Living in Indonesia with her second husband, Ann Dunham Obama Soetoro couldn't afford a fancy private school for her son, Barack, but she made up for her lack of funds with discipline and dedication. Obama was only 9 years old when she supplemented his education with a U.S. correspondence course.
"Five days a week, she came into my room at four in the morning, force-fed me breakfast, and proceeded to teach me my English lessons for three hours before I left for school and she went to work," the president wrote in his memoir, Dreams From My Father.
Obviously, her methods paid off. Her son won a scholarship to a private school in Hawaii, received his undergraduate degree from Columbia University and was selected the first black president of Harvard Law Review during his time there. His later career has also been noteworthy.
Obama's mother, of course, was an unusual parent, with the perspective and the persistence to give her son whatever educational advantages she could. Most children from less affluent homes will need to rely on teachers with skill, patience and enthusiasm to boost their academic attainment.
That makes Obama's push to rid classrooms of bad teachers critically important. It's all the more so for poor students, whose parents lack the knowledge and connections to demand the best for their kids.
Still, the president's Race to the Top program, which emphasizes teacher accountability as well as charter schools, has generated controversy, especially among the traditional education establishment. That's no great surprise since teachers' organizations see their main mission as protecting teachers rather than children.
More surprising were objections to the president's education reforms recently raised by several civil rights groups, including the National Urban League. While the groups claimed they were fighting for children of color, they were more likely fighting to protect the jobs of the educators — teachers, principals, education administrators — who fill their membership rosters.
If the civil rights groups were worried about poor children, they'd back the reforms. Impoverished kids (black and brown children are disproportionately poor) have more to gain from classroom accountability than anyone, as Obama reminded his audience in a speech to the convention of the National Urban League last week.
"Let me tell you, what's not working for black kids … is the status quo," he said. "What's not working is what we've been doing for decades now."
That includes allowing bad teachers to shuffle from one school to the next, often ending up in the poorest neighborhoods. As a consequence, children who are already academically challenged get stuck with teachers who are ill-equipped to help them succeed.
Let's face it: Teachers have an easier time of it with students from affluent homes, where well-educated parents pass on a respect for books, a grasp of basic arithmetic and a mastery of the finer points of the English language. It's no secret why the family income level is the best predictor of a kid's success in school.
But the best teachers have demonstrated success in teaching children no matter whether their homes are affluent or impoverished, book-filled or broken down, disciplined or dysfunctional. Former President George W. Bush's "No Child" policy is unwieldy and unworkable, but his memorable phrase challenging the "soft bigotry of low expectations" was dead-on.
All over the country, schools outside the traditional public school establishment are succeeding in teaching kids from impoverished circumstances. Those schools include the ones in Harlem's Children's Zone, the SEED School of Washington, D.C., and Atlanta's Ron Clark Academy. The Teach for America corps — dismissed by the education establishment as naive, ineffective do-gooders — is also more effective than traditional teachers, according to a study by the Urban Institute that measured student exam performance.
The old factory-centered jobs machine has sputtered, choked and died. In a decade or so, there won't be high-wage jobs left for those who lack postsecondary training. With an economy that increasingly rewards the well educated, there are few things more important than making sure that all children get a good education.
Even those without moms like Ann Dunham.
© 2010 Atlanta Journal-Constitution