Society and Culture, Education

Obama School Speech Furor: The Dangers of Groupthink

Kudos to Reps. John Kline (R-MN), the senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, and Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), House Republican Policy Committee chairman, for requesting the public release of President Obama’s upcoming September 8 address to the nation’s K–12 students. Their letter was issued after a number of concerns emerged in the past couple days regarding the speech and accompanying lesson plans.

As I observed yesterday:

The preK–6 lesson plans … exhort teachers to extend the impact of the president’s speech by having students “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.” This clumsy bit of cheerleading shows no awareness that “help[ing] the president” might be construed as an invitation to engage in advocacy rather than instruction or that it might worry those who are not Obama partisans. What’s truly remarkable, however … is the lesson plan’s directive that “these [letters] would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals.”

The lesson plans encourage teachers to discuss the importance of the president, quotations from Obama’s speech, how Obama inspires the students personally, and historic takeaways from the speech. The astonishing thing is that nobody in the Department of Education thought, “Gee, this might be a problem?”

As Charles Murray trenchantly remarked, “To those Obama supporters who put this kind of reaction down to angry conservatives, ask yourselves: quite apart from your political views, if George W. Bush had proposed to make a national speech to schoolchildren, complete with lesson plans, isn’t ‘creepy’ a word that would have come to mind?”

The administration has no one to blame on this score but itself. While the Bush Department of Education was deservedly pummeled for having little use for those who questioned its agenda or actions, it has been fascinating to see that the Obama education team (for all its talk of moving beyond partisan divides) has proven every bit as insular. The leadership seems to find plenty of time for major foundations and sycophantic associations, but has shown little inclination to reach out to researchers, educators, or reformers who might challenge their assumptions and help sharpen their thinking. The resulting groupthink is precisely what psychologist Irvine Janis cautioned against decades ago, noting that like-minded groups reinforce one another’s thinking and often fail to notice flashing warning signs.

You have to wonder, if the department doesn’t have anyone capable of noticing the problems here, how confident can we be that they are catching anything else? In the midst of their effort to give away $110 billion, reshape school reform through their “Race to the Top” fund, revolutionize schooling through their “What Works” fund, reauthorize the troubled No Child Left Behind Act, and generally transform American schooling, it would be nice to think they were sensitive enough to dissenting perspectives that they realized some Americans might be concerned by federally distributed lesson plans asking what the nation’s students can do to “help the president.”

Will the president’s remarks next week prove innocuous, or even praiseworthy, as he calls upon our nation’s students to take responsibility and to work hard in school? Undoubtedly. In that sense, no one should expect Kline and McCotter’s request to turn up anything more interesting than the script for a pep rally. However, if this incident rattles the complacent insularity that has settled over Arne Duncan’s Department of Education, their efforts will have been worthwhile indeed.

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