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Obama to Address Concerns With Race to the Top

President Obama hoped to quell concerns about his administration's signature education initiative—the $4 billion Race to the Top program—with a speech this morning to the National Urban League.

"I know there's also been some controversy about the initiative [Race to the Top]," the president said, according to excerpts of the speech released to reporters. "Part of it, I believe, reflects a general resistance to change; a comfort with the status quo. But there have also been criticisms, including from some folks in the civil rights community, about particular elements of Race to the Top."

"For anyone who wants to use Race to the Top to blame or punish teachers—you're missing the point," Obama said. "Our goal isn't to fire or admonish teachers. Our goal is accountability. It's to provide teachers with the support they need to be as effective as they can be."

It's clear Obama is trying to put to rest the notion that Race to the Top requires states to fire teachers who aren't effective. The competition rewards states for tying student-achievement data to teacher effectiveness, and using those results to reward teachers who are helping students grow academically. States are also encouraged to use the student achievement data in teacher evaluations and in making tenure decisions.

Obama also addressed criticisms of the School Improvement Grants, which were financed at more than $3.5 billion last year, in part because of a major infusion of cash under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The grants require states to use one of four models to intervene in their lowest-performing schools. In nearly all cases, the models require states to fire the principal of an underperforming school, and three out of the four models call for removing teachers.

But Obama said he isn't out to remove teachers. In fact, he says, he wants them to "have a fulfilling and supportive workplace environment, and the resources—from basic supplies to reasonable class sizes—to help them succeed." And he says he wants the nation's children to idolize effective teachers the way they now look up to sports starts and other celebrities.

Why this speech now?

Earlier this week, a number of civil rights organizations, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, released a framework that is critical of both Race to the Top and the SIG grants.

And just a few weeks ago, the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, passed a resolution expressing no confidence in Race to the Top. And that's on top of pushback in Congress on both Race to the Top and the SIG models, much of which stems from the changes to the teaching profession that those programs call for.

Plus, the midterm elections are approaching, and Democrats in Congress are expected to lose seats in both chambers. They may need all the help they can get from the two largest teachers' unions, which are known for having effective get-out-the-vote machines.

In giving this speech, Obama is letting the nation know that he stands behind these programs—and that he isn't out to get teachers, but wants to support them. We'll see how his message is received.

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