising excellence,” a fanatical pragmatism that says whatever gets test scores up and dropouts down is acceptable (and this includes fudging the data), no matter how vile. If perverting learning by offering money for grades “works” (that is, raises test scores), it is acceptable; if humiliating students “works” to “raise achievement” than humiliation is acceptable. If military academies “work” that is fine too.

What is significant, however, is not simply the manner in which this violates rights and in no way will contribute to raising the level of education, but also how it facilitates shoring up the power of executive federal bodies over state and local authorities. Obama presents in his speech a model where federal monies will only be appropriated to those education agencies that toe the line. He says: “Show us how you’ll work to ensure that children are better prepared for success by the time they enter kindergarten. If you do, we will support you with an Early Learning Challenge Grant…That’s how we will reward quality and incentivize excellence, and make a down payment on the success of the next generation.” Arne Dunacn has been given $5 billion to bribe educators into more testing, more corporate charters, and more anti-human teaching methods which can only be understood as methods for socializing the next generation to accept arbitrary executive power against the public interest.

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