Weekly Address: Strengthening the American Education System

Cross-posted from the White House blog.

President Obama explains that states will have greater flexibility to find innovative ways of improving the education system, so that we can raise standards in our classrooms and prepare the next generation to succeed in the global economy.

Click here for an alternate version of the video with an accessible player.


  1. Having worked in depth on improving a whole range of schools in the UK and abroad i believe the US can improve teachers and schools at NO COST. I recently presented to NY State and would happily give you an innovative model that schools could use. All you have to do is ask (too long to email).

    Otherwise, change the grade system, have just junior and high schools and start again.

  2. Standardized Tests: Blockade for Education
    In high school, a college-bound student must take at least one type of standardized test if he or she wants to be accepted into an academic institution. While at first glance, a test to assess readiness for university seems appropriate yet standardized tests do not guarantee that a student can think and analyze problems critically nor does it necessarily reflect a student’s true knowledge. In addition to this, many universities and even companies now are basing a large part of their decision to accept or hire an applicant just through what scores they had received on a standardized test.
    Standardized tests such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT is something that almost all high school students can associate with. In short, the SAT is a standardized test given to students as a means to assess how well they will do in college. But the SAT is not a fair test as it does not consider all the factors of a college student’s well-being. For example, student backgrounds and ethnicities can heavily influence how they will do on the test. Is there a way to administer a standardized test that does not harm the overall quality of education? Perhaps there is but at the moment, we, as a society are not doing enough to stop the harmful effects that standardized tests such as the SAT is having on education. Standardized testing is detrimental to the progress of education as it alters course catalog, forces a student to think a certain way and highly favors the advantaged over the disadvantaged.
    Because so much emphasis and focus goes into standardized testing such as the SAT, schools nationwide are altering the original course catalog to teach how to test well on it. Although this might help earn a student a better score, it is meaningless as they do not actually learn how to think critically and independently. For example, in Alfie Kohn’s essay, “Standardized Testing and Its Victims”, Kohn states that “Standardized-test scores often measure superficial thinking” (Kohn 599). By being a superficial thinker, someone that does not connect past ideas to the current matter, rather than an active thinker, a student is accustomed to what Kohn describes as a shallow approach to learning. Students are only focusing on learning information for a test rather than knowledge and wisdom for their career or even just for the sake of learning. Although teachers are responsible for the method that students use for learning, they are not at fault. It is in fact, the institutions that are to blame. They enforce a standardized test-based curriculum in which teachers have no say. Now, even teachers are protesting this “superficial” way of learning:
    It also seems clear that most of the people who are quitting, or seriously thinking about doing so, are not mediocre performers who are afraid of being held accountable. Rather, they are among the best educators, frustrated by the difficulty of doing high-quality teaching in the current climate (Kohn 600).
    This passage, again taken from Alfie Kohn’s essay, suggests that educational institutions truly are responsible for the drop of quality in education. Not only is the curriculum losing quality, but the best qualified teachers are also leaving which results in another huge loss for education.
    Standardized tests are very mechanical. In a mechanical sense, educational institutions are only allowing very similar students to succeed and filtering out those who think differently. In Kohn’s essay, he states and explains 8 different facts of standardized testing, “The time, energy, and money that are being devoted to preparing students for standardized tests have to come from somewhere” (Kohn 599). Here, Kohn states fact number 7 of 8. In this fact, Kohn explains, essentially, that the effort to “train” students how to pass standardized tests comes at the expense of other endeavors such as art class, music class, electives, leadership programs, etc. Eliminating such programs alleviates the possibility of infusing creativity and critical analysis in the classroom. The current educational system, as demonstrated through the removal of such programs, does not allow for individualism to blossom within students. Students are forced to think and use their minds in a manner that might be completely foreign to them. All people think differently and therefore, test differently. In Bronwyn T. Williams essay, “Standardized Students: The Problems with Writing for Tests Instead of People”, Williams gives the definition for standardized testing as, “Standardized testing, to be standardized, must create questions and answers that leave no room for interpretation” (Williams 606). To allow no room for interpretation is again a very mechanical way of thinking that could possibly, if not changed soon, prohibit a future leader or revolutionary thinker to introduce him or herself to the world.
    The SAT might be a great critical analysis test for one person but definitely not to everyone. This raises the problem of students being left behind in education. It is not their fault that they have been disadvantaged. Disadvantages not only come in form of different mindsets but also factors that include family background and income. In Williams’s essay, Williams describes the topic of race, specifically a minority race, as a major disadvantage:
    “Students whose race or social class that is not part of the dominant culture often face challenges in meeting the standards of that dominant culture. Much of the impulse behind standardized tests and their illusion of objectivity seems to be a drive to punish, ridicule, and marginalize those who already feel punished, ridiculed, and marginalized by the institutions of education (Williams 605).
    As Williams explains, uncontrollable facts of life such as ethnicity contribute greatly to the unfair and gradually declining quality of education as it favors those who are advantaged rather than helping out the disadvantaged. In Reg Weaver’s essay, “NCLB’s(No Child Left Behind) Excessive Reliance on Testing”, Weaver states that 61 percent of teachers have agreed that teaching how to test stifles real teaching and learning. If that is the case, something must be done. Teachers are one of the most fundamental and important roles in society. If a teacher him or herself is not interested in teaching a subject, then the student will also not care. Thus, results in a drop of education. If SAT classes across the country raise student SAT scores, it only will leave disadvantaged students even farther behind and it will decrease the value of a better score if high scores become the norm.
    Standardized tests such as the SAT should not be administered as the only means for college admission. For a college or university to truly admit those students that they want, they should create and administer their own admission test. As a test creator, the university will have the ability to gather like-minded students who have demonstrated the level of dedication and work that is valued at their school. Obviously, test results should not be the only factor for college admission but with an individualized test, a university can confidently admit a student rather than rely on the vagueness of a standardized test.
    Standardized tests such as the SAT are not necessarily negative tests although it is commonly thought to be one. There is nothing wrong with administering a nation-wide test to get some sort of academic analysis of a student. However, the immense focus and importance that we put on these tests results in these negative connotations. The test is not to blame. Instead, the people who administer and the people who blindly take these tests are the real culprits. The SAT is as bad as we make it to be. However, it is severely important to understand that standardized tests like the SAT are not meant for all students and therefore, different methods for assessing university or job qualifications should also be given a large amount of focus. When this standardized test obsessed education system disappears, then an education system based on quality and not numerical data will arise.

    • If critical thinking is needed then why not include critical thinking courses in all grades? It seems to me that all of the standards are placed to set the child up to fail if they are economically disadvantaged. How about taking the importance off SAT scores and place them on the learning of the child?

  3. What needs to be recognized is that one student is going to learn differently than another student. Just because one student receives homework and does well on his or her aptitude testing does not mean that another student is going to learn the same way. Homework should be kept short for those students who do get homework and no more than one or two sheets of homework from each class. A student who does his or her homework would get more out of it if it is kept short and to the point. Keeping it short and to the point should only allow room for reemphasizing what is learned during the day and allow a small extension beyond the subject area, another words, what would be considered extra knowledge of the subject. By allowing each student being treated as an individual on learning criteria, rather than grouping them by local or state, the education would dramatically improve. Keep in mind that one student is not going to learn in the exact same manner as another and can even vary within a family who may have more than one student. Just because one area schooling does not require homework, does not mean that it will work in another. Looking at the individuals learning ability along side of sleep and food for concentration of the ability to do homework would dramatically improve a students learning ability.

    • monitoring each student’s progress is paramount to tailoring the teaching to meet the individual needs of each student. Homework should not be a frustration assignment, it should be to practice what was previously learned. When we monitor the progress of learning, we can raise the bar of expectations for what each student is truly capable of learning.

  4. Raising “student performance” is not pertaining to a student’s ability to score higher on a test. The phrase is in regards to students reaching their highest ability in authentic learning activities created by the teacher, catered to the needs of the student. Activities that foster critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, and cooperating skills. Activities that stretch the mind in multiple dimensions, not just searching for the right answer on a test. Activities which reflect the skills of a desired workforce.

    Coming from a young teacher, I believe that all students desire to learn (something), all children want to succeed (in some way), but we have created a system of learning and assessing which sets students up to fail. We have created this system because it was easy to create, cheap to create. It is easy to write an annual test, have the students fill a bubble and scan the results in a computer. It is easy to shut-down the schools that are failing the assessments. Now we must do something hard, we must turn around decades of this sort of educational policy, we must re-train/enlighten teachers of these “failing” schools so that they may teach in a manner that pulls a student in and fills the student with an excitement to learn.

    Think back to your favorite day you had in grade school, mine was building model rockets and then learning about the physics that made these rockets work. That is authentic student-centered learning, that is high “student performance.” That day is what everyday could and should be like in the public school system.

  5. I would like to suggest instead of the No Child Left Behind Act, we make it a No Failure Policy. I know teachers and schools will argue that the standards are already high maybe too high but I would like to propose that no student is allowed to fail. This means attendance must increase, behavior problems will have to be dealt with in the school (no expulsion) and those who are struggling to keep up will have to have a tutor or stay after school. This means a bigger buy in by the parents and the students. I believe that in order to reduce poverty, lack of employment, and the burden on our supportive services that the US provides, we need to promote higher education. I believe it is our only way out of debt as a nation. I work with many low income parents who just don’t value education. I am not blaming them because I believe they are more focused on survival than getting their child to school on time every day. I would like the emphasis to be on reducing attendance issues and making it mandatory that every child graduate. In working with the public school system, I have found that you can have effective teachers and staff but if the students aren’t there to receive the education, it simply doesn’t matter. I would like incentives for encouraging more participation by parents and students in their education so that we can promote and empower individuals to their full ability and reduce the generational cycle of poverty and helplessness.

    • Hi Stephanie,

      As a mother of eight living in a state with a strict attendance policy (parents are jailed if their child is excessively absent) I think that President Obama is in the right direction. To bring America’s education back on top, we have to stop teaching our children just how to pass the overwhelming number of test and start teaching. Period. That is the only way to assure our young Americans are prepared for college and the ever changing job market. We need science and history back in our classes, it baffles me that in this day we are lowering standards to fit a broken system. Our children need to think outside the box and be ingenuous to access the vast opportunity to gather information. Parent involvement seem to have always been an issue..but I believe it takes a village so I volunteer at other schools n my district not just my child’s. :)

  6. It is not only important to get more and better teachers into the classrooms but it is also imperative that they have the freedom to teach what they know.

    A good teacher hamstrung by rules, policies, excessive guidelines, frameworks and regulations is no teacher at all. They are only a “puppet on a string,” devoid of all their humanity and insight.

      • The biggest problem is that we are getting a mixed message. The President said we don’t want teachers teaching to a test. Presumably, because this administration believes this limits the kind of academic freedom that is important to a productive classroom environment. But he said in the exact same sentence he wants to improve “student performance.” What does that mean? In my district in Charlotte NC it means lots and lots of tests. But teachers need to be trusted to judge the performance of their students and give them appropriate grades. If testing is put into place because we cannot trust the teachers it also means we do not trust our schools to hire good people. That means we do not believe district administrators hire good Principals. So who is to blame for this? The problem starts at the TOP!!! If our governments don’t want to pay the kind of wage that is going to attract the best minds to this profession we will continue to spiral downward. We will continue to shift paradigms (NCLB to Race to the Top). We lack trust in the people we put in the classroom and create tons of bureacratic encumbrances to make up for what we should have done in the first place. Treat education like a professional institution on par with lawyers, bankers, and doctors and we will see improvement. Otherwise we are spinning our wheels.

        • Trust seems to be elusive in our country. There is no longer the sense of “what is best for Americans”. American public school system does not have the same importance that it once did with politicians. They (the politicians) are too busy placating the lobbyist by changing our education system to benefit the lobbyist. They believe that education funding should be cut and divided up until the system itself will collapse within. It is such a shame for what they are doing to our students and their future. Wars and reconstruction of foreign countries, we can afford, but can’t afford top quality education for our own people’s kids. Until the greed and distrust factor disappears or becomes less our education will suffer.

        • I believe that the obsessive testing is a ploy to cut funding from the kids who need it most. We should expect high standards; through teaching not testing.

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