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The State of the Union and Schools

Written by walton
Published: 26 January 2011 Updated: 26 January 2011
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President Obama just finished his annual State of the Union address. As a teacher, albeit one who doesn’t work in a school, I was pleased to see how much he talked about education. We can expect his words to be analyzed and dissected all week in the news. Some commentators are getting a head start.

Valerie Strauss at the The Washington Post already has an editorial about contradictions between the SOTU and his policies (Thanks to Larry Ferlazzo for linking to this article).

The debate about who is ultimately more responsible for the success of students is probably one of those never-ending questions with good and bad points on all sides. At least most people agree that it is either parents or teachers and in truth it’s probably both. No, teachers can’t control what happens to students outside the classroom and parents can’t manage every moment of their kids lives either–particularly if they work two or three jobs just to keep the family fed. But teachers can manage what happens inside the classroom and try to direct students on how to learn at home. And parents also do have some modicum of control and responsibility for their children.

Did Obama contradict himself when he focused attention on local solutions and the family in his address but promotes policies that arguably impose regulation from above? Well, as a resident of Kazakhstan where the government approves and prints all the textbooks, the Ministry of Education designs and enforces the curricula for schools, universities, vocational schools, and training institutes, and sets all the standards for normal schools as well, and divests only a little power to local departments of education (which divest no power to the schools, let alone the teachers), it strikes me how relatively speaking we have a very decentralized and locally focused education system in the US.

While you can argue convincingly that No Child Left Behind leads to only teaching to the standardized tests, and that Obama’s policies continue the same trend, at least they do not create robots of teachers who are expected to design every single lesson plan in detail (including what exact words they will say) before school starts, in accordance with the nationally set standard curriculum (which is not a set of standards but a schedule: Monday, History, French and German relations in 1914, Tuesday History Beginning of WWI, 1914-1916) using only textbooks written and published by tenders offered by the Ministry. This lesson plan must be approved and kept on file. If the teacher deviates from the lesson plan, they are investigated and can be charged with civil violations.

So frankly, when I hear the President say one word about local solutions, even if it is only lip service, I am happy to see my country’s education system is on the right track.

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