Obama's Grand Education Plan: Can It Really Work?

By Rachael Brown

"Maybe we should go back to teaching," a friend and fellow former D.C. public school teacher quipped, passing along a link to the transcript of President Obama's address yesterday to the Hispanic Chamber of Congress, his first major speech on education since taking office. I don't think my friend was serious. But reading the remarks, it was hard not to be moved by Obama's sweeping vision for public education in the U.S. He gave shout-outs to all of the right reforms--merit pay, charter schools, national standards--tied knowledge to the economy, and criticized American public schools and politicians without apology:

... despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we've let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us... It's time to expect more from our students. It's time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones. It's time to demand results from government at every level. It's time to prepare every child, everywhere in America, to out-compete any worker, anywhere in the world.

However, reading through Obama's address, I wondered how the proposals he makes and the initiatives he promises sound to educators who remain in the exhausting, unglamorous trenches of our public schools. And I realized that if I had read this while still teaching, I might have been pleased that someone was paying attention, but not about to hold my breath. It's not as though we haven't heard all of this before.

The real test for Obama, and by proxy, for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, will be whether the states can actually be convinced to execute these policy prescriptions, which include such politically sensitive goals as eliminating the caps on charter schools, lengthening the school year, and adopting more rigorous academic standards. Congress will have to approve the funding for those increased Pell Grants and early childhood programs Obama is promising. And there's little consensus within the education policy world, let alone the teachers' rank and file, on just what it should all look like. Already, confusion has erupted over just what Obama meant by some of those dog whistles in his address:

The president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, Dennis van Roekel said, "President Obama always says he will do it with educators, not to them."

Van Roekel insisted that Obama's call for teacher performance pay does not necessarily mean raises or bonuses would be tied to student test scores. It could mean more pay for board-certified teachers or for those who work in high-poverty, hard-to-staff schools, he said. However, administration officials said later they do mean higher pay based on student achievement, among other things.

Obama also warned, "If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there's no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences." To a practiced ear, that sounds like a call to weaken teacher tenure, which has been a contentious issue here in D.C. But as Steven Sawchuck at Education Week points out,

...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.

Of the reform pillars Obama outlined, his take on teacher quality and accountability poses the biggest potential landmine. Anyone paying attention during the presidential campaign shouldn't be surprised (he was booed by an NEA audience after briefly mentioning merit pay in 2007), but this address signaled a departure from the caution of the campaign trail. "I'm issuing a challenge to educators and lawmakers, parents and teachers alike," Obama proclaimed. "Let us all make turning around our schools our collective responsibility as Americans." I couldn't agree more, but it's easier said than done.

Realizing Obama's grand vision would require intense discussion to hammer out a number of difficult and politically charged questions about what we value about teachers and learning--Which subjects are most important? What does good teaching look like? And while incentives for teachers who take on assignments in hard-to-staff subjects and schools are a good idea, any performance-pay plan should prioritize rewarding teachers for how much their students actually learn. The standard assumption is that teachers would be paid based solely on their students' standardized test scores, but that doesn't have to be the case. An 8th-grade student who enters a classroom reading on a 4th-grade level, and ends the year reading on a 6th-grade level won't pass an 8th grade exit exam, but that student's teacher has still done a remarkable job.

Merit pay should be based on multiple measures, like evidence of value-added student growth (such as the gains of that 8th-grader), fair evaluations of teacher performance, a teacher's adoption of school leadership roles, and yes, even test scores and job seniority. Many experts recommend a combination of shared and individual performance incentives, meaning that part of a teacher's compensation would be based not only on his or her individual performance but also on that of the school as a whole or of a team within the school. This helps address the concern expressed by some that merit pay would motivate teachers to compete against one another, rather than help each other out.  Some examples of this already exist--there are school-wide incentive programs in place in D.C. and New York City, and Denver's ProComp plan, a program that was developed in collaboration with the local teachers' union, is often held up as an example of how merit pay can overcome political obstacles. But ProComp took years to develop, and similar efforts have stalled in other cities. Meanwhile, a 2004 study by economists Caroline Hoxby and Andrew Leigh shows that the academic aptitude of teachers in this country is declining, and estimates that more than three-quarters of that decline is directly attributable to the fact that teacher salary scales reward only seniority and graduate degrees, neither of which is a strong indicator of effectiveness.

There are a number of reasons why I left teaching. For one, I was tired. I was 23 and had been an inner-city English teacher by day and grad student by night for two years and wanted to be able to read a book for pleasure once in a while. And I was ambitious. My generation was taught that careers are a trajectory--one that points upward and takes you to new positions of greater responsibility--but teaching is relatively flat path, one I didn't feel ready to embrace long-term, despite my commitment to my students. I wasn't alone; a third of all new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. There's little motivation to work eighty-hour weeks when the twenty-year veteran across the hall shows movies every day and makes twice your salary.

And it wasn't all about the money. (After all, the Washington Teachers' Union had negotiated a mandatory raise for every year I stuck around, and each of the next two jobs I took actually earned me significantly less than I'd been making as a teacher.) It was about respect, and professionalism. Planning a lesson, assessing a skill, explaining a concept so that kids don't just understand it but can use it--these tasks are difficult. People who don't get it made jokes about how teachers have it easy, with summers and snow days off, while others, who had watched Dangerous Minds or The Wire too many times, wanted stories about students who were pregnant or in gangs. Prove to us how hard it is, they seemed to be saying. I would have welcomed a merit pay option at the high school where I taught, if for no other reason than to be forced to put my money where my mouth was.

I don't plan to return to the classroom any more than my friend who sent the link (he's a year into law school and has political aspirations). But listening to Obama--"If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation, if you want to make the most of your talents and dedication, if you want to make your mark with a legacy that will endure--then join the teaching profession"--it's hard not to think about it. If the programs and priorities Obama outlined are really, truly implemented, then perhaps it will be time to give teaching another shot. But before that happens, he's going to have to put our money where his mouth is.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2009/03/obamas-grand-education-plan-can-it-really-work/1428/