It’s back-to-school for American families, and the Obama administration is marking the occasion with an unprecedented venture. In a move that steps far beyond the role of the federal government in education policy and shows a disregard for the guidance of parents in their children’s political formation, the Department of Education has released lesson plans for teachers in grades pre-K-12 to accompany an upcoming speech on education by President Obama on September 8th.
The lesson plans – one plan for pre-K-6 students and another plan for students in grades 7-12 – provided specific activities and assignments for children to do before, during, and after the president’s speech. The pre-k-6 plan instructs teachers to ask children “Why is it important that we listen to the President and other elected officials…” It further directs teachers to have children consider the following while listening to Obama’s speech:
-- “What is the President trying to tell me?”
-- “What is the President asking me to do?”
-- “What new ideas and actions is the President challenging me to think about?”
The plan continues, “Students can record important parts of the speech where the President is asking them to do something. Students might think about: What specific job is he asking me to do…Are we able to do what President Obama is asking of us?”
On Wednesday evening however, the administration edited part of the pre-k-6 lesson plans after public outcry about enlisting children’s participation in political activities. The original lesson plan asked children to “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.” It has since been changed to say “Write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals.”
The lesson plan for students in grades 7-12 is equally disquieting. The Department of Education directs teachers to “…focus students on quotations that… propose a specific challenge to them.” The plan asks students, “What resonated with you from President Obama’s speech? What lines/phrases do you remember? Is he challenging you to do anything?”
To ensure extensive dissemination of the lesson plans in public schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent a letter to school principals, noting the time of the speech, providing copies of the lesson plans, and directing them to tune-in to www.WhiteHouse.gov. Duncan stated in his letter:
This is the first time an American president has spoken directly to the nation’s school children about persisting and succeeding in school. We encourage you to use this historic moment to help your students get focused and begin the school year strong.
While it appears the President’s speech will focus on the value of education and personal responsibility, federally-directed lesson plans set a concerning precedent for the government’s role in education. Education analyst Frederick Hess writes at the American Enterprise blog that the lesson plans “were developed with federal funds, devised on taxpayer time, and made available on the Department of Education’s website” and “might be construed as an invitation to engage in advocacy rather than instruction”.
The President, however, clearly wants his own children to be off limits to such classroom politicization. Upon moving to Washington, he chose to enroll his children in the private Sidwell Friends School.
But children in many of the country’s public schools will not be off limits on Tuesday. It is one thing to teach about the historical relevance and accomplishments of past administrations. It is another thing entirely to encourage children to implement a sitting president’s political agenda.