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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 8/21/10

Brave Words?: No, But Startling Occasion(s)

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Ralph Ellison gave an address for the National Book Award in January 1953, explaining about his Invisible Man-- that its strength came from "its experimental attitude, and its attempt to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy which typified the best of our nineteenth-century fiction." In the speech titled "Brave Words for a Startling Occasion," Ellison built to this: "On its profoundest level American experience is of a whole. Its truth lies in its diversity and swiftness of change."

In June 2010, the news was bleak for children living in the U. S.: The rate of children living in poverty this year will climb to nearly 22%, the highest rate in two decades, according to an analysis by the non-profit Foundation for Child Development. Nearly 17% of children were living in poverty in 2006, before the recession began.

The "startling occasion" of Ellison's speech is far removed from today, but his words remain powerful now when we examine the lives of children in our free nation, especially when we consider children in the context of the plight of poverty and the tarnished promise of universal public education--both amid the promise of hope and change ushered in with the election of Barack Obama.

Throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century, the U. S. stands as one of the most powerful countries in the world that also tolerates one of the highest rates of childhood poverty among other affluent countries. A 2007 report detailed that "[t]he United Kingdom and the United States find themselves in the bottom third of the rankings for five of the six dimensions reviewed" related to childhood poverty.

As the evidence grew about the impoverished conditions of many children's lives in the U. S., simultaneously throughout that decade, the federal government pursued the most aggressive overhaul of the public education system in its history with the passing and implementation of No Child Left Behind. Under President George W. Bush and education secretaries Rob Paige and Margaret Spellings, the Department of Education promoted advocacy messages that often didn't correspond with the evidence, messages that portrayed the power of the federal government to change through accountability the course of an education system characterized as a failure for a century.

With the election of Obama, many anticipated hope and change, especially members of the educational community. Within a month of the reports about childhood poverty rates rising, however, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke against the rising tide of critics and defended their educational policies that rest on an essential claim that teachers and schools are at the heart of what we need to change in order to improve educational success.

"Of all the work that occurs at every level of our education system, the interaction between teacher and student is the primary determinant of student success" represents the central message coming from the Obama administration, pursuing a policy built on competition, Race to the Top, and both direct and indirect endorsements of charter schools, despite the evidence that neither accountability nor charter schools address the central problems facing public education.

The criticism of the Obama administration's education policy has increased from the left although many have begun to embrace what is being called brave and powerful messages and actions taken against teacher's unions and the "status quo," the rallying code word of those supporting Obama and Duncan.

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An Associate Professor of Education at Furman University since 2002, Dr. P. L. Thomas taught high school English for 18 years at Woodruff High along with teaching as an adjunct at a number of Upstate colleges. He holds an undergraduate degree in (more...)
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