Published Online: March 16, 2009
Published in Print: March 18, 2009, as Rigor, Rewards, Quality: Obama's Education Aims

Rigor, Rewards, Quality: Obama's Education Aims

President Hammers Home Themes in Speech

President Barack Obama’s high-profile speech on public education last week to Hispanic business leaders echoed themes he sounded on the campaign trail and in recent policy moves: an approach that emphasizes rigorous standards, innovation, and accountability for both teachers and students.

Mr. Obama acknowledged that some of the proposals that constitute the heart of his vision of education reform—rewarding good teachers, removing limits on charter schools, and lengthening both the school day and the school year—may draw criticism.

Teachers’ unions, in particular, have often been critical of charter schools, which are typically nonunionized, arguing that they divert tax dollars away from traditional public schools. Merit-based systems for teachers have been anathema to the teachers’ unions, a powerful force in the Democratic Party, for many years.

President Barack Obama walks on stage last week to address the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington. It was his first major speech as president devoted specifically to education.
—Charles Dharapak/AP

“Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom,” Mr. Obama said in the first major education speech of his presidency, made March 10 to a meeting of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its importance.”

But he argued that a far-reaching overhaul of the nation’s education system is an economic imperative.

“Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us,” he said. “The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy, and unacceptable for our children. We cannot afford to let it continue. What is at stake is nothing less than the American dream.”

The president went on to say, “I am calling on states that are setting their standards far below where they ought to be to stop low-balling expectations for our kids. The solution to low test scores is not lower standards—it’s tougher, clearer standards.”

Echoing Campaign Platform

The ideas Mr. Obama promoted were nearly all elements of his presidential campaign platform last year. He only barely mentioned the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. Mr. Obama said his administration would “later this year” ensure that schools get the funding they need and that the money is conditioned on results.

The president’s speech drew initial praise across the political spectrum.

His comments on merit pay drew praise from one top Republican lawmaker, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee.

“The president deserves credit for his willingness to take on the education establishment, something too few in his party have been willing to do,” he said. “The president made clear that he rejects the inertia of complacency and will embrace innovative strategies like teacher performance pay to spur real reform and improvement in the classroom. He has also spoken compellingly about the importance of charter schools.”

He went on to say that he is “hopeful the president will take the next step to buck reform opponents by standing up for the children in the nation’s capital and protecting the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.” The continuation of that voucher program is threatened in the fiscal 2009 budget bill signed by the president last week.

Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, the 3.2 million-member teachers union, said he thought the speech was “wonderful” and that Mr. Obama’s points were “right on.”

“I didn’t see anything about merit pay,” Mr. Van Roekel said. “He talked about rewarding teachers that are successful with children.” He said there are alternative-pay policies that the union supports, such as offering bonuses to teachers who receive national board certification. “I don’t necessarily believe he was talking about failed merit-pay plans.”

Details Sketchy

It is not clear whether the Obama administration plans to fund performance-pay programs through the Teacher Incentive Fund, a federal program begun in 2006 that received $200 million in the stimulus package, or from other sources in that bill, such as the discretionary $5 billion in innovative grants.

Teachers’ unions have expressed some concerns about the Bush administration’s implementation of the TIF. Several grantees used test scores to measure teacher performance, and the former administration also did not explicitly require districts to negotiate the plans through collective bargaining.

Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, said in a recent briefing on stimulus funding that performance-based pay should include consideration of test scores. But he said such plans must be crafted in collaboration with teachers.

Mr. Van Roekel said he had not talked with the administration specifically about a plan to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom, but said that “you need a good evaluation system, you need to give teachers a chance to improve. That’s due process. The NEA does not want bad teachers in the classroom.” He added that Mr. Obama has repeatedly emphasized a desire to work with teachers in developing such policies.

The president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, said that her union supports the concept of “peer assistance and review” for supporting and evaluating novice teachers and struggling veterans. Such systems typically use expert teachers as consultants to observe, provide feedback, and model practices for peers.

“The point [Mr. Obama] is making, that there needs to be better evaluation systems, is spot on,” Ms. Weingarten said. “The reason we see default to individual student test scores [to judge teachers] is because of the lack of reliable teacher-evaluation systems across the country.”

Charter school supporters were also cheered by the president’s speech.

“For several years we’ve been asking the feds to use their influence ... to keep states from blockading the spread of terrific charter schools,” wrote Nelson Smith, the president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools on the organization’s blog. “This morning the president responded. Hallelujah.”

Vol. 28, Issue 25, Page 14

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