Gregory Kane: First lady misses teachable moment on education

Ah, thus does another Obama teachable moment pass with little to nothing being taught.

The Obama in this case is first lady Michelle Obama. This past summer it was her husband, President Obama, who proclaimed the controversy surrounding the arrest of Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. a “teachable moment.”

Our first lady's chance at a teachable moment came when she visited earlier this month South High School in Denver and answered questions from students. Linda Jimenez, a senior who identified herself as South High's student body president, led off the Q&A session.

“My question is about standardized testing,” Ms. Jimenez said. “So there's a federal mandate that states every student in Colorado must take the CSAP [Colorado Student Assessment Program, a standardized test given to measure student achievement]. Now our school is very diverse and many students do not speak English, although versed in two different languages, and they are forced to take this step. And our school gets funding on how well students do on the test. And of course, because they do not speak English, they cannot understand the test and they do not do well. I just want to ask, what are your feelings about standardized testing? Is it a fair way to grade high schools and schools all over the country?”

Here, in part, is how Mrs. Obama answered Ms. Jimenez's question:

“It's an interesting question for me because when I was growing up, I was never a great standardized-test taker. … [S]ome people are really good test takers and some aren't. … So my message to each of you is you've got to prepare for the tests, take them seriously because they are part of the measures, they're part of the system.”

Not a bad answer, all things considered. But Mrs. Obama, for the most part, missed her teachable moment. Here's what she SHOULD have told Ms. Jimenez:

“That 'federal mandate' is the part of the No Child Left Behind Act that calls for accountability, which basically means the federal government is no longer allowed to raid taxpayers' wallets in the name of funding public education unless some public education occurs. If no education occurs, no money is given out. And it's my understanding from Googling 'CSAP' that some of the assessment tests ARE given in Spanish.”

Yes, that's precisely what Mrs. Obama — and Ms. Jimenez — could have learned from the Web site cde.state.co.us if either had taken the trouble. The Web site also mentions that dreaded “a” word: accountability.

“[T]he purpose of educational reform related to standards and assessments in Colorado is to institute an accountability system to define and measure academic quality in education. …”

Mrs. Obama didn't mention the word “accountability” in her response. I'm sure, deep within her soul, she believes in accountability when it comes to public education; it's just that she can't bring herself to say the word. I doubt if her husband can either.

They aren't alone. With all the bashing that NCLB gets from its critics, it's interesting that none of them mentions that “a” word either. But not one NCLB critic in one state has proposed this: If the law is so horrible, state legislators should simply refuse federal tax dollars and tell the federal government to cram the money where the sun never shines.

Because no state has done that, the NCLB can't be as bad as everyone says it is. NCLB does not “mandate” standardized state tests; it only “mandates” education. It even leaves states the freedom, as Colorado has, to have some of the tests in Spanish.

It's interesting — but not surprising — that Ms. Jimenez tried to play the victim card by bringing up the question of language. Ms. Obama didn't call her on it, but I am. So I'll repeat, not that anybody's listening, what I've been saying for years.

The United States should make English its official language. And every state in those United States should have as its goal that every student graduate high school fluent in French, Spanish and possibly a third foreign language.

Not possible, critics will scoff. Feasible if we teach children at the age of 5, I would answer. When I was in Panama, I cobbled enough Spanish to visit a KFC and place my order — in Spanish. And I was in my mid-50s.

The idealistic Ms. Jimenez, rather than obsess about standardized tests, might want to urge Colorado's education officials to get moving on that foreign language requirement sooner rather than later.

Examiner Columnist Gregory Kane is a Pulitzer-nominated news and opinion journalist who has covered people and politics from Baltimore to the Sudan.

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