Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Obama on schools, teachers, and education

Obama Pitches Strategy to Improve Teaching Corps, Overhaul U.S. Education

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009; 1:55 PM
President Obama today sharply criticized America's public school system, and he outlined a strategy to reward good teachers and fire bad ones, establish uniform academic achievement standards and increase spending on the first and final stages of a person's education.
In a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Obama called on teachers unions, state education officials and parents to change a "relative decline of American education" that "is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy and unacceptable for our children."

"For decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline," Obama said. "Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though it can make a difference in the classroom. Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its importance."

Obama's speech, his first devoted to education since he became president, had a tone of urgency at a time when the public education system is scheduled to receive about $100 billion of new federal money under the recently passed stimulus plan. The money might give Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, more power to change a public education system traditionally guided more at the state and local levels than by the federal government.

Although many of the ideas he outlined have been proposed before or are in the works, Obama used the speech to offer a sense of his priorities, linking many of them to the success of the U.S. economy. He encouraged experimentation in the public school system, including lifting the limits on the number of charter schools allowed in some states and considering longer school days to bring U.S. classroom hours in line with some Asian countries where students are scoring higher on standardized tests.
The president signaled a willingness to take on some traditional Democratic constituencies, including teachers unions, which in the past have been skeptical of some merit pay proposals. Senior administration officials, who declined to be named because they were describing the speech before it was delivered, said Obama would include the unions in discussions about any incentive plans.

He said he intends to treat "teachers like the professionals they are while also holding them more accountable." Good teachers will be given pay raises, he said, and "be asked to accept more responsibility for lifting up their schools."

But Obama also said stated that school systems must be "taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom."

"Let me be clear: If a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching," Obama said. "I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union with more than a million members, said in a statement that "teachers want to make a difference in kids' lives, and they appreciate a president who shares that goal and will spend his political capital to provide the resources to make it happen."

"As with any public policy, the devil is in the details," Weingarten said. "And it is important that teachers' voices are heard as we implement the president's vision."

Obama's call for states to adopt uniform academic achievement standards is likely to anger many Republicans, who generally favor giving local school systems the ability to design curriculum and set testing standards. To make his point, Obama said, "Today's system of 50 different sets of benchmarks for academic success means fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming -- and getting the same grade."

Obama chose the venue, senior administration officials said, to emphasize the growing proportion of Latinos entering the public school system. Obama said a quarter of public-school kindergartners are Latino, adding that they "are less likely to be enrolled in early education programs than anyone else." He said the stimulus plan includes $5 billion to expand the Early Head Start and Head Start programs.

He also noted that Latino students are "dropping out faster than just about anyone else," a national problem that cuts across ethnic lines he said must be resolved. He noted that "just 2,000 high schools in cities like Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia produce over 50 percent of America's dropouts."

Regarding higher education, Obama said he would expand several federally funded grant programs, including allowing Pell Grants to rise at the rate of inflation and take on "wasteful student loan subsidies." The goal, he said, was to make "college affordable for 7 million more students."

"So, yes, we need more money. Yes, we need more reform. Yes, we need to hold ourselves accountable for every dollar we spend," Obama said. "But there is one more ingredient I want to talk to about. The bottom line is that no government policies will make any difference unless we also hold ourselves more accountable as parents."
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