Going back over the transcript of Obama's NAACP speech from last night, I was taken however at the central theme of his speech. He did mention race of course, but it really wasn't the central theme of what he was talking about. He did mention the economy, health care, and climate change. But by far he spent the most time and made the most passionate case yet for improving on the third leg of his domestic agenda, education:
You know what I'm talking about. There's a reason the story of the civil rights movement was written in our schools. There's a reason Thurgood Marshall took up the cause of Linda Brown. There's a reason the Little Rock Nine defied a governor and a mob. It's because there is no stronger weapon against inequality and no better path to opportunity than an education that can unlock a child's God-given potential.And frankly, this was the best speech I've seen him give as President (despite mentioning Lil Wayne, so many better rappers he could have mentioned there, damn!) He used to give speeches like this on the campaign trail (I remember his stump speech one cool October night in Cincy) and people believed in what he had to say because he so clearly did himself.
Yet, more than a half century after Brown v. Board of Education, the dream of a world-class education is still being deferred all across this country. African-American students are lagging behind white classmates in reading and math - an achievement gap that is growing in states that once led the way on civil rights. Over half of all African-American students are dropping out of school in some places. There are overcrowded classrooms, crumbling schools, and corridors of shame in America filled with poor children - black, brown, and white alike.
The state of our schools is not an African-American problem; it's an American problem. And if Al Sharpton, Mike Bloomberg, and Newt Gingrich can agree that we need to solve it, then all of us can agree on that. All of us can agree that we need to offer every child in this country the best education the world has to offer from the cradle through a career.
That is our responsibility as the United States of America. And we, all of us in government, are working to do our part by not only offering more resources, but demanding more reform.
When it comes to higher education, we are making college and advanced training more affordable, and strengthening community colleges that are a gateway to so many with an initiative that will prepare students not only to earn a degree but find a job when they graduate; an initiative that will help us meet the goal I have set of leading the world in college degrees by 2020.
We are creating a Race to the Top Fund that will reward states and public school districts that adopt 21st century standards and assessments. And we are creating incentives for states to promote excellent teachers and replace bad ones - because the job of a teacher is too important for us to accept anything but the best.
We should also explore innovative approaches being pursued here in New York City; innovations like Bard High School Early College and Medgar Evers College Preparatory School that are challenging students to complete high school and earn a free associate's degree or college credit in just four years.
And we should raise the bar when it comes to early learning programs. Today, some early learning programs are excellent. Some are mediocre. And some are wasting what studies show are - by far - a child's most formative years.
That's why I have issued a challenge to America's governors: if you match the success of states like Pennsylvania and develop an effective model for early learning; if you focus reform on standards and results in early learning programs; if you demonstrate how you will prepare the lowest income children to meet the highest standards of success - you can compete for an Early Learning Challenge Grant that will help prepare all our children to enter kindergarten ready to learn.
So, these are some of the laws we are passing. These are some of the policies we are enacting. These are some of the ways we are doing our part in government to overcome the inequities, injustices, and barriers that exist in our country.
But all these innovative programs and expanded opportunities will not, in and of themselves, make a difference if each of us, as parents and as community leaders, fail to do our part by encouraging excellence in our children. Government programs alone won't get our children to the Promised Land. We need a new mindset, a new set of attitudes - because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way that we have internalized a sense of limitation; how so many in our community have come to expect so little of ourselves.
We have to say to our children, Yes, if you're African American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that someone in a wealthy suburb does not. But that's not a reason to get bad grades, that's not a reason to cut class, that's not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands - and don't you forget that.
To parents, we can't tell our kids to do well in school and fail to support them when they get home. For our kids to excel, we must accept our own responsibilities. That means putting away the Xbox and putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour. It means attending those parent-teacher conferences, reading to our kids, and helping them with their homework.
And it means we need to be there for our neighbor's son or daughter, and return to the day when we parents let each other know if we saw a child acting up. That's the meaning of community. That's how we can reclaim the strength, the determination, the hopefulness that helped us come as far as we already have.
It also means pushing our kids to set their sights higher. They might think they've got a pretty good jump shot or a pretty good flow, but our kids can't all aspire to be the next LeBron or Lil Wayne. I want them aspiring to be scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, not just ballers and rappers. I want them aspiring to be a Supreme Court Justice. I want them aspiring to be President of the United States.
But the speech itself was the first time I can remember since becoming President that he has talked at length about the importance of education as a whole, and he sees it as the keystone to the bridge over the gap of inequality, injustice, ignorance, and poverty. He's right, of course. Education is the single biggest factor in overall success and the great equalizer in the universe. But it's the policies I noticed the most, leading the world in college degrees by 2020, the Race to the Top program, Pennsylvania's early childhood development program (something Zandardad could tell you all about, I should have him guest post on ECD programs one of these days) and the Learning Challenge Grants program. Personally, I'd like to see our multitasking President give us more details on these programs, especially on the 2020 college degree initiative.
I can see why he would be giving his education agenda short shrift right now with health care reform and climate change bills on the front burner, but I honestly think the President can earn skeptics back by pushing education, something a lot of people do agree that the government should be providing (Yes, I know, my home schooling readers are now yelling at the monitor but we both agree that education is the most important thing we can do for children, yes?)
The point is, seeing Obama so passionate about a subject near a dear to many of us is a good thing, and one I believe will benefit the President and the country. It was good to see this side of Obama and good to see him talk about other things besides just health care reform and the economy.
More of that multitasking, please...and let's see more of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, too.