How the President Should Address the State of Our Nation's Schools

President Barack Obama speaks at a town hall style meeting at the University of Tampa's Bob Martinez Sports Center in Tampa,
President Barack Obama speaks at a town hall style meeting at the University of Tampa's Bob Martinez Sports Center in Tampa, Fla., the day after his State of the Union speech, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

When President Obama delivers his State of the Union Address on Tuesday evening, chances are he'll speak at some length about education, as every president since Bill Clinton has done.

President Obama must speak to Americans whose greatest worry is whether their kids will get into a great college and also those whose immediate fear is that their kids won't get home safely from school. Such fears are very real in the president's hometown of Chicago, where the 15-year-old honor student Hadiya Pendleton, who performed at his inauguration, was shot to death days later, and also in my community of Oakland, where Kiante Campbell, 18, a high school senior and aspiring artist was killed last week by gunfire at a cultural festival.

From my perspective as superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) -- widely recognized as the most improved in California in spite of so many kids living in poverty in the state -- here are some recommendations for addressing the needs of every American child regardless of where they come from:

Convey a sense of urgency: President Obama needs to say that the success of our democracy depends on the quality of all our public schools. No other institution has as great an influence on whether our children grow up physically and emotionally healthy and prepared for work, parenthood, and citizenship. As long as talent is widely disbursed but opportunity is only narrowly available, we cannot consider ourselves a democracy worthy of the name. The common good requires uncommonly good public systems.

If education is a race, it's a relay race: This Administration's "Race to the Top" is the latest in a series of initiatives promoted by presidents from both parties that present education as a competitive endeavor, pitting individual students, teachers, schools, school systems, and entire countries against each other. This approach stresses narrow measures of student achievement and teacher competency, constricts the curriculum to subjects that lend themselves to standardized tests, and encourages many educators to "teach to the test" and some to falsify the results. Moreover, this competitive frame overlooks the fact that, as President Obama has explained in other contexts, most accomplishments require teamwork as well as individual striving. If education is a race, it's a relay race, where individuals depend on their teammates' and community's success.

Provide for the whole child: Unlike adults who can compartmentalize, kids bring all of who they are to school. If they come to school sick, hungry, angry at their families, fearful of their classmates, or ashamed of themselves, then they're already running an obstacle course as they race to the top.

Schools should be full-service community institutions: Young people need to be physically healthy, emotionally secure, and confident in their own abilities in order to do their best in school. And our schools are the community institutions best-suited to provide the opportunities and services that empower kids to succeed in school. That is why the Oakland schools offer social and emotional support services that care for children not only as pupils but as whole people, including healthcare, dental and eye care, nutrition, recreation and before-school and after-school program.

"No excuses" doesn't mean giving up on at-risk children: "No excuses" is a popular mantra for educators who rightly hold high expectations for students from every background but are wrongly all-too-eager to brand teachers as incompetent and their students as incorrigible. "No excuses" should mean eliminating the economic and social problems that give rise to poor performance in school. If kids come to school hungry, let's feed them. If they can't see the blackboards, let's send them to eye doctors and get them glasses. If they don't believe that achievement will be rewarded with opportunity, let's help them find summer jobs. But kicking the kids most in need of opportunity out of school is the same as sending them straight to prison.

Every student should graduate high school with basic skills and knowledge: From Oakland to Scarsdale, every student should graduate high school able to read, write, do basic math and think critically. If our young people are not on grade level with these basic skills, then they're destined for dependency -- or worse. Similarly, students need to become conversant with and capable of thinking critically about science, history and the social sciences. That is why the Oakland schools have joined with nine other districts across California to work as a team to implement the Common Core State Standards which provide for young people across the country to learn the same capacities and content.

Kids everywhere are brilliant and amazing. Indeed, those who have overcome great obstacles are impressive for their resilience and grit as well as their achievements. When he addresses education on Tuesday evening, President Obama's eloquence must rise to the occasion, so that together we can implement the policies that will support our schools and our students so they can soar every day.

Tony Smith is Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), one of the most improved school systems in California.