Sorry, Barack, but teachers aren't the saviors you think they are . . .

Let me start off by saying I don't think anyone who reads this really cares or should care what my political leanings are. But to be fair, I'll state that I am a registered Republican who probably needs to re-register as a Libertarian. Yes, I am a conservative. My family has always had something to do with politics.  I was in student government at Utah State University. My father ran for local office a couple of times (never won), and he recently served as campaign manager for two or three different people in his neck of the woods (Pottsboro, TX--and they did win). My mother worked on the campaigns of Barry Goldwater, Howard Baker, and Ronald Reagan, and was Lamar Alexander's secretary when he first won the governorship of Tennessee. However, despite our family's party affiliation, my parents have always taught me to vote for the best candidate--REGARDLESS of party affiliation. As a matter of fact, the best congressman I've ever had was a Democrat, Bill Orton.

As far as this presidential election goes, let's just say I've been completely underwhelmed by them all.

But Barack Obama said something in a speech to the American Federation of Teachers that is too much to let go by. He said (and this is a DIRECT quote):
"Real change is finally giving our kids everything they need to have a fighting chance in today’s world. That begins with recognizing that the single most important factor in determining a child’s achievement is not the color of their skin or where they come from; it’s not who their parents are or how much money they have. It’s who their teacher is."

Sorry, Mr. Obama, but you couldn't be more wrong if you tried.

Teachers aren't going to be the ones to give our kids a fighting chance.  On the contrary, it has to come from home. It has to come from the parents.  Too many people in our country expect teachers to raise their children. And quite frankly, teachers have enough to do.  Teachers need to cover content. They need to teach math and science. They should teach our children how to write well. But it is NOT their job to raise our children.

Now I know that as teachers sometimes we have to become involved, but in my experience, those times are few and far between.  And when we do, it is to point the students to someone who is trained to help with whatever situation. These teachers aren't trained psychologists and sociologists. They aren't planned parenthood or drug counselors. They are content-area specialists (to a degree) who've had a few classes in teaching methodology.  Yes, they care about their students, but they are about as equipped to help them as the cashier at Wal-mart.

For the record, I purposely wrote that last comment to sound harsh. You see, you can't take a course in how to be a parent and give your kid a fighting chance in the world. The course doesn't exist.  But if it did, the syllabus would cover topics like "Quit worrying about what you want to do, and do what's best for your kid", "Get a job and stay employed", "Quit playing softball or golf so much yourself and start coaching your kid's team instead", "Stay married", "Hold your child responsible for their actions", or "Don't reward bad behavior." Being a good parent is about making your kids what is most important, teaching them right from wrong, and holding them and you accountable for your own actions.

So Mr. Obama, if you think the way to give kids a fighting chance is to get better teachers, you're wrong. It's to have strong families, and to keep those families together. Unlike what you said, the single most determining factor in our child's ability to achieve comes from within the walls of the home. In 1964, David O. Mckay said "No other success can compensate for failure in the home." The disintegration of the family unit is the problem, sir, and that has NOTHING to do with our teachers.

If you want to see more about what I think about families, go read the The Family: A Proclamation to the World. For the complete text of Senator Obama's speech, go here.


  1. BRAVO!!! Very well stated and oh, so very true!!!

  2. I don't know why but I feel the need to say "Amen Brother!"

  3. I can't imagine that Obama was truly and honestly suggesting that teachers are more important than the family unit or that schools need to take on more of the burden of raising our children. If he was, I agree with many of your comments. But, I read the quote a bit differently.

    I understand the quote to suggest that there are finally changes occurring that give some of our kids a chance when they previously didn't have one. One change we need to make is realizing that a student's academic achievement doesn't depend on their race or socioeconomic status; it depends upon them having a quality teacher that inspires and teaches them.

    Perhaps Obama suggested in the remainder of his speech that we need to find a way to better support teaching and learning so that perhaps at some point the key indicators of academic success will NOT be socioeconomic status or parents' educational attainment. We should strive for quality teachers that teach learners using quality methods that make learning perhaps a little more independent of environmental factors.


  4. Chris,

    I agree, it will be a great day when race, socioeconomic status, etc., aren't predictors of academic success, and I'll even grant you that he may have meant to say that. But the fact is that HE DIDN'T. This was a talk that was written, practiced, and rewritten and repracticed. And yet, he never corrected himself. So he comes of as looking like he was doing nothing but pandering to his audience. I think that if he had wanted to say what you're saying, he would have. But he didn't.


  5. I could not agree more. Your comments are right on. I have forwarded this to everyone on my email list.

  6. Dr. Curry,
    I think it takes a village to raise a child- the parents, teachers and the larger community. We all have that responsibility.

    I'm encouraged by what I see happening. The community is starting to support,students, teachers and parents and vice versa. We are all in this together.

    I don't think it's useful to point the finger of blame at anyone. I have been teaching "at-risk" teenagers for over 25 years, and I have yet to meet parents who don't care. Granted some may not be making the best choices for the best outcomes. That's why they need support from teachers and from the community. We are all in this together.

  7. Elona,

    I'm not trying to point fingers at anyone. I agree that we all have a social responsibility to help, but I do think that what Mr. Obama said is completely wrong. He says the *single most important factor* is who the teacher is. I disagree. I'm saying I think the *single most important factor* is the family.


  8. Dr. Curry,
    Thank you for clarifying your position. Since the family influences kids before they ever get to see a teacher, the family certainly is the most important factor in the early years.

    I think though that as kids get older, the family might not be the single most important factor any longer. A kid's peer group in the teen years is pretty influential, maybe even more so than the family- at least that's been my experience with the kid's I teach.

    Parents recognize the effect of the negative peer group on their child and will move the family from certain areas to different schools hoping to remove their child from the negative effects of the peer group. Yet, in very short order (a couple of days even) despite parents best efforts these same kids have found a similar negative peer group at the new school. I've seen this happen so often and wonder how kids can find each other so quickly. It's amazing.

    So I'd have to say from my experience working with these kids for all this time, the family is not necessarily the most important factor in the lives of teenagers. The peer group looms large.

  9. Elona,

    Thanks for the comments!

    I agree that by the teenage years the peer group looms large. However, in a perfect world, the family would have given the student the tools to be successful before then, and hopefully the values to stand against negative peers.


  10. Touching on Elona's comments: As mentioned, the family is overwhelmingly the most influential factor in young children's social, emotional, and intellectual development; the research bears that out conclusively. What is not so clear is what are the predominate influences during adolescence. We see in the research that peers become more influential and exert a more profound influence on short-term changes in behavior than do others. However, the family--particularly the parent-adolescent relationship--is still the most predictive of long-term success, positive adjustment, and physical/emotional health. We are starting to see the great power that exists in that relationship, such as the ability of a parent's touch (such as a hug or a brief rubbing of the back) to immediately reduce the adolescent's heart rate and body temperature (despite their probable protests), and to help regulate critical physiological systems, such as the immune and stress-response systems.

    The more research we conduct, the more influential we find the family environment/climate to be on children's physical, emotional, and intellectual health. This includes the quality of the parent-child relationship and the quality of the marital relationship. Sorry for the long-winded post :)

    BCG, Ph.D.

  11. I agree with you in finding fault with the quote. And I've been a teacher long enough to see a lot of truth in your emphasis on the importance families--something that maybe we educators neglect.

    On the other hand, I wonder if the problem isn't so much that he's dead wrong as that he's oversimplifying. I mean, we can both agree that teachers are important to kids' success, and so are families, and so is SES, and so are genes, and on and on. I wonder if any attempt to find the 'one thing' that's most important generates more heat than light.

    The fact is, all these factors are important, and we'd be foolish to neglect any of them. The factors that make a child a 'success' work as part of a larger system, influencing each other as well as the child--heck, we're not even all agreed on what 'success' means.

    I'm not saying the debate is useless--after all, we've got to prioritize where time and funds go--but I wonder if it's time for a greater emphasis on systems and a diminished one on ranking.

  12. Jason,

    I agree with you completely. All of those factors are important, but by stating that the "single most important factor" he really hurt his potential message.

    Thanks for the comment!


  13. Okay...I really really really am liking the intellectual argument going on here; everyone is handling the issue with a non-biased perspective...just their true thoughts. The comments back and forth were the "single most important factor" in my decision to post a comment...ha ha. Just kidding. Thanks for sharing; can I pass this along?

  14. Are we talking about the single greatest factor in a child's academic "achievement" - or the single greatest factor in a child's life outcome?

    If it's the latter, then I agree with you. The family and home life is the greatest factor in a child's life outcome, and Obama is WAY off.

    But, I can't fathom that Obama intended for "achievement" to be equated to a child's life outcome which is how you're reading it, "Too many people in our country expect teachers to raise their children."

    How ridiculous is this statement?
    "Teachers are the single most important factor determining a child's academic achievement."

  15. Would have been nice if you could link to the Obama quote, so readers coul;d fact-check it. But anyhow...

    Quotes like that are common from politicians, not just Obama. It is usual to hear that 'teachers are the most important factor' in an education. This refrain comes from all sides of the political spectrum, and are uttered as some sort of initiation rite.

    That said, from everything I've seen or heard, the best predictor of educational outcome is socio-economic status. Poverty is routinely related to health and nutritional issues, which in turn have a direct impact on capacity. Children living in impoverished homes are usually subject to different sets of expectations, which in turn impacts their motivations and drivers. Children living in impoverished homes will be more likely to work, more likely to walk rather than ride or drive, more likely to have to do things by hand rather than use a tool, all of which impact the amount of time they can spend learning. And children living in impoverished homes typically have access to far fewer educational resources outside the home.

    All of this is well known, which it is why it is no surprise to see those countries that address social and economic inequities in society, particularly as they affect learning, to have the highest scores in international testing, such as PISA, to have the highest levels of educational attainment, and to be centres of economic stability and innovation.

    The cynical me thinks that politicians say 'teachers are the most important factor' because they can then address simple factors, like funding for teachers, or testing to evaluate the result of teaching, instead of addressing the really expensive and complex factors that impact on education.

    So - when a person criticizes Obama for saying 'teachers are the most important factor', I have to ask, is it because they are prepared to address, on a society-wide level, the inequities that impair a child's ability to learn?

    It's all very well to day "it's up to the family" - but from where I sit I observe that children don't choose their families, that many families are dysfunctional, and that many children have partial families or no families at all. The fact is, though the family forms the basic social unit for many, it by no means forms the basic social unit for all, and is in many ways insufficient to address the factors that impact learning.

    When 50 million Americans, for example, are without health care insurance, you can't address inequities in health care simply by saying "the family should provide it." That is tantamount to washing your hands of the whole issue, shrugging your shoulders and saying, "well I guess nothing can be done." The reality is that many *families* are suffering from poor or nonexistent health care, and are passing this on to their children.

    I have no problem with a person focusing their beliefs and their value system on the family - but if this translates into a value system that does nothing for impoverished families, or does nothing for people without families, well then I see the focus on family as nothing but a well-developed excuse system.

  16. I agree that Obama's message is too simplistic. And your recommendation about having "strong families" is echoed in every teachers' lounge that I've ever been in. But how do we get there? The free market doesn't lead us in that direction.

  17. Your comment on the absolute value of the family is rather exclusive toward a model that may or may not exist universally. Obama is a generalist, perhaps to a fault, but his ideas on education speak to teachers as a concept if not a profession.

    Teachers exist either in the direct role as defined by their vocation or as the example that role models offer. As parents, we are intrinsic teachers despite the willingness for children to grow beyond their bounds. Teachers are public servants in a balanced world and extended family in an educational model that offers every student the ability to achieve.

    Again, it is not to demean the familiar between students and their parents that Obama invokes "teacher". He is merely making us aware of the void left behind by a strategy that went too far. Let us hope that your observations and leanings toward more Libertarian philosophies allow us all to remain clear of similar future traps.

  18. I recently read this article, and I thought I would add a bit of extra information. I believe that President-elect Obama was referring to the factors that government has control over. I also believe that he was passing his quote in part on the 1997 research study conducted by S. Paul Wright, Sandra Horn, and William Sanders. Their study states, "The results of this study will document that the most important factor affecting student learning is the teacher ... Effective teachers appear to be effective with students of all achievement levels regardless of the levels of heterogeneity in their classes. If the teacher is ineffective, students under that teacher's tutelage will acheive inadequate progress academically, regardless of how similiar or different they are regarding their academic acheivement" (p. 63). Many others have had similar findings. Considering the government's push for scientifically-based research concerning education, I highly doubt that President-elect Obama pulled this statement out of thin air. In addition, one of his key education advisor's Linda Darling-Hammond is a huge advocate of promoting good teachers (See her book A Good Teacher in Every Classroom, 2005). Hope this helps clarify that President-elect Obama was more than likely not diminishing the effect families have on thier children's achievement, but instead focusing on research supported evidence pinpointing teachers as the most direct means to improving education in America.

    ~ Kellie, a public school educator