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Paying for Performance

By Bess Keller — July 17, 2007 1 min read
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Before NEA, Obama deviates on wages.

Barack Obama was the boldest, and he wasn’t very bold.

As eight presidential candidates trooped before the delegates at the National Education Association’s annual convention this month, the hopefuls mostly chose to say what the unionists wanted to hear—on the No Child Left Behind Act, on the dedication of teachers, on resources for education.

But on the specific subject of teacher pay, Sen. Obama almost told the more than 8,000 delegates what’s in his 2006 book: He favors performance pay. “In exchange for more money,” he writes in The Audacity of Hope, “teachers need to become more accountable for their performance.” He acknowledges that the idea has been “resisted” by teachers’ unions, but writes that it could be implemented fairly, in his view, if performance was measured by a combination of student test-score data and peer review.

In his July 5 speech at the NEA convention in Philadelphia, the Illinois Democrat dropped any mention of accountability and focused on rewards. “If you excel at helping your students achieve success,” he declared, “your success will be valued and rewarded as well.”

But the rewards won’t be based “on some arbitrary test score,” Mr. Obama added.

Answering a question NEA leaders put to him after the speech about compensation, he mentioned paying experienced teachers more for mentoring their new colleagues. And he reassured the delegates that new forms of compensation would be worked out with the union, as was the case in Minnesota.

For that, he received tepid applause—and some attention from opinion-makers as either “brave” (Alexander Russo, writing July 6 in his blog, This Week In Education) or “what passes for brave among a fainthearted bunch” (Ruth Marcus in a July 11 Washington Post column).

Less noticed was Sen. Obama’s endorsement of more money for teachers in short supply because of the subjects they teach: often math, science, and special education. NEA policy allows for “incentives” that will bring teachers to or keep them at struggling schools, but it forbids paying them according to their subjects.

None of the other six Democratic candidates at the convention, including Mr. Obama’s archrival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, touched either merit pay or compensation linked to the subject taught. Mostly, like Mr. Obama, they talked the language of raises for all.

See Also

For background, previous stories, and Web links, read Teacher Quality. For more stories on this topic see Teachers .

A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2007 edition of Education Week

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