Obama Gets Personal About Education

By Dan Froomkin
1:30 PM ET, 03/10/2009

Obama spoke about education to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce this morning. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Education is one area where the bully pulpit may be the best thing the president has going for him.

The most important decisions about schools are largely made at the local and state level, which is where the majority of money comes from, as well. That's one reason among many that real reform is so difficult. Other reasons include: so much depends on the quality of the teachers; educational inequities are considerable and intractable; and attempts at reform often have unintended consequences.

President Obama gave a rousing speech this morning outlining a broad educational agenda that includes a potentially controversial call for merit pay for teachers, as well as increased federal funding and higher standards.

He also did a lot of exhorting: exhorting high-school students to stay in school, exhorting high-school graduates to pursue at least one year of college or career training, and exhorting parents to step up to their responsibilities.

And to that end, he shared a personal anecdote: "When I was a child my mother and I lived overseas, and she didn't have the money to send me to the fancy international school where all the American kids went to school," he said, in a story familiar to readers of his autobiography.

"So what she did was she supplemented my schooling with lessons from a correspondence course. And I can still picture her waking me up at 4:30 a.m., five days a week, to go over some lessons before I went to school. And whenever I'd complain and grumble and find some excuse and say, 'Awww, I'm sleepy,' she'd patiently repeat to me her most powerful defense. She'd say, 'This is no picnic for me either, buster.' (Laughter and applause.)

"And when you're a kid you don't think about the sacrifices they're making. She had to work; I just had to go to school. But she'd still wake up every day to make sure I was getting what I needed for my education. And it's because she did this day after day, week after week, because of all the other opportunities and breaks that I got along the way, all the sacrifices that my grandmother and my grandfather made along the way, that I can stand here today as President of the United States. It's because of the sacrifices -- (applause.) See, I want every child in this country to have the same chance that my mother gave me, that my teachers gave me, that my college professors gave me, that America gave me."

What will come of Obama's talk? We'll know more when we see where the federal money really goes, with what strings attached, and how the locals respond. And when we see next year's college enrollment numbers.

Obama started his speech with a response to the increasing chatter inside the Beltway that he is trying to do too much at once. "I know there’s some who believe we can only handle one challenge at a time." But, he said, "we don’t have the luxury of choosing between getting our economy moving now and rebuilding it over the long term.

"America will not remain true to its highest ideals -- and America’s place as a global economic leader will be put at risk -- unless we not only bring down the crushing cost of health care and transform the way we use energy, but also if we do -- if we don’t do a far better job than we’ve been doing of educating our sons and daughters; unless we give them the knowledge and skills they need in this new and changing world....

"The source of America’s prosperity has never been merely how ably we accumulate wealth," he said, "but how well we educate our people."

Obama's educational agenda, while certainly leaning in a liberal direction, also includes some elements that are likely to upset some of his traditional supporters, including the teachers' unions. But, sounding a familiar theme, Obama said that, "[f]or 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. Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its importance....

"It’s time to expect more from our students. It’s time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones. It’s time to demand results from government at every level. It’s time to prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world. (Applause.) It’s time to give all Americans a complete and competitive education from the cradle up through a career. We’ve accepted failure for far too long. Enough is enough."

He endorsed merit pay: "Good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement, and asked to accept more responsibilities for lifting up their schools. Teachers throughout a school will benefit from guidance and support to help them improve."

And he supported the abolition of teacher tenure: "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. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high."

Finally, in a slap at former president George W. Bush's signature education initiative, Obama called on state officials "to develop standards and assessments that don't simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity. That is what we will help them do later this year when we finally make No Child Left Behind live up to its name by ensuring not only that teachers and principals get the funding they need, but that the money is tied to results."

Scott Wilson writes for The Washington Post: "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."

Education writer Jay Matthews blogs for The Washington Post: "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 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."

And Alyson Klein blogs for Education Week: "President Barack Obama's first major address on education is drawing praise from everyone from Capitol Hill Republicans to public charter school advocates to the National Education Association."

But, she writes: "Not surprisingly, some of these groups came up with different interpretations of the remarks, particularly on alternative pay for teachers."

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