THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

John Thompson Headshot

A Teacher's Suggestion for the State of the Union Address

Posted: Updated:

APPLAUSE... And yes, we need to restore civility to our political process. Where else would be a better starting place for nurturing the respectful exchange of ideas than in our schools?

America needs an education policy that is Of the People, By the People, and For the People. We need Community Schools that bring together the full spectrum of health and social service providers, of arts and science innovators, and of pre-school, college and community college instructors, and brings our students out of their buildings into the full diversity of our democracy. We need "No Child Left Inside," we need "Green Schools" that teach a reverence for the wonders of nature, and we need to prepare our children for the 21st century's quest for an environmentally sustainable future.

Arne, you know I love you, even when you are schooling me on the basketball court. But I have to say that you will have to step up your game to go down in history as the education leader who did the greatest good for the greatest number of young Americans. I am not trash talking your accomplishments, but you face tough competition on that score from the First Lady. Michelle Obama has started us down the path towards proper nutrition in our schools and building healthy lifestyles.

America can no longer maintain the status quo where we keep separate silos for those responsible for building healthy minds and healthy bodies, where health clinics, job training centers, adult educators, early education specialists, and recreation providers do not converse with each other. "The Hand is the cutting edge of the Mind." Education is an affair of "the Heart" as well as "the Head." Schooling must always be a team effort, and we all have unique talents to contribute.

We must start at the beginning, with pre-natal care and high-quality pre-school. For every dollar that we spend in early childhood education, we get $10 back in reduced dropout rates and improved reading scores. That is why I renew my call for a bipartisan investment of $10 billion dollars for comprehensive early education programs such as Educare and the Harlem Children's Zone. Early education must be more than high-cost day care. Every child must read for comprehension by third grade.

I promised my political advisors that I would not be too wonky tonight, but I must mention "the Matthew Effect." You know the passage, "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath."

In schools, the concept explains why students who start out with literacy advantages tend to thrive, as weaker readers decline. Before third grade, children "learn to read," so that afterwards they can "read to learn." Before third grade, students' reading skills increase more during the school year. Afterwards, that pattern is reversed, as children "learn how to learn."

And I've said all across the country when I talk to parents about education, government has to fulfill its obligations to fund education, but parents have to do their job too. We've got to turn off the TV set, we've got to put away the video game, and we have to tell our children that education not a passive activity. You have to be actively engaged in it. If we encourage that attitude and our community is enforcing it, I have no doubt we can compete with anybody in the world.

Secretary Duncan, your efforts remind me of my last two years. Faced with the prospect of mass lay-offs and the gutting of school systems across the nation, you guided the investment of Stimulus funds that headed off a complete disaster. Then people ask, "what have you done for me lately?" You also took the lead in innovation. Your Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants have turned school districts into laboratories of experimentation. We have no way of predicting which of those innovations will unlock the dynamism of American ingenuity, but we know that completely unforeseen miracles of learning will always result when We the People get to work, and promote the clash of ideas.

Arne, your task in the next years will be like that of President Franklin Roosevelt. Remember how FDR told the American people that he would relentlessly experiment, build on what works, and reject the experiments that do not pan out. Because of your successes in the last two years, you have plenty on your plate, guiding the implementation of the RttT and school turnarounds.

You alone can not oversee the implementation of these innovations. Our Republican brethren make an excellent point when reminding us that education is fundamentally a local process. School reform must grow organically from our states, and our communities.

Randy Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers makes an equally great point when she explains how the RttT exposed the fault lines in many management-labor relationships. We must put a premium on collaboration among stakeholders. Reform must be something that we do with teachers, not to them. As we encourage new entrepreneurial energy, we must nail down checks and balances to preserve the essential values of teaching and learning.

As I said in the campaign, we must recruit an army of new teachers. I'll renew this pledge: If you commit your life to teaching, America will pay for your college education. We'll recruit teachers in math and science, and deploy them to under-staffed school districts in our inner cities and rural America. We'll expand mentoring programs that pair experienced teachers with new recruits.

But we also need a broader definition of "teachers" and "mentors." Those who teach healthy living, a commitment to athletic and artistic excellence, and a commitment to the earth, are also teachers. Those who coach, who preach, and who teach by sharing of themselves are also teachers. Those who pass on lessons learned through the schools of hard knocks are also mentors. We must recruit bus drivers, lunchroom workers, retired volunteers, and twenty-somethings with fresh memories of their school experience to join in building Community Schools that are worthy of the United States of America.