Obama Knits Together a Teacher-Policy Narrative

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 10, 2009 2 min read
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In his big speech this morning, President Barack Obama reached back to grasp various threads that he’s laid out—on the campaign trail, in his election platform, in his speech to a joint session of Congress, and most recently through the FY 2010 budget request—and knit them together to provide what’s probably the clearest statement so far of his priorities for education and for teacher policy.

As my colleague Alyson Klein points out in this post, nothing here really should come as a surprise if you’ve been paying close attention to Obama since the campaign.

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel told Alyson he thought the speech was “wonderful” and that the incentive pay proposal didn’t endorse “failed merit-pay plans.” The money could be used to support things like National Board Certification (which is pretty much the only type of incentive pay the union formally endorses), he argued.

While that’s one possible scenario, it’s quite likely that there are a bunch of issues here that will indeed cause headaches when the rubber hits the road.

For instance, Obama said that he wants to see 150 districts experiment with incentive pay, coupled with stronger teacher-induction programs. Alyson suggests the $200 million in TIF spending in the recently passed stimulus bill will serve as the vehicle for this to happen. But the national teachers’ unions have never been all that fond of the TIF because it doesn’t explicitly say performance pay plans have to be collectively bargained, and because some districts have interpreted the requirement to base pay on objective measures of performance to mean test scores. Many unions oppose using test scores to determine individual teacher pay. In fact, the unions pitched a fit in 2007 when House Education and Labor Committee chairman George Miller created a performance pay proposal that included test scores and didn’t explicitly reference collective bargaining.

And few of the TIF grantees (if any, I’ll have to check) use National Board Certification as a way to reward effective teaching.

I suspect the administration will try to address these issues in the application for funding. (Alyson notes in a second post that the Obama administration reiterated that all of this would be done in collaboration with teachers.)

Second, Obama made a real push for improving teacher performance and removing teachers repeatedly deemed ineffective, but it really isn’t clear if that means a more expedient dismissal process than the typical district’s tenure-based due-process procedure, a process tied to better teacher evaluations, or some other method. It also isn’t clear how Obama is going to scale all of this up: if, for instance, there will be a funding stream or some sweetener in the budget to get the initiative rolling. The 2010 budget has just a paragraph about it.

Van Roekel told Alyson he’d not yet talked with the administration about the teacher-dismissal issue, and that the current “due process” procedures are there to give teachers a chance to improve. The American Federation of Teachers didn’t comment specifically about this part of Obama’s speech, but the smart money says they’ll again bring up peer review and assistance as a way to improve teachers and let go of underperforming ones.

Seems like the AFT’s leader, Randi Weingarten, does get the potential pitfalls involved in all of this.

“As with any public policy, the devil is in the details, and it is important that teachers’ voices are heard as we implement the president’s vision,” she said in a statement.

We’ll bring you more as we get details.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.