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Obama Thinks Big on Education

President Obama’s education speech this morning was, in my memory, the largest assemblage of smart ideas about schools ever issued by one president at one time. Everyone will have a different favorite part — performance pay models for teachers, better student data tracking systems, longer school days and years, eliminating weak state testing standards, more money for schools that improve, more grants for fresh ideas, better teacher training, more charter school growth, faster closing of bad charters and many more.

The speech puts Obama without any further doubt in the long line of Democratic party leaders who have embraced accountability in schools through testing, even at the risk of seeming to be in league with the Republican Party. His explicit endorsement of the tough Massachusetts testing system — a favorite of GOP conservatives — will irritate many teachers and education activists in his own party, but that group of Democrats has not had a champion who has ever gotten closer to the presidency than former Vermont governor Howard Dean, and we know how his candidacy turned out.

The problem, which the president did not mention, is that he has limited power to make any of these things happen. His speech was full of encouraging words to state and school district officials, who will be the true deciders. True, he has some money to spread around for new ideas. But the vast bulk of the budget stimulus dough will go, as he said, to saving jobs in school systems.

A test of his sincerity will be how hard his education secretary, Arne Duncan, pushes for these changes. My favorite among his talking points was the lifting of state and local caps on charter school growth and the quicker closing of charter schools that don’t work.

Will the Obama Education Department prepare and publicize a list of all the charter school cap laws in the country? Will Duncan call the governors, and legislators and school boards responsible for them and ask them to remove those restrictions on new charters, and find a way to get rid of bad charters?

I don’t know if that will happen either. Stay tuned.

By Washington Post editors  | March 10, 2009; 11:52 AM ET
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Yes, Obama is talking the talk but what is really going to happen?

It is up the states to make education changes.

The bottom line, and this is coming from an extremely dedicated 6th year teacher, is that unless teachers make a livable wage, comparable to those with Bachelor's and Master's degrees, then the system will continue to fail.

Of course we need far more parental support but that could be supplanted with an increase in salaries, nationwide. There is no doubt that many teachers would stay many more hours if it meant not having to work a second job or find alternative income. It is very true that many teachers sit on thier butts and do very little but that is not all of us, not even close.

Who is going to specify 'merit' pay. If its associated with NCLB, then the rich schools, with all of their resources (parental support included) will continue to get the bonuses that the W administration put forth via NCLB.

Much change is needed but we need Obama to guide us not rant and rave without any concrete solutions that can be implemented immediately.

Without a great increase in salaries the next generation of schools will be full of even less competent teachers, a plethora of lazy, unmotivated students and an enormous amount of college graduates definitely not wanting to enter education or leaving very early in thier careers, regardless of their passion, for a place where they can live with some amount of comfort and the ability to pay back those school loans.

Posted by: najdelrio | March 10, 2009 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Interesting speech but like so many others that are happening today- not much will be done.

Arne Duncan and the teacher's union in Chicago got along because the teacher merit pay increases were done within the contract. Obama forgot to mention that. NY has great changes in school merit pay where no teacher is penalized for getting the slowest class in the school but if the entire school makes progress teachers are rewarded. Teachers then tend to help each other or see that the weak ones are gotten rid of.

Charter schools are a way to opt our of regular education programs. They take the best parents with the most interest our of the regular public schools. Some are great some are lousy. Yes close the lousy ones but if as Obama says the Korean's can do it well they don't do it with Charter schools.

He didn't even mention no child left behind. Where does he stand on that program.

Maybe Warren Buffet was right. Maybe Obama should focus first on fixing the financial crisis instead of throwing out one program idea after another which mostly won't happen. I am afraid that he is setting himself up for failure.

Posted by: peterdc | March 10, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Without robust and effective discharge laws for inept, and worse, teachers, no amount of new money will have great effect.

If educators can't stop lying to students about their academic performance, students will see little reason to try harder. Believe it or not, more than half of all students really are average or lower.

Posted by: marvin2 | March 10, 2009 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Where in the constitution is the fedgov authorized to be involved in education? There is not a shred of evidence to justify the continued existence of the Dept. of Ed. In spite of throwing zillions of federal dollars at education, students are no better if not more poorly educated than before the DOE was created in 1977 (if I remember correctly). What federal involvement HAS done is to erode parental and local control. As to salaries, in most areas there is a greater pool of applicants for teaching jobs than there are jobs. So, how can anyone conclude that those jobs don't pay enough? In areas where there are jobs with few or no qualifed applicants then an argument can be made that salaries need to be raised. That's a decision that should be made locally though. No improvement will be made in the government schools as long as the teaching unions have the clout that they have. Unions are businesses so don't think they care about kids. What will improve schools is competition and privatization. Parents and students are customers but government education treats customers like they're wards of the state.

Posted by: hit4cycle | March 10, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

I've seen this before. The problem with the Democrats plan to give incentives to teachers is that the teacher's unions rig the incentives so that the teachers with the most seniority get the incentive pay, regardless of the job they did. The newer teachers, many of whom have greater enthusiasm and newer ideas, get shoved aside.

Posted by: mike85 | March 10, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

I assume they think were stupid like the typical dimocrapic constituent and we don’t notice every distraction that can be imagined filling the airwaves and prompted by the Obummer crowd.

Everything from bashing Rush to reversing every policy of the Bush administration is used to cover the crimes of incompetence and waste that pervades the entire Obummer administration.

Hicklary was smart to leave town just as the market dove like a butterfly strapped to a brick. At least her incompetence won’t be realized until we see the missiles coming from China and at that point it’s going to be a little late to really care what some cankle encumbered wannabe did or said.

Posted by: Bcamp55 | March 10, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Change we can believe in! Isn't it great to have a president who is smart enough to present these ideas. Bush could not have even thought about presenting a policy outline of this depth. I am greatly encouraged. I am not a teacher but I do think equal accountability needs to be attributed to parents. We bash teachers for poor performing students when the real blame actually resides at home.

Posted by: cdierd1944 | March 10, 2009 1:34 PM | Report abuse

When the best teachers teach in the toughest classrooms and the least skilled teachers teach AP I'll accept merit pay. I can tell you for a fact that it is easier to teach brilliant kids than the challenged ones.

Education is too complex for sound bite solutions and everything Obama said is just that.

Posted by: postmichael | March 10, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

I'm not so sure that the President's power over public schools will be limited for long. Local school districts are local government bodies which can file for bankruptcy in many states under Chapt 9 of the Bankruptcy Code. Many states like my home state of Illinois use property taxes as the main means of school funding. That model may soon come to an end as a viable means of funding. And most states are incapable either politically or fiscally of providing substitute funding. It's a stretch, but I could see some districts in truly neglected areas taking this route which then could open the door to the US government to provide debtor in possession financing of sorts and excercise its authority thereby over public education. Many of the failed public schools in New Orleans, Chicago, Washington, DC and other large cities should file right now. They are bankrupt in so many different ways, and the kids deserve better.

Posted by: pquilici | March 10, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

The ideas are great but the timing is unbelievably bad. It is not that these changes are not needed now but the president needs to stay focused on one thing until it is taken care of, namely fixing the economy. Better education is rapidly becoming a second priority to keeping children housed and fed as the economy crumbles. Trying to push all of his agendas through in a time of crisis is poor judgement on his part.

Posted by: rexxsales | March 10, 2009 1:39 PM | Report abuse

If you support these core initiatives:

-Effective, empowered teachers and school leaders;
-Student assessments that stress 21st century skills;
-Universal access to high-quality early education;
-A safe, healthy learning environment; and
-Affordable college for all students;

then let President Obama know! visit EDVOTERS.ORG and sign the petition today!

Posted by: dangiaco | March 10, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

As I read over the comments on Obamas speach I am surprised at alot of the underlying criticisim that i hear. I want his plans to work, the school day, paying teachers more, holding states and teachers accountable are very important. We need to keep all kids in school and make education not only to politicians and parents but kids.

Children today, especially alot of low income and minority kids still view school as a white enterprise, not designed or aimed at securing their success. This idea needs to change. They need to see their parents all their teachers and the community support schools and the importance of education.

When any child drops out of school it cost everyone somthing. It could be state aid for unemployment or insurance, it could be paying for court fees and incarcaration in our penal system. We all end up paying.

So when a president has the nerve to tell it like it is, why do we only see whats good for us. The teachers that reply are worrying about their and their jobs thats fine, do a better job of teaching. For the conservatives that responded local controll of education makes since if you live in a gated community. Lets be realistic about this. A majority of the worst schools are in large cities with poor neighbor hoods. How do they afford the same education as a subarban public school? How do we bring some standardization to the testing process so an A in Mississippi is the same as an A in Vermont.

I am all for his ideas. They may not all work or be able to be applied due to our economical situation but the less crying we do the faster we can get implementation.

Maybe you can reach the next generation so they do not have to struggle with writing, like I did writing this very article even though I attend one of the best schools in the big ten.

Posted by: kingwin1 | March 10, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

The problem with education is that, when the economy is bad, the Republicans scream that we can't afford it and, when the economy is good, the Republicans scream that we don't need it.


Posted by: DEFJAX | March 10, 2009 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Of course Jay Mathews of the Washington Lost is already building his golden statue to the Obamination. Read between the lines. Obambi and Duncan are radical Marxists who support the expansion of IB charter schools (see the Annenberg Challenge, Woods Foundation and increase of IB schools in Chicago from 1 to 26 in 10 years!)They want to dismantle regular public schools by dividing, conquering and socially manipulating low-achieving schools in order to send our taxdollars to IBO/UNESCO.

But hey, have a "classic" DVD. ;-)

Posted by: lisamc31 | March 10, 2009 2:06 PM | Report abuse

K-12 education is a state responsibilty, funded by state and local money. The 16000+ school boards, elected by local constituencies establish the educational goals for their students. The Federal Govt has no say.

If teachers are required to continue to educate themselves, the only time set aside is the summer break. Extending the school year collides head on with that need. In addition, most teachers do NOT live nearby institutions of higher education where these courses are offered or where Masters programs are available.

We need to have thoughtful strategies, not one-shot, clever doses of educational jargon. ASK the teachers about extended days, extended times, etc.

How about the air conditioning needed for schools without any- the classroom space reaches 90-100 degress. Is real quality education occuring under sweatshop conditions? Its doubtful. Of course the incresed day and year means increased costs- at whose expense?

Lets have a real world practical discussion, rather than espoused by feel good, good natured and uninformed people.

Its about time we asked the pro's... ask the K-12 teachers and principals and superintendents.

I think I know from where I speak... retired science teacher, science teacher of the year, State Science Supervisor, etc.

Posted by: akousen | March 10, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse

najdelrio --

I'm glad that you are a dedicated teacher, there are fewer and fewer such people in the profession. You are also right, that in order to consistently attract the best and brightest to the profession, that salary be commensurate with the required education level and with the responsibility.

Another thing that must happen, is there must be a way to ensure that only the best and brightest remain in the profession and that those who are in it only for a bigger paycheck are removed. Most teachers don't like the word, but it's a word used in most any other profession and that word is accountability. In other words, those who want to be teachers and those in whom parents will put their trust must be accountable and must be reviewed objectively for competence and currency. Yes, accredation and testing.

I don't think it's so much a matter of not trusting, but the best and brightest will not have any problem passing reasonable, and periodic reviews. And should a specific teacher fail, then remediation rather than the pink slip should be the first order of business.

As in any other profession, continuing education, peer review, and community acceptance must be allowed.

Posted by: jglen490 | March 10, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse

hit4cycle --

A better question. Where is it prohibited?

Posted by: jglen490 | March 10, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

It isn't true that America is unsuccessfully educating the leaders of tomorrow.

A network of private and religiously affiliated schools are demonstrating in real time, a number of reasons why students perform to higher standards in the non-public school -- factors the Obama administration and anyone seeking real reform ought to be sure to address:
(1) PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT - it is an expectation of our educators that we can get assistance at home to motivate the child at school,
(2) DISCIPLINE - we can kick kids out if they fail to perform/behave, this makes them ACCOUNTABLE for their efforts and makes parents accountable for helping their child succeed and get their money's worth,
(3) VISION - Private schools exist for reasons (a charism or virtue inspired by a founder, usually) that permeates their activities and instruction and that gets everyone on board,
(4) HIGH STANDARDS - students are expected to meet high standards, upon which not only does the child's success matter but also the marketablity of the school as well,
(5) SMALL SIZE - generally private schools have low teacher to student ratios which means that we are generally very aware of what is happening holistically with our students...this attention makes the student feel connected and valued, increasing their buy-in/participation.

Public Schools, like those which a number of my friends, cousins and sister works at lack many of these qualities. In CATHOLIC SCHOOLS we claim that that PARENTS ARE THE PRIMARY EDUCATORS and we support their educational goals with the children as they grow and develop their own.

The child's education does not rest solely on my own efforts. I AM A PART OF A TEAM of educators, bringing a child into fuller "competence, conscience and compassion" (to quote from the vision statement of Santa Clara University.)

Posted by: DamianGBarnes | March 10, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Yes, let's not waste the money we don't have now by trying to better educate the mass but keep it ignorant so that the few privileged or luck few can get to the top and use their smarts to scheme stock derivatives, ponzi schemes, overseas transfer of bank accounts, etc. That way, America's plutocracy in democracy's clothing will continue.

Posted by: TalkingHead1 | March 10, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

All of society's problems come home to roost in the classroom. So why are teachers the only ones who have to pick up the slack? Why don't we hold parents accountable for children's school work? Most parents want to work outside the home and then come home and make friends with their kids -- not act the role of parents. They step and fetch for them, they do their homework for them -- and they treat their kids like little princes and princesses, instead of like children who need to be taught respect and self discipline -- the Obamas included! Michelle and Barak are always whining for their children's approval. It's immature!

Posted by: button2 | March 10, 2009 4:39 PM | Report abuse

As a fashionably obstructionist Republican, I take issue with everything the President is for. I want shorter school days, less time in the classroom, less pay for the best teachers while encouraging and even bribing the worst ones to stay. We don't need any measures of progress, and above all we need to find every way to spend as little as possible, because as everyone knows a good education is of no benefit and probably actually inhibits progress for the country. I know all this because Rush told me so. Like everything else my party stands for, it's worked ok up to now, so why change it?

Posted by: david48 | March 10, 2009 5:27 PM | Report abuse

No Child Left Behind was a federal that greatly impacted all school systems, so it is possible for the federal government to create far reaching legislation. Of course, that doesn't necessarily equate with good policy. Merit pay for teachers is ridiculous. If one has a classroom of 30 students, many of whom are disrespectful, lacking in basic skills, and without support at home it is difficult to turn that around in one year. Yes, some children may be "saved" but if that is what teachers are evaluated by, it seems an uphill battle at best. We are the only school system in the world that apologizes for giving homework, passes students who have minimal skills, allows parents to intimidate teachers, and allows children to be so disrespectful that instructional time is wasted. Obame said, "I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences." That should not apply to teachers, but to the students themselves. Teachers who accept shabby work are seen as the good ones because their students have good grades. Teachers who believe in rigour are often challenged by administrators to change grades, so the school will not be punished. What a joke! It doesn't make sense to blame the instructors.. most of them work harder than their students and make personal sacrifices. It would be nice if families were expected to do the same.

Posted by: lk11 | March 10, 2009 6:48 PM | Report abuse

I agree with "najdelrio". As a public high school math teacher in an under-performing school, I really feel the discrimination and the unfairness coming from the NCLB-like merit-based pay.

I have already skimmed through many comments related to this discussion on the Post today, and frankly, many teachers who are working in the public school system would agree that a lot of the fundamental changes must also come from the parents, families, and communities involved. I deal with disciplinary issues almost daily, and honestly, the school administrators and teachers spend more time and energy on the 10% of students who do not care at all. As a result, we (the teachers and administrators) have little else to give to the rest 90% of students are neglected. This should not be happening at all. No wonder other Asian countries are more successful in achieving higher standards than us.

Posted by: myhypatia | March 10, 2009 6:49 PM | Report abuse

No reform will work until we stop relying on the self sacrifice of teachers, especially young teachers. Pay is not the only issue although it needs to be increased. The amount of time teachers are required to give to so many tasks that are outside of teaching, drags us down and burns us out. This is why we continue to need new teachers -it is a vicious cycle - we hire young teachers, burn them out and start over. We need to radically change the way we use other staff in the building and put more accountability for non-academic student issues, especially those surrounding poverty, on other government agencies, non-profits, and the faith community. When, like in counties such as Korea and Japan, we allow our teachers to just teach, we will see improvement. Charters are not the answer, however, good charters do allow teachers to focus on just teaching.

Posted by: neoformans | March 10, 2009 6:50 PM | Report abuse

Re: Support small business social entrepreneurs not just public school bureaucracies.

Dear Mr. Mathews and education community:

As in all aspects of our society, we must find the balance between the public and the private sector.

Often, the private sector is more effective and efficient as it pivots on a competitive landscape. If the service is not delivering, customers/clients can flock to the competitors.

On this front, it is important that the new Obama education reform program does include THE PRIVATE SECTOR in the equation and inject some market principled initiatives to help deliver what we all want: better educated children and youth ready to compete and thrive in the modern, global market place.

To that end, it is important to maintain and expand the Federal government Supplemental Educational Services program that allows private companies to COMPETE for government contracts. Competition generates excellence and better, more effective and customer-centric solutions.

All children, specially those living in the inner-city and in low-income families, need to have the best supportive educational services possible.

I believe that if private and public tutoring services were expanded and supported by the Federal government, more children, including underachieving Latino or Hispanic students and African Americans would benefit greatly from the personalized, often one-on-one tutoring services small business social entrepreneurs like myself provide.

Let's support social entrepreneurs not just large (and unfortunately often dysfunctional) bureaucracies like public school systems.

Thank you.

Natalie Giron
Mrs Giron's Tutoring and Learning Center
Woodside, NY


Posted by: PrivateTutoringExcellence | March 10, 2009 7:02 PM | Report abuse

Talk, talk, talk. Something must be done NOW!

I'm a 7th grade inner-city Dallas Computer Applications teacher. I worry about the kids sitting in front of me every day. Statistical projections tell me that as few as 40%, to maybe 55% will graduate from high school. That is a crime! How do I motivate my students to work hard and use the resources in front of them to graduate? We do not have time for a political solution for my students in 2009! Most of those dropping out will be gone by 2011, or 2012 at the latest.

A realistic, physical connection to their futures is one way for our students to realize the work they must do. Maybe that will help them realize the value of work they do NOW. That is why we bolted a 350-pound gun vault to the floor in a central place in our school lobby in 2005. We tore out the gun racks and put in 10 shelves for letters students write to themselves about the history of their lives, their present life, and their plans for the future. These letters are sealed into a self-addressed envelope and held by students as they pose with their Language Arts Class in front of the vault for a photo. Then they line up and one by one place their letter onto the shelf inside the vault for their class.

Within 2 days these students get a copy of that photo with information on the back about their planned 10-year 8th grade class reunion. They are reminded that they will be asked to speak with the then current 8th grade classes about their recommendations for success at that reunion. They are warned to expect questions such as "Would you do anything differently if you were 13 again?"

This $2 per 8th grade student project is popular. The high schools our students attend have had a 40% drop in the 9th to 10th grade attrition rate. Something good is happening!

The futures of the students in the desks in front of middle school teachers across the US this week do not have time to wait for political solutions! See for details.

Posted by: bbetzen | March 10, 2009 9:02 PM | Report abuse

This Obama guy is an idiot.

Posted by: mock1ngb1rd | March 10, 2009 9:07 PM | Report abuse

As a few previous posters have pointed out, improvements are never as simple as many people imagine (which should not be taken as an excuse for not trying). In general, I think the reform ideas are sensible, but there are no silver bullets, effective reforms take years of hard work from many people. Just changing tests, throwing money at the problem, sacking teachers, or whatever simplistic solution is the current fashion, won't make a lot of difference because there are so many interrelated variables. You need to change the entire culture of schools, including the attitudes of parents, students, teachers, administrators, and politicians. That doesn't happen overnight. My experience is that 5 years is the minimum to start seeing any substantive improvement, but people want immediate results so they can show pretty graphs in their presentations and speeches, so we lurch from one band-aid solution to the next.

Posted by: Trev1 | March 10, 2009 9:20 PM | Report abuse

As much as I can't stand communist government unions, there is only so much a teacher can do. Hollywood, gangsta rap, THUG bullies,Thug child-slavery parents, Thug government breeders, and Thug minority victims SHUN education. It's just not "obama cool" or the "democrat party cool" to not be a race-based victim. Keep those acorn victim votes coming.

Posted by: kharrison151 | March 10, 2009 10:34 PM | Report abuse

For a good idea of how "Merit Pay" plays out in real life: check out Wall Street.

Posted by: venusvictrix | March 11, 2009 1:36 AM | Report abuse

When you talk about a "national standard" you talk about the lowest common denominator. Instead of developing a national standard we should support the systems that aspire to be the best and I'm not talking about how many kids you can cram into an AP class. We should hold those systems up as an example and let the other localities try to match the best.

A national standard is a low or non-existent standard. Just look at how much damage state standards have done to education.

Posted by: ggartner | March 11, 2009 6:07 AM | Report abuse


The 10th Amendment. It's short, easily understood and widely ignored.

Posted by: hit4cycle | March 11, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Federal involvement in education is unconstitutional and has NOT resulted in improvement. So, why do we keep looking to Washington? The solution is to introduce free market dynamics into the educational system. I'd go so far as to advocate the privatization of public education.

Posted by: hit4cycle | March 11, 2009 9:41 AM | Report abuse

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