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UPDATED: Unions Respond to Obama Speech Controversy


I checked in with officials at both teachers' unions to get their sense of the Obama back-to-school speech brouhaha.

The National Education Association's director of education policy and practice, Kay Brilliant (who surely has the best surname in the field since Margaret Spellings), said the union supports the thrust of personal responsibility, persistence, goal-setting, and achievement the president will discuss.

"I just find this whole thing amazingly curious," she told me. "I think we're disappointed that [the controversy] has taken on a political tone. We think this is an important issue, and as far as we can tell, it's a neutral topic. It seemed pretty benign."

The controversy itself could make for a teachable moment, she added. But it's hard to see how a teacher could address it without fueling even more flames in communities where this has become a big deal.

The inexhaustable president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten (who's traveling 'round the country on a back-to-school tour at the moment) sent in this statement:

"As an organization that represents teachers and school staff, we are gratified that the president of the United States is calling on students to stay in school and take responsibility for their education. These are the things we have called for our kids' role models to do. We are surprised to learn that people are trying to create a controversy around such a mom-and-apple-pie issue. Every member of the community has a role to play in education, including students, and President Obama is asking them take responsibility for their education."

UPDATE: Randi discusses the topic over at MSNBC, in this video.


I agree with the Teachers' Union's and I do not at all understand any controversy. That speech was so inocuous and really seem to be sending the message of motivation, self-responsibility and self-empowerment. We all need to accept responsibility for ourselves and we adults should know that includes us as teachers, parents, and leaders. Get off the whole political conspiracy thing on every thing. The people gave W 8 years to create positive change (whether that happened is barely debatable) - Give this man a chance as it has only been 8 months.

I find the whole debate rather amusing and futile. Not only has Obama addressed the students directly, but if you check your American history news reels, you will find both Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior spoke to students about doing their best.

At best the critics are unjustified in their comments especially one radio commentator who inferred that Obama was like Hitler with his appeal to the youth of the country.

The politisation you referred to was triggered by the lesson plans and the request by Mr. Obama to have students send him letters describing how to help him.

I find it disappointing that many schools made the decisions to not allow this. We are suppose to be using technology and yet, it was hindered. I also wondering if the next inaugural ceremony could be banned. Wouldn't that be a shame? It's part of history, and yet some schools choose not to allow. It was just an encouraging talk to all students.

I would like to see this become a tradition with each president opening the school year with a speech encouraging the students. Perhaps that might remove the politics as it moved from President to President. The controversy was just sad.

While there was nothing of real controversy in the President's speech, the standard was different for this president than for Bush in 1991. The NEA blasted Bush for his speech. There was a congressional investigation of the speech, and the Washington Post accussed then President Bush of having students play the role of "props" in his "political" efforts.

Different times or different party in power?

The only thing that makes this speech political is that is comes from a politician. Honestly, for years, teachers and principals have given virtually the same speech at the start of school years and no one complained then. It's sad that zealots in this country are finding fault in a speech that preaches a virtue that most think the youth of today lack anyway: personal responsibility. We can't complain that they don't have any, if we never ask them to rise to the occasion.

I thought it was great. I even listened to it backwards for evil suggestions, and found none.
I am glad I encouraged all ten of my classrooms to watch it, to listen to it, and to set goals for themselves.

I’m amazed at how people try to spin normally incontestable American ideals. Personal Responsibility? Stay in school? What parent would NOT want that for their children? I’ve seen people equate Obama’s “work hard” with “be a zombie”. This only means that the debate is not a rational one about education, American ideals, or even what’s best for our children. The “debate” is an emotional tirade of politics. The impact of Obama’s school speech is nothing compared to some parents' imposition of their own emotional-political agenda, even at the expense of their children’s education. I’m a parent. If more parents spent half as much time helping their kids with their homework and less time complaining about our schools and government, then the President would not have to make a plea for children to stay in school.

I think it is time for the rhetoric of fear to STOP. Presidents, both Republican and Democrat have addressed our school children. I support Pres. Obama in his ideals for education in America and his efforts to share his own life experience as a motivating factor for our children. It is through the education of our next generations that America will hold on to and build upon its leadership position in the world and that is not a political ideal but a reality.

Why do we not see the words for what they are, an educated man, who has become the most positive role model in the United States asking our students to take responsibility for their education and to strive to do their best in our classes. Teachers have been asking their students to do that all along. i have listened to the speech and found nothing political in his comments. We need to reach a higher level of learning and understanding if we are to continue being a great nation. I count President Obama as one of my heros.

It wasn't about the President's speech. It was about the degree of latitude given to teachers in brainstorming with children. Teachers with liberal or conservative leanings were given a platform for expressing their viewpoints on politically charged topics. I objected on principle, not on ideological grounds.

I think the other commenters are forgetting that the controversy was about the president's first choice of topic, which was something like "how I can I help the president pursue his agenda?" This was a bit too political for my taste, but not as distasteful as what Bill Clinton did years ago. Clinton pre-empted "Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles" one Saturday morning with a carefully staged discussion of values with child actors. My son (age 3) and I would rather have watched the turtles.

Bravo to our President for attempting to make education a priority in this country.
If we are to improve our economy we need to have a well educated workforce. We have a president that is encouraging our students to work hard and strive to be the best that you can be and yet we have people complaining. I just don't get it.
Our President, whether some people like it or not, is setting an example for our children and especially our minority students.
Let's all get on the bandwagon and support a quality education for our children.

John from Massachusetts

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