A Classroom Teaching Fellow Responds to the President’s Jan. 25, 2011, State of the Union Address
Like millions of Americans, I watched President Obama’s State of the Union Address Tuesday. I watched it particularly with hopes that his words and vision would speak directly to me and to the ninth graders I teach every day at Manual Arts High School in South Central Los Angeles.
With shootings at two schools in Los Angeles last week, many of my colleagues anticipating being laid off at the end of the year, and student achievement showing only marginal change at my inner-city high school, the atmosphere in public education has been one of perseverance through discouragement and setback.
As the president listed the many things that will strengthen the country in his forthcoming budget proposal, I was continually reminded that none of these items is possible without an improved educational foundation. The “hard work and industry” that will drive the country toward prosperity can be achieved only by reaching out to Kimberly and Michael in my homeroom class each morning. Likewise, discussing the future of America’s science and engineering, I couldn’t help but think of Jessica and De Andre and Carlos – the students who are as inspiring as they are challenging every day. These are the youthful faces I see when Obama speaks of making sure America is “poised for progress.”
The president then offered a sobering view of education today and the challenges we are facing “that have been decades in the making.” As a teacher in a high poverty community with a dropout rate of more than 60 percent, I am reminded daily of these challenges. I feel like I know all too well how inconsistency, chaotic shifts in personnel and shifting educational agendas have all but decimated student achievement for the black and Latino students who are the sole demographic populations at my high school.
As such, I recognize and second Obama’s call to “out-educate” the rest of the world and urge him and Congress to consider making this happen by focusing on the disenfranchised and the high-poverty schools like mine. I can say I am constantly reminded of the amazing work my colleagues and I dedicate to our family of students; the Manual Arts mascot, the Toiler, stands as tribute to the students’ own perseverance.
The proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would free us from the implausible demands and outlandish goals, which still mire my classroom.
Efforts like the DREAM Act and college tax credits are essential for the success of the myriad students in my school who struggle to graduate and support their families. I am pleased with these efforts that the president defined during his speech.
And if we as a country are to take his call to respect teachers–to “reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones”–it, too, will be a step that requires financial resources. Yes, it is valuable for our students to hear, “Your country needs you,” and to promote the teaching profession. However, financially, the profession needs to be able to receive financial compensation, non-privatized models of instruction, and increased resources for schools with the most need. I imagine that the teachers, students, and clerical staff at my school are curious if the bi-partisan applause that Obama’s affirmations of the teaching profession received will likewise yield the kinds of necessary resources to make this struggling system an equitable educational juggernaut.
Ultimately, however, it was Obama’s strong affirmation of the need to embrace the changing world as a result of technology that resonated with me most strongly as an educator. The president emphasized the necessity to connect “every part of America to the digital age.” And while the administration’s Blueprint to reauthorize ESEA and Race To The Top program ]will improve accountability for the current classes of students, the need to connect to the digital youth in our classrooms is imperative. Theirs are learning needs that extend beyond the traditional, factory models of education from which most public schools are operating.
Every text message sent from behind a propped textbook, every confiscated headphone and accidental ringtone going off in class is a reminder that students are communicating and producing information in ways that traditional schooling is unprepared for. Obama mentioned every way that we will move our nation into a position of continued leadership in the 21st century; however, the skills of youth to be able to foment innovation in this new paradigm require new ways to teach and connect with our students.
Our country’s success will live or die by our commitment to the students who are yawning and struggling at Manual Arts High School and similar schools that are not recognized in the same way, or have narratives as successful as Bruce Randolph High School in Denver. One of President Obama’s concluding remarks was that our nation will win the future through “ordinary people who dare to dream.” I am critically pragmatic in seeing past educational reform efforts as ones that have shunned the dreams and potential of students mired by poverty. Now is an opportunity for the country to dare to allow all youth to do more than just dream. Now is an opportunity for the country to empower all youth to achieve.
Antero Garcia is U.S. Department of Education Classroom Teaching Fellow, a UCLA doctoral candidate, and a high school English teacher at Manual Arts High School in South Central Los Angeles, Calif.