Obama backs teacher merit pay and charter schools

Says students must regain status in world

Chamber chair David Lizarraga led the audience in a chant of ''Si se puede'' (''Yes we can'') as he introduced the president. Chamber chair David Lizarraga led the audience in a chant of ''Si se puede'' (''Yes we can'') as he introduced the president. (Charles Dharapak/associated press)
By Libby Quaid
Associated Press / March 11, 2009
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WASHINGTON - President Obama called yesterday for tying teachers' pay to students' performance and expanding innovative charter schools, embracing ideas that have provoked hostility from members of teachers unions. He also suggested longer school days - and years - to help America's children compete in the world.

In his presidency's first big speech on education, Obama said the United States must drastically improve student achievement to regain lost international standing. He highlighted progress in Massachusetts.

"The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens," he said at the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "We have everything we need to be that nation . . . and yet, despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us."

His solutions include teacher pay and charter school proposals that have met resistance among members of teachers unions, which constitute an important segment of the Democratic Party.

Obama acknowledged that conflict and possible heavy resistance in the education establishment, saying: "For decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline. Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom."

Despite their history on the issues, union leaders publicly welcomed Obama's words, saying it seems clear he wants to include them in his decisions in a way President George W. Bush did not.

"We finally have an education president," said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4-million-member American Federation of Teachers. "We really embrace the fact that he's talked about both shared responsibility and making sure there is a voice for teachers, something that was totally lacking in the last eight years."

The president of the 3.2-million-member National Education Association, Dennis van Roekel said, "President Obama always says he will do it with educators, not to them."

Van Roekel insisted that Obama's call for teacher performance pay does not necessarily mean raises or bonuses would be tied to student test scores. It could mean more pay for board-certified teachers or for those who work in high-poverty, hard-to-staff schools, he said.

There also has been considerable friction over charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently, free from some of the rules that constrain regular schools. Many teachers are concerned that such schools drain money and talent from regular schools.

However, Obama said that state limits on numbers of charter schools aren't "good for our children, our economy or our country" and that many of the innovations in education today are happening in charter schools.

He also advocated longer school days and school years, saying that "the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom."

In calling for tougher test standards, he highlighted progress in Massachusetts. "The solution to low test scores is not lower standards. It's tougher, clearer standards - standards like those in Massachusetts, where eighth-graders are now tying for first - first - in the world in science," he said.

Massachusetts students actually scored highest on the fourth-grade science exam, coming in second just behind Singapore in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study in 2007. Bay State eighth-graders ranked third, behind students in Singapore and Taiwan.

While the scores were slightly different, the Massachusetts Department of Education said the differences are statistically insignificant and said Obama was correct in praising Bay State eighth-graders.

In giving the speech at the Hispanic Chamber, he underscored the need to boost academic performance, especially among Latino and black children who sometimes lag behind their white counterparts.

Bush's No Child Left Behind law aimed to close that achievement gap, but progress has been slow, and Obama says his administration can do better. His education agenda reflects Obama's campaign platform.

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