We need more than bootstrapping to improve education

OPINION -- Real danger lies in the lack of emphasis education has received in Obama's administration and what our young people may be learning about education's value in our current economy.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Today, President Barack Obama will deliver an address to the children of the United States on the value of education. The speech has been met with a firestorm of reaction and disapproval by critics on the right, many of whom have called it a dangerous form of indoctrination.

There is a clamor about this type of speech being unprecedented – even though George H.W. Bush gave an address to U.S. school children in 1991 – and dangerous. But the real danger lies in the lack of emphasis education has received in Obama’s administration and what our young people may be learning about education’s value in our current economy.

The majority of Obama’s administration has been taken up with foreign affairs such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Domestically, attention has been concentrated on the recession and health care reform. While these problems and resulting policies are important, what happens to the youth of America arguably sets the tone for the next half a century.

Obama’s appointment of Arne Duncan to the post of education secretary was met with high regard, but nearly six months in, little has been done to address the continuing decay of opportunities available in U.S. public schools. While George W. Bush came into office and drastically revised federal policy and incentives, Obama has acted in the opposite fashion. With very few details about the future of education policy, announcements of initiatives remain hollow ideals to most schools and families.

While official numbers are yet to be calculated, many districts anticipate a leveling off of declining enrollments – and even some increases in the number of students – in U.S. public schools. In part due to the recession and rising costs of private education, families are once again looking to public education as the option for their children. But it is unclear what schools are doing differently and for whom these differences will matter.

Another key danger in Obama’s speech is the continued emphasis on the value of schooling to getting ahead in America. While education remains one of the major engines of mobility in the United States, with 14.9 million unemployed people it is difficult to relay to our children that education is the path to securing one’s future opportunity. This reality is particularly important for young black students who are nested in a community with a 15 percent unemployment rate. An important question we all must ask is: What can we do to prepare children for a future in a shifting and currently unstable labor market?

The current moment is an important one for the Obama administration – and for students entering schools. Today’s school address provides a narrative about why staying in school is important, but it doesn’t tell us enough about what is being done to make sure students are not falling through the cracks.

While the address’s appeal to personal responsibility is key, we need more than bootstrapping to reform the opportunities of the nation’s children. Once Obama makes this historic address, I can only hope that he will turn to the overdue task of reforming our public schools to prepare for the next 50 years. Anything else would be truly dangerous.