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President Obama to Call for Incentive Pay, Rigorous Standards

By Alyson Klein — March 10, 2009 3 min read

This morning, President Barack Obama is scheduled to give a speech at the annual Legislative Conference of the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in which he’ll emphasize and flesh out many of the details of his education redesign agenda.

The biggest “new” news for K-12 education: Obama wants to expand teacher incentive pay programs, to up to an additional 150 school districts nationwide. And he will “insist” on developing new processes to get rid of ineffective educators.

During a conference call with reporters yesterday, White House senior aides said the performance pay plans will have to be negotiated with teachers. They didn’t say whether the expansion would be accomplished with the help of the $200 million increase to the Teacher Incentive Fund that was included in the recently passed economic stimulus package, but I suspect that may be part of the plan.

Obama also supports improved professional development, and mentoring for new and less-effective teachers. And he wants to expand innovative teacher preparation programs. That plan could be paid for, at least in part, by the $100 million for Teacher Quality Enhancement grants included in the stimulus package.

Obama will also call for states to voluntarily adopt more rigorous standards. That’s something Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has talked a lot about lately. The idea got a big boost with the passage of the $4.4 billion in incentive grants, a.k.a. the “Race to the Top Fund”, in the stimulus. But Obama’s speech will put the full weight of the White House behind the policy.

As part of revamping standards, Obama will call for states to promote critical thinking, problem solving, and other “21st century skills,” according to White House aides. (Check out my colleague, Stephen Sawchuk’s very good look at the debate around “21st century skills” here.) And he’ll also call on states to stop using “off-the-shelf” tests and improve their assessments.

He will also highlight new federal resources ($250 million in the stimulus) to use data systems to better track student achievement--and measure the effectiveness of teachers, an idea that’s met with resistance from educators in some states.

The aides also emphasized that Obama will make drop-out prevention a new national priority, although it’s unclear whether there will be additional resources provided specifically for that problem, beyond, of course, money that might be included in the $100 billion boost for education in the stimulus.

During the campaign, Obama said he wanted to double the federal investment in charter schools. He’ll reiterate his support for charters in the speech, and try to prod states into reworking their charter laws to promote the models and lift limits on the number of such schools in states. He’ll also emphasize his support for accountability for charters, a position he brings up nearly every time he talks about expanding the models.

Obama will also tout his plan to expand pre-kindergarten, which was an element in his fiscal year 2010 budget, although the proposal came with few details, and no numbers, attached. He’ll talk up his plan to offer incentive grants to improve pre-k program quality.

And he’ll highlight some of his “bombshell” changes to higher education, which include making Pell grants a mandatory program, safe from the whims of the appropriations process, and indexing the grants to inflation. He’ll also talk about plans to simplify the federal loan application process and improve college retentions rates.

Again, it doesn’t like there’s too much “new news” here in terms of policy direction, at least for those folks that have been paying close attention to the stimulus package, the budget, and Obama’s statements during the presidential campaign. But the speech provides a vehicle to get the country, not just those steeped in the education policy world, excited about those ideas. It’s another sign that the Obama administration sees education as an important priority and wants to move on a number of major initiatives early on.

And the White House clearly views education as part of a broader economic strategy.

“I think part of the house that’s on fire is dealing with the education problem,” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters in a briefing yesterday.

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