On the first stop of his Latin America trip, President Obama emphasized shared ties to Africa between the U.S. and Brazil -- and called for cooperation to help lift up the continent.
This weekend President Obama embarked on his five-day Latin America trip to Brazil, Chile (where he touched down on Monday) and El Salvador to strengthen relationships, with a particular focus on the U.S. trading role in some of the world's fastest growing markets.
Addressing Brazilians directly in a speech from Rio de Janeiro on Sunday afternoon, he spoke of shared values between the United States and Brazil, and how the two countries can work together through student exchanges, expanding collaboration between science and technology researchers, and working to stop drug trafficking. Obama also singled out working together to combat hunger, disease and corruption in Africa.
"As two countries that have been greatly enriched by our African heritage, it's absolutely vital that we are working with the continent of Africa to help lift it up," he said to applause from the audience at the Teatro Municipal. "That is something we should be committed to doing together."
Brazil, which has the second-largest population of African-descended people in the world after Nigeria, has long worked with African nations in terms of oil and energy, humanitarian aid and trade. What's new, however, is President Obama's allusion to Brazil and the United States doing joint work on the continent.
"He's making a logical connection which has not been made before by the United States: the fact that our common origins in Africa create a common opportunity to Africa," said David Vidal, director of the Conference Board Center for Citizenship and Sustainability, and former Brazil correspondent for the New York Times and Associated Press. "It's a new statement of intention and redirection that I think is very significant."
So far, Brazil and the United States have already launched their first trilateral project in Africa, an agricultural program in Mozambique. By training Mozambique's famers how to grow and sell more vegetables through improved production and marketing methods, U.S. and Brazilian agricultural experts hope to bolster the country's farm sector.
Vidal says such collaborations are particularly important given the rapid expansion of China in Africa, where Chinese workers have created roads, hospitals and schools in exchange for access to raw materials. "It certainly puts into context whatever may come of a U.S.-Brazil collaboration because there's a lot already going on, and China's leaving everybody in the dust."
Sharon Freeman, president of Americans, Chinese and Africans Connecting, which facilitates African business collaborations between Chinese-, African- and other black-owned firms around the world, agrees that President Obama may have been alluding to competition with China. "If Obama was hinting that the U.S. and Brazil should combine efforts in Africa, why would he be saying that?" she told The Root. "The answer is because we want to compete with China, and maybe we could do it better together."
As President Obama warns of U.S. military intervention in Libya if violence continues, some lawmakers ask: Why?
Following heavy criticism of his cautious leadership style on Libya, on Friday President Obama gave remarks about the crisis surrounding Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s escalating violence against the Libyan people. Obama announced that the United States is preparing to take a more aggressive approach in the conflict, but also tried to assure that American military engagement would be limited and part of an international effort to protect civilians.
“Here is why this matters to us,” Obama said, giving his analysis of the situation if left unchecked. “Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners. The calls of the Libyan people for help would go unanswered. The democratic values that we stand for would be overrun. Moreover, the words of the international community would be rendered hollow.”
Obama listed the intervention efforts taken thus far, including laying sanctions, enforcing an arms embargo against the Qaddafi regime, and Thursday's U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone and other uses of force if the killings do not stop.
“Once more, Muammar Qadaffi has a choice,” the president said, underscoring the resolution’s clear demand for an immediate cease-fire, as well as establishing water, electricity and gas supplies back to all areas of the country. If Qaddafi does not comply, he continued, the United States, our British and French allies, and members of the Arab League, will take military action.
“I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing,” Obama said. “The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya. And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal – specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.”
Libyan foreign minister Moussa Koussa has announced an immediate cease-fire, but it it hasn't stopped Qadaffi's soldiers from continuing its campaign against rebel forces, according to reports.
Although President Obama has support on military engagement from congressional Republicans (Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham) as well as Democrats (Senators John Kerry and Bob Menendez), lawmakers on both sides have also expressed reluctance about making Libya our problem. Questions remain about the extent of violence against innocent civilians, as opposed to fighting between armed rebels and Qaddafi loyalists, and how the interests of Americans are being served.
Republican Senator Dick Lugar explained his reservations at a Thursday Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing: “Given the costs of a no-fly zone, the risks that our involvement would escalate, the uncertain reception in the Arab street of any American intervention in an Arab country, the potential for civilian deaths, the unpredictability of the endgame in a civil war, the strains on our military, and other factors, I am doubtful that U.S. interests would be served by imposing a no-fly zone over Libya."
In his remarks on Friday, President Obama stressed that he made his decision carefully, particularly when our military is already stretched thin from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “But the United States of America will not stand idly in the face of actions that undermine global peace and security,” he insisted. “I have taken this decision with the confidence that action is necessary, and that we will not be acting alone. Our goal is focused, our cause is just, and our coalition is strong.”
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says it's time the NCAA stopped rewarding teams that fail to meet basic academic standards off the court.
As college basketball fans tune in to the NCAA tournament, the Obama administration hopes that they'll also start thinking about their favorite teams' academic credentials. A new report (pdf) from the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) shows unconscionable disparities in the graduation rates between black and white players on men's teams. While 91 percent of white NCAA players graduate, only 59 percent of black players do -- an ever-widening 32 percent gap.
"Intercollegiate sports have played a big role in my life," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan during a Thursday conference call, joined by NAACP president Ben Jealous and Richard Lapchick, director of TIDES. Both he and his sister played college basketball. "I played with guys who had helped their college programs earn millions of dollars, only to be dropped without a college degree when their playing days were over. And when their glory days on the court were finished, they had very difficult lives off the court."
Bad as the overall figure is, the numbers can be worse on an individual school basis. According to the TIDES report, Kansas State University graduates 100 percent of its white players but only 14 percent of its black players. The University of Akron graduates 100 percent of its white players ... and zero percent of its black players.
Armed with those figures, Duncan made three recommendations for NCAA tournament reform:
1. Teams that are not on track to graduate at least half of their players should be ineligible for postseason play. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics first made the same recommendation ten years ago. "If you can't manage to graduate half of your players, how serious is the institution and the coach and the program about their players' academic success?" Duncan said.
2. Raise the bar for postseason eligibility using the Academic Progress Rate (APR), a metric used by the NCAA to track graduation progress over a four-year period. A 925 APR equates to being in sight of graduating half of a team's players. "Teams with APRs below 925 should be ineligible for post-season glory," said Duncan.
3. Restructure the NCAA tournament's revenue-distribution formula. This proposal comes from a recent Knight Commission analysis that found that over the past five years, $179 million went to teams that were not graduating half its players. "Right now the formula handsomely rewards teams for winning games in the tournament, but does little to reward teams for meeting minimal academic benchmarks," said Duncan.
What makes the problem particularly confounding is that most college basketball programs graduate their players just fine. Eight teams in this year's tournament graduated 100 percent of their black and white players in recent years, including the University of Illinois, Villanova and Utah State. Women's collegiate teams fare even better, with one in three teams in the women's NCAA tournament having a 100 percent graduation rate.
"When you are coaching student-athletes, you have a responsibility to them both as an athlete and a student," said Ben Jealous, who commended schools that do a good job, such as Xavier University, which has a nun knock on players' doors to make sure they head to class in the morning and study at night. "It happens because coaches decide to make sure that the young men are prepared for victory in life and not just on the court."
Duncan argued that penalizing schools who don't meet basic standards would be an effective incentive to shape up. "The dream of playing in the NCAA tournament is what brings so many student-athletes on to these college campuses," he said. "If the right behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished, you would see all of these schools doing things in a very different way, very quickly."
As for the steep racial disparities between black and white graduation rates, however, none of the speakers exactly spelled out why they exist. Is it that athletics programs are not addressing black students who are from poor, failing schools and academically unprepared for college in the first place? Is it due to more black students coming in with a mindset focused on hoop dreams over educational attainment? Is it institutional racism?
While Duncan acknowledged that students and their families also have responsibilities for academic success, he doesn't let coaches and administrators off the hook. "We always have to hold student-athletes accountable for their own education, and we always have to challenge families to step up and do more, but at the same time we cannot begin to give a pass to those institutions that don't commit," he said. "It's not the players who are benefiting financially from going to the tournament. It is the institutions that are making millions of dollars on their players' backs."
In a soaring education speech, President Obama called for shattering the "No Child Left Behind" status quo. But some public education experts doubt whether his actual policies make the grade.
No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era law mandating standardized testing as a measure of school success, is not working and needs to be reformed. This was the thrust of a speech by President Barack Obama, who repeated, "We have to fix No Child Left Behind" five times while speaking at a Virginia middle school on Monday.
"That's why I'm calling on Congress to send me an education reform bill I can sign into law before the next school year begins," he said to applause from the Kenmore Middle School gym, packed with teachers, students and parents.
The president argued that while the goals of NCLB -- higher standards, teacher accountability and closing the achievement gap -- are good ones, the policy, which imposes sanctions on schools that fall short of its set standards, is too rigid, underfunded and ineffective. He pointed out that, under the current system, 80 percent of U.S. schools are labeled as failing, including schools that are making remarkable progress.
"First we're going to have to fix how our schools are labeled and identified," Obama said, pushing for more individualized assessments rather than the one-size-fits-all bubble-test approach currently used. "Instead of measuring students based on whether they're above or below an arbitrary bar, we need to set better standards to make sure our students are meeting one clear goal -- they're graduating from college and ready for a career."
The president's newly released education reform blueprint (pdf) also zeroes in on the poorest schools in the country. He's called on states to identify their lowest-performing schools and take bold action to transform them -- including, for example, firing bad principals and teachers. On the other hand, Obama repeated his call for increased support for teachers, particularly in the form of better training, more classroom funding, and higher salaries. "We're going to have to start paying good [teachers] like the professionals that they are," he said.
President Obama's proposal for fixing NCLB is a departure from his usual focus on his keystone Race to the Top grant program, in which states must compete for additional funding with plans to reform their education system. I spoke to John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education and an outspoken critic of Obama's educational policies, to get his take on the president's new strategy.
"I appreciate the fact that president is pushing legislators to reform No Child Left Behind because it is needed," he said. "But it has to be true, transformational reform. To the degree that the legislators reach some bipartisan consensus that equals just a tweak in the plan, I think we would have missed an important opportunity."
Jackson is skeptical that President Obama's actual policies hold up to the status quo-shattering ideas he espoused in his speech. "It's one thing to say that we need to do this, and it's another thing to align the resources so that the results can actually occur," he said. "The resources, even as they have flowed throughout this administration, have not always been aligned with the education goals that the president has outlined."
For example, Jackson cited Race to the Top grant money that has rewarded states for enacting policies that tie teacher evaluation to student performance -- an experimental idea, he says, with no evidence of creating more effective learning. Jackson is none too thrilled, then, that Obama's NCLB plan builds on Race to the Top, opening it up to school districts. He contends that instead of testing individual approaches, the president should tackle more comprehensive measures, such as equitable resources for all states.
"The true measure is what's laid out in his legislative agenda, and if you look at the blueprint, there's not a lot of discussion around equity there. Not a lot of discussion of the use of technology or how we approach English language-learner students," he said. "The speech was encouraging to hear, but it's very difficult to separate his speech from this official document that came from his administration."
The NCLB reform debate that the president is gearing up for will no doubt shift as it proceeds, but it will take a lot more than tinkering around the law's edges and expanding Race to the Top to have his desired effect. The question is: Will the final bill go much farther?
In a wide-ranging news conference, President Obama defended under-siege programs for the poor and unemployed.
For a few days now, Republicans have criticized President Obama over rising gas prices. House Speaker John Boehner blames the problem on Obama’s now-lifted moratorium on oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico last summer and the termination of drilling leases in national parks. Others have accused the president of gleefully sitting back and watching gas prices, which have shot up amid unrest in North Africa and the Middle East -- the easier to force Americans into embracing electric cars and high-speed rail.
To get in front of the conversation, on Friday the president held a news conference.
“We’ve been having this conversation for nearly four decades now,” said Obama, pointing out that rising gas prices – and partisan handwringing over the issue – are far from a new phenomenon. “I think the American people are tired of talk.”
While he expressed openness to tapping more American oil resources if the situation calls for it, the president again pushed for moving to clean energy. “As long as our economy depends on foreign oil, we’ll always be subject to price spikes,” he said, arguing that we can’t drill our way out of the problem since the United States only controls two percent of the world’s oil.
As for the short-term, Obama acknowledged that Americans are feeling the cost of rising gas prices acutely – and some more so than others. “A lot of folks who are having the toughest time, who are either unemployed or have low-wage jobs, they’re the ones that are most severely affected because they’re using a higher portion of their income just to fill up the gas tank,” he said.
The global community, Obama said, has committed to filling gaps in oil supply, to make up for Middle East political turmoil. He’s also asked Attorney General Eric Holder to monitor the industry for price gouging, to ensure that people aren’t getting ripped off.
The press conference dipped into a broad range of subjects, including the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan (Obama assured Prime Minister Kan that the U.S. will provide any assistance needed), and the president’s careful consideration of involving the U.S. military in Libya (it’s on the table, but he’s still thinking about it).
And at several points Obama revisited subjects pertinent to “folks who are unemployed or have low-wage jobs” -- groups he hasn’t mentioned much lately as he focuses on winning the future.
Housing was discussed as a major economic concern. “We’ve got a lot of folks who, because housing prices have fallen so steeply, are still hurting. Some of them are threatened with foreclosure, maybe because they lost a job,” he said. He pointed to his Home Affordable Modification (HAMP) program, which offers incentives for lenders to modify home loans, but admitted that the going has been painfully slow.
While the administration predicted that three to four million homeowners would be able to modify their loans under the plan, so far only about 500,000 have. “It’s going to take some time for the housing market to improve,” he said. “But we’re continuing to take a range of steps to try to strengthen that process of recovery.”
Obama mentions his housing efforts just as congressional Republicans have placed them in the firing line. This week the GOP-controlled House voted to end his home refinancing program aimed at borrowers who owe more than their homes are worth. Next week HAMP goes on the chopping block. The president has threatened a veto if the Senate passes the killing of either measure.
On Congress’ inability to agree on a continuing resolution to fund the government through this fiscal year, Obama stood up for education programs for low-income students.
“There are going to be certain things that House Republicans want that I will not accept,” he said of Pell Grants and Head Start. “I think it’s very important to understand that our long-term debt and deficits are not caused by us having Head Start teachers in the classroom,” he said, calling the early childhood education program and Pell Grants critical to the nation’s long-term success.
Obama’s style is usually to take the best deal he thinks he can get, so even though he’s drawn his line at foreclosure assistance, Head Start and Pell Grants now...you never know if more capitulation is around the corner. But after he’s already proposed disappointing cuts to LIHEAP funding and Community Development Block Grants, on this he just may stick to his word.