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Everyone Loves Obama’s Speech

By Alyson Klein — March 10, 2009 2 min read

President Barack Obama’s first major address on education is drawing praise from everyone from Capitol Hill Republicans to public charter school advocates to the National Education Association.

Not surprisingly, some of these groups came up with different interpretations of the remarks, particularly on alternative pay for teachers.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement:

The president deserves credit for his willingness to take on the education establishment, something too few in his party have been willing to do. 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 to spur innovation and provide parental choice.

Those sentiments were echoed by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a leading GOP voice on education policy and a merit-pay proponent.

“Nothing is more important or more difficult than finding fair ways to pay the best teachers more for teaching well,” he said. “The President and Secretary Duncan are on exactly the right track on this and deserve the nation’s support.”

But, Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, also told me that he thought Obama’s speech was “wonderful” and that is points were “right on.” It sounds like his interpretation of Obama’s teacher language was pretty different from Alexander’s and McKeon’s.

“I didn’t see anything about merit pay,” 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 that receive certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. “I don’t necessarily believe he was talking about failed merit-pay plans.”

The union president 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 Obama has repeatedly emphasized a desire to work with teachers in developing such policies.

So who is right? Hard to say until we get details, but it sounded to me like Obama was clearly thinking that pay would be tied in some way to student achievement. Still, top White House aides told reporters last night any teacher-pay plan will be worked out in collaboration with educators. No word yet on whether that means there will have to be collective bargaining or just the approval of a majority of educators or something else. I wonder if there’s a way to do this that will win the support of both the NEA and key Republicans like Alexander and McKeon.

UPDATE: My colleague, Steve Sawchuk, has a great post over at Teacher Beat giving more context to this debate.

Meanwhile, over at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Nelson Smith, the organization’s president, is pretty jazzed up about Obama’s remarks on charters.

And Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said he’s excited to get moving on some of these initiatives.

The proposals he put forth today show he’s serious about taking American education to the next level. His plan includes many of the right priorities, at the right time, to help build the economy we need and the world-class education system that Americans of all ages deserve. Congress should follow his lead as we begin working to significantly improve No Child Left Behind this year, and as we continue our efforts to strengthen early childhood education and make college more affordable.

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