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Obama's Education Plan and His Dance Around Hot-Button Teacher Issues

In Sen. Barack Obama's new education plan, his ideas for reforming the teaching profession are substantial, expensive, and have the potential to result in fairly dramatic changes in the teaching profession. I discussed this with one of my colleagues on the teacher beat here at Education Week, Bess Keller, who helped me navigate my way through the Illinois Democrat's detailed plan.

Obama wants to get serious about recruiting by offering $25,000 "teaching service" scholarships to talented, high-performing teacher candidates who agree to teach in a high-need area or subject for at least four years. His $18 billion plan calls for expensive teacher residency programs, like one in Chicago, to train teachers for struggling, urban districts. He wants to keep good teachers in the classroom by giving them mentors, and by offering incentives for schools to offer paid common planning time so teacher can plan their lessons together. And, he wants to offer incentives for districts to develop "career ladder initiatives" that give teachers opportunities for advancement (and more money) by becoming mentors, acquiring more training, and boosting student learning.

While Obama's education plan is detailed and ambitious, he dances around two of the most hot-button teacher issues: merit pay based on test scores, and getting rid of failing teachers.

Obama, who promoted merit pay in a July speech to the National Education Association, alludes to merit pay in his plan by giving a nod to districts like Denver, which use student test scores as one means of evaluating teachers for salary raises. But he doesn't come out and directly say whether test scores should be part of the salary equation. Instead, he says teachers should be rewarded for their deep knowledge of subjects, additional training they receive to help high-needs students, and a "variety of contributions" they make to student learning.

Nor does Obama's plan say much about what districts should do with teachers who, despite everything, fail to help their students achieve. In his prepared remarks from the speech he gave today in Manchester, N.H., he said: "And if they’re still underperforming after that, we should find a quick and fair way to put another teacher in that classroom." Though he offers an example of using peer review and assistance plans to help underperforming teachers, it certainly won't be easy for teachers and school districts to find a "quick and fair" way to get rid of underperforming teachers.

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