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Americans are hoping a whole lot will change as a result of President Obama’s economic stimulus package. Fiscal crises in banking, housing, and employment are drawing most of our attention. But transforming the nation’s deeply troubled public education system is also a key goal of the rescue plan. Among other objectives, school reformers want to eliminate the “achievement gap” that too often reflects (and reinforces) race and class inequalities in the United States. But at least one study suggests Obama’s election in itself might, based on some measures, reduce that gap to statistical insignificance. It’s a bold claim, and one Youth Radio wanted to explore in response to the Harvard Educational Review's call for student submissions to their special issue on "Education and the Obama Presidency." You can listen here to a roundtable discussion on the so-called “Obama Effect” with high school students Ahmina James and Joshlyn Patrick, along with UC Berkeley doctoral student, Chela Delgado.
So, if I were to ask you, do you believe in the Obama effect? Do you believe that this one man, because he has a new job title—even though it’s a big job title—can he change the minds, and the work ethics, and the test abilities, of all these people?
Ahmina: I do believe in the Obama Effect. Because we have women here in California, we have Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and most of the girls in my small school who know her, have seen her, talked to her, like I have, are like, “Oh yeah, I’m gonna be a Congresswoman just like her….” But before this, black young men didn’t have anybody to look up to. So now that Obama’s president, now there’s officially no excuses.
Jocelyn: I somewhat believe in the Obama Effect. Because I do believe that a lot of kids have changed because of it. But I still see a lot of young men in the area I live in not caring that we have an African American President. It’s too late for them. And that’s the sad thing. It took so long for the U.S.—for us to make a change. A lot of people have already failed, have already died, or went to jail or thrown their life away, because they didn’t have that role model to look up to….
Chela: To me it seems like a much bigger problem. We know that schools where students of color are are underfunded, we know that some teachers are racist and mistreat their students. We know there are real barriers that aren’t just in kids’ heads but that are really about racism. So I heard you, Jocelyn, say, “You can achieve, and look where Obama is.” But I wonder, what do you think of those real barriers of racism? Are they still there?
Update: Since Youth Radio posted this story in March, some new research has come out of New York University suggesting that the Obama Effect may not be as robust as originally reported. For more on Youth Radio's coverage of youth perspectives on Obama's presidency, check out a story about the burden of hope as a campaign promise (with companion curriculum); one commentator's mixed feelings about Obama's victory and the simultaneous passage of a gay marriage ban in California; reflections from two young people on what Obama's win means for black and brown communities, and one essay addressing police brutality and racial profiling in light of Obama's election.