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Obama Knits Together a Teacher-Policy Narrative

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In his big speech this morning, President Barack Obama reached back to grasp various threads that he's laid out—on the campaign trail, in his election platform, in his speech to a joint session of Congress, and most recently through the FY 2010 budget request—and knit them together to provide what's probably the clearest statement so far of his priorities for education and for teacher policy.

As my colleague Alyson Klein points out in this post, nothing here really should come as a surprise if you've been paying close attention to Obama since the campaign.

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel told Alyson he thought the speech was "wonderful" and that the incentive pay proposal didn't endorse "failed merit-pay plans." The money could be used to support things like National Board Certification (which is pretty much the only type of incentive pay the union formally endorses), he argued.

While that's one possible scenario, it's quite likely that there are a bunch of issues here that will indeed cause headaches when the rubber hits the road.

For instance, Obama said that he wants to see 150 districts experiment with incentive pay, coupled with stronger teacher-induction programs. Alyson suggests the $200 million in TIF spending in the recently passed stimulus bill will serve as the vehicle for this to happen. But the national teachers' unions have never been all that fond of the TIF because it doesn't explicitly say performance pay plans have to be collectively bargained, and because some districts have interpreted the requirement to base pay on objective measures of performance to mean test scores. Many unions oppose using test scores to determine individual teacher pay. In fact, the unions pitched a fit in 2007 when House Education and Labor Committee chairman George Miller created a performance pay proposal that included test scores and didn't explicitly reference collective bargaining.

And few of the TIF grantees (if any, I'll have to check) use National Board Certification as a way to reward effective teaching.

I suspect the administration will try to address these issues in the application for funding. (Alyson notes in a second post that the Obama administration reiterated that all of this would be done in collaboration with teachers.)

Second, Obama made a real push for improving teacher performance and removing teachers repeatedly deemed ineffective, but it really isn't clear if that means a more expedient dismissal process than the typical district's tenure-based due-process procedure, a process tied to better teacher evaluations, or some other method. It also isn't clear how Obama is going to scale all of this up: if, for instance, there will be a funding stream or some sweetener in the budget to get the initiative rolling. The 2010 budget has just a paragraph about it.

Van Roekel told Alyson he'd not yet talked with the administration about the teacher-dismissal issue, and that the current "due process" procedures are there to give teachers a chance to improve. The American Federation of Teachers didn't comment specifically about this part of Obama's speech, but the smart money says they'll again bring up peer review and assistance as a way to improve teachers and let go of underperforming ones.

Seems like the AFT's leader, Randi Weingarten, does get the potential pitfalls involved in all of this.

"As with any public policy, the devil is in the details, and it is important that teachers’ voices are heard as we implement the president’s vision," she said in a statement.

We'll bring you more as we get details.

5 Comments

Incentive pay isn't the same as merit pay! Incentive pay suggests that more pay might be available for teachers in high need areas, whether it be by subject or by location (inner city schools). That's an interesting idea. However, merit pay at the local level would likely be a disaster. Teachers have very unequal assignments. The physics teacher is going to have a very different pool of students than the 9th grade English or Social Studies teacher. How do you begin to compare their "performance" with these very different groups of students?

Improving the product of public schools involves two efforts:

1. Attention to school size, not class size; and

2. Peer evaluation.

While class size can be important, studies of school size are abundantly clear about the effectiveness of smaller schools. Reference the NWREL reviews of school size. A review of the current educational structure of Jefferson County, site of the Columbine tragedy, surprisingly suggests nothing was changed despite the findings regarding school size. Funds for improvement should address the fact that bigger is not better in education.

Not only in the tight school confines of education, but in other fields as well, the introduction of bonus pay for "excellence" can diminish quality of the educaional environment more than it improves it.

The best resource for improving teacher performance is the faculty that's in place. Peer evaluation must take the form of collaborative teaching that becomes an extended practicum for beginning teachers and a review and updating seminar for senior teachers. In fact, anyone with teaching experience can recall some of the freshness new teachers bring to a school environment, as well as the practicality of veteran faculty.

The conventional wisdom of politicians has done more to harm the quality of schools and learning than probably any other single factor.

John Stohrer

Improving the product of public schools involves two efforts:

1. Attention to school size, not class size; and

2. Peer evaluation.

While class size can be important, studies of school size are abundantly clear about the effectiveness of smaller schools. Reference the NWREL reviews of school size. A review of the current educational structure of Jefferson County, site of the Columbine tragedy, surprisingly suggests nothing was changed despite the findings regarding school size. Funds for improvement should address the fact that bigger is not better in education.

Not only in the tight school confines of education, but in other fields as well, the introduction of bonus pay for "excellence" can diminish quality of the educaional environment more than it improves it.

The best resource for improving teacher performance is the faculty that's in place. Peer evaluation must take the form of collaborative teaching that becomes an extended practicum for beginning teachers and a review and updating seminar for senior teachers. In fact, anyone with teaching experience can recall some of the freshness new teachers bring to a school environment, as well as the practicality of veteran faculty.

The conventional wisdom of politicians has done more to harm the quality of schools and learning than probably any other single factor.

John Stohrer

Obama wants "higher standards" in education?

What does Obama have to say about today's headline from his own hometown?
"Violence claims a record 26th Chicago school kid"

Chicago education was supposedly one of the FEW Obama accomplishments. What a joke!

This country DOES NOT need Obama's standards!

I understand a new study points to "depth" in science education. I agree with that approach. New education policy will likely favor this approach.

Unfortunately, if you test depth it is possible to ask a question on a topic that no one has read giving them a zero on the test. This is unfair to the person who understands science in a deep way on another topic. Some may say that this can be sorted out by putting the same deep topic in all the textbooks. If you do this, you are no better off than using scantrons and prepping for the high stakes tests. Everyone has the same mindset for the same material.

Great thinkers can understand multiple topics in depth but are not especially good at taking tests.

The tests are usually set up by academics who like to be cute and clever with a trick question or too. No one really benefits from that approach and few students end up learning anything.

The best of both worlds is probably rich and deep science with simple, easy tests that provide positive reinforcement and encouragement. What we see too often now are cute, clever, tricky tests that discourage people and cause them to lose faith and quit. This caters to the person who wrote the test rather than the student.

Those who teach in-depth science well rarely learned it all in an academic setting anyway and have very little use for the mindset of an academic. We need to keep a more open mind as to who does the best job of teaching deep science and understand that knowledge may reside outside of the universities, colleges and schools. That knowledge and skill should also be in the textbooks.

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