Amidst criticism that he is taking on too much too soon, President Obama delivered a speech on education today to the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He lamented that, “For decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralysed progress and perpetuated our educational decline.” He chastised Democrats “who have resisted rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay” and Republicans for opposing “new investments in early childhood education, despite compelling evidence of its importance.” He called for longer school days and a longer school year through enhanced after school programs and summer programs.
The first pillar of his plan focuses on early care and education as seen in the dramatic increase in the commitment to Head Start in the Stimulus Bill. He is proposing an “Early Learning Challenge Grant” to raise not only access, but the quality of early childhood programs.
Secondly he spoke of encouraging better standards and assessments to reverse what he described as a “race to the bottom.” He seemed to set the stage for what has become a burgeoning debate over national standards, but fell short of actually calling for them directly. Perhaps the only clue as to how the administration will approach the reauthorization of NCLB came when the president said, “… 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.”
The third pillar of his plan relates to teachers – “recruiting, preparing and rewarding outstanding teachers.” He said to America’s teachers ” if you do your part we will do ours”:
Here is what that commitment means: It means treating teachers like the professionals they are while also holding them more accountable – in up to 150 more school districts. New teachers will be mentored by experienced ones. 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 just as we have to give our teachers all the support they need to be successful, we need to make sure our students have the teacher they need to be successful. That means states and school districts taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom. 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. We can afford nothing but the best when it comes to our children’s teachers and to the schools where they teach.
The fourth pillar he spoke of is promoting innovation and excellence in our schools. And here he calls for the expansion of charter schools – a proposal which will engender tensions since the charter school debate is alive and well. he called for the lifting of caps on charter schools which will please proponents and infuriate opponents.
And finally, he issued a similar challenge to students when he said that none of this will work unless “students take responsibility for their own learning.” While many in the media will see his speech as a direct confrontation with teacher unions, a close reading of his entire speech reveals a far broader based approach to accountability for improving our schools than we have seen for the last eight years. Only time will tell.
You can read the full text of his remarks here.