A year ago, President Obama's plan to give a back-to-school talk to the nation's students erupted into a tempest when the accompanying materials, issued by the Department of Education, seemed pregnant with politics and hagiography. This year, happily, the Department seems to have learned its lesson--its press release for tomorrow's speech is admirably succinct and on-point, announcing: "The President's Back-to-School Speech is an opportunity to speak directly to students across the country. Last year, President Obama encouraged students to study hard, stay in school, and take responsibility for their education."
A bit dry? Perhaps, but a welcome shift from last year, when Duncan's letter announcing the speech went out of its way to laud the president for "repeatedly focus[ing] on education, even as the country faces two wars, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and major challenges on issues like energy and healthcare." Department-issued lesson plans encouraged teachers to have students read about President Obama and write about the Obama quotes that most inspired them.
As I observed back then, the preK-6 lesson plans on the Department of Education's website exhorted teachers to have students "write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president." The lessons included the suggestion that the letters "be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals." I wrote then that, "This clumsy bit of cheerleading shows no awareness that 'help[ing] the president' might be construed as an invitation to engage in advocacy rather than instruction or that it might worry those who are not Obama partisans."
After a firestorm ensued, the Department took a page from the old Soviet playbook, simply erasing the old documents and posting new materials, without explanation or apology. For instance, the archived language on the student letters now reads, "Write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short‐term and long‐term education goals."
This go-round, there are currently no suggested lesson plans, and the website merely links to a White House video feed of the speech.
And, what hasn't been noted often enough, is that President Obama has consistently given strong speeches and shown admirable leadership when it comes to parental and student responsibility. It's a theme he returned to when addressing the Urban League in July, saying: "There's going to be one more ingredient to really make a difference: parents are going to have to get more involved in their children's education. Some people say, well, why are you always talking about parental responsibility in front of black folks? And I say, I talk about parent responsibility wherever I talk about education." Then Obama allowed, "Michelle and I happen to be black parents, so--I may--I may add a little umph to it when I'm talking to black parents."
To have any president--and especially a Democratic, African-American, former community organizer-- spreading the message of parental involvement and personal responsibility in this fashion is a valuable and admirable thing. And kudos to the Department for allowing that message to be the whole story this time.