Obama Insists on Performance Standards for Teachers

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Today, President Obama wades in to a controversy that threatens to split one of the Democratic Party's most generous source of donations and activists, the teacher unions, from the whole.  The dispute is about teacher performance, narrowly, and about government's distribution of common goods more generally.

Obama wants more accountability for teachers. The teachers unions contend that there is no universal metric that can reliably assess teacher performance, particularly in poor neighborhoods where students experience intense social dislocation. Part of the problem is that nothing seems to work: not charter schools, not tying teachers to student performance, not throwing money at schools, not even curricula reform.  There are blips -- a voucher program works here, a charter school works there. Nothing seems to work everywhere.  Performance measured in the short term doesn't tell people much about anything, but people grab on to numbers, and the government rewards states who show progress on the numbers, so... states do everything they can to get their numbers up.

The Education Secretary does not have a magical faith in any particular intervention, but his Race to the Top grant program is designed to reward innovation that state and local laboratories come up with.  The teachers unions note that when states are pushed to show that numbers go up, the burden and the blame invariably falls upon teachers collectively. It is as if the competition, which awards $3.4 billion, forces states to pick certain reforms over others in order to satisfy a ranking system that rewards local control and higher test scores over, say, more money for professional teacher development.  Both Obama and the unions seem to have the same end goal: they want states and teacher collectives to work collaboratively. But unions, and many civil rights groups, think that the incentives in Race to the Top are perverse in a recession and hurt those who need help the most. So today, addressing the National Urban League, Obama responds. He is not terribly diplomatic, asserting that part of the opposition "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."--- 

So, I want teachers to have higher salaries. I want them to have more support. I want them to be trained like the professionals they are - with rigorous residencies like the ones doctors go through. I want to give them career ladders so they have opportunities to advance, and earn real financial security. I want them to have a fulfilling and supportive workplace environment, and the resources - from basic supplies to reasonable class sizes - to help them succeed.  Instead of a culture where we're always idolizing sports stars or celebrities, I want us to build a culture where we idolize the people who shape our children's future.

All I'm asking in return - as a president, and as a parent - is a measure of accountability. Surely we can agree that even as we applaud teachers for their hard work, we need to make sure they're delivering results in the classroom. If they're not, let's work with them to help them be more effective. And if that fails, let's find the right teacher for that classroom. As Arne says, our kids get only one chance at an education, and we need to get it right.

So, for anyone who wants to use Race to the Top to blame or punish teachers - you're missing the point. 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 to create a better environment for teachers and students alike.

Still, sometimes a school's problems run so deep that better assessments, higher standards, and a more challenging curriculum aren't enough. If a school isn't producing graduates with even the most basic skills - year after year after year - something needs to be done differently. If we want success for our country, we can't accept failure in our schools.

That's why we're challenging states to turn around our 5,000 worst schools - so many of which are in minority communities. And we're investing over $4 billion to help them do it - as much as we're investing in Race to the Top. Unlike No Child Left Behind, this isn't about labeling a troubled school a failure one day, and throwing up our hands the next. It's about investing in that school's future, recruiting the whole community to help turn it around, and identifying some viable options for how to move forward.

I know life is tough for a lot of young people in this country, especially in some of the places the Urban League is making such a difference. At certain points in our lives, young black men and women may feel the sting of discrimination. They may feel trapped in a community where drugs, violence, and unemployment are pervasive, where they are forced to wrestle with things no child should have to face. There are all kinds of reasons for our children to say, "No, I can't." But it's our job to say to them, "Yes, you can." Yes, you can overcome. Yes, you can persevere. Yes, you can make of your lives what you will.

Social change on this level is incredibly complex, and the smartest reformers are the ones who seem to have the fewest answers (but the best questions). For every innovation there is usually some force exerting a counter-pressure. For every success, like lowering drop-out rates, there are new problems, like lower standards. Race and class can't be easily ignored. So are basic questions about equality: how do you move good students forward without unfairly penalizing poorer students who are bad students through no fault of their own? Should education be about fairness? About achievement?  About equipping young people to survive in the modern world? About competing economically with India and China?

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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