My Reaction to the President’s State of the Union Address

Jose VilsonJose1 Comment

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Anytime the president of the United States shouts out teachers, that’s definitely a plus. Well, sorta.

As a math teacher, I appreciate the emphasis on STEM in that it has the potential to open doors to students who normally don’t get those opportunities, or that’s the presumption. I graduated with a degree in computer science, and through the four years at Syracuse U, I saw my brethren of color either drop out completely or transfer to another major within the first couple of years. This wasn’t for lack of intelligence, either. The learning curve for some of my colleagues, even the ones who graduated, was steeper than people who already had coding languages in their middle and high school curricula. It taught me that much of the talk around tech needs to start in the K-12 sector across the board, integrated with the maths and sciences in a way that allows students to deconstruct problems on their own.

But, after last night’s State of the Union Address, I had a few questions that pressed upon my chest the minute President Barack Obama was done with the STEM segment in his speech.

First, does every school have the same opportunities to chase their dreams, and, as a corollary, is “college and career-readiness” the prime objectives for schools? If so, how do we assure that the pedagogy for developing our most creative, well-informed students takes precedent over state testing mandates and the need to ramp up frivolous achievement markers?

Secondly, how do we pull the right levers for equity, specifically around integration and school funding? It’s been a huge disappointment to see the first Black president not speak to one of the largest equity initiatives this country has ever undertaken in the form of integrating schools. So long as people seek academic competition as a form of pushing the same people (predominantly of color, predominantly poor) down to where they have no real shot at this set of elite jobs, change isn’t coming for those who need opportunities the most.

Third, if we have students who get “all of the badges” like a college degree, a good credit score, and a clean record, how can we make sure they’ll have a solid job coming out of college? There are a myriad of reasons why our children aren’t getting employed that have less to do with whether they can code, and it starts from the miserly CEOs at these multi-million dollar corporations who don’t plan to hire and retain workers that might dip into their own profit margins.

Fourth, with all this in mind, if the United States is the leader of the industrial world with the best military and the richest economy, how do we keep blaming “the system” for our disparate education system? I’m no longer of the belief that our education system is failing. In fact, it’s not only working just fine for the well-off, it’s working as intended for the black, the brown, the red, the yellow, the impoverished, huddled masses too.

And, should I ever get a meeting with President Barack Obama, these are but of a few questions I’d have for him and any official within earshot. Rhetoric is ephemeral, fleeting to a country bereft of a social studies acumen. Our education system, like our foreign policy or economic policy, can never start fresh. The solutions are simple, not easy, but we have them. In our highest need schools, the students, parents, and educators are expected to do well with the shabby lot they’re given.

Am I supposed to believe, then, that the man who took responsibility for the murder of Osama bin Laden, who took credit for the uptick in the auto industry’s revival, and who spoke so proudly of soaring graduation rates in the United States has no pulpit for discussing equitable funding for education? Yes, he’s not the only one. Yes, he only had eight (!) years. Yes, he mostly did his work with a resistant Congress, and a large segment of the American people who didn’t like him for any number of reasons, starting from his skin color.

No, none of these things squares me from my impersonal political critiques of him.

That’s the legacy that every “education” politician must hang their hat on, whether they like it or not.

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About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

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