In a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, President Barack Obama outlined his “cradle to career” education agenda. His wide-ranging speech reiterated his commitment to cut wasteful education programs and to invest in early childhood education. He also expressed support for rigorous learning standards, charter schools, and making higher education more affordable.
The most controversial part of his education agenda is merit pay for teachers. Traditionally, the pay for public school teachers is negotiated so that all teachers in a school district are paid based on their years of experience and education level, regardless of the grade level, subject matter, and effectiveness of the teacher. Teachers unions that negotiate these one-size-fits-all contracts have vigorously opposed merit pay proposals, and democrats, who typically receive the support of the unions, have mainly been opposed or quiet on the subject.
Obama promised that his administration was making an unprecedented commitment to ensuring the highest quality teachers possible.
“This 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,” Obama said. “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.”
Although their position has softened somewhat in recent years, the largest teacher union, the National Education Association (NEA), remains in opposition to merit pay. They question how such systems would be administered fairly and objectively. They also argue that merit pay would not have the desired effect of improving the quality of teaching overall in a school.
“Merit pay systems force teachers to compete, rather than cooperate,” says the NEA website. “They create a disincentive for teachers to share information and teaching techniques. This is especially true because there is always a limited pool of money for merit pay. Thus, the number-one way teachers learn their craft --learning from their colleagues -- is effectively shut down.”
The speech does not propose any legislation at this point or any new spending, so it is unclear how Obama expects to make his ambitious education agenda a reality. The stimulus package includes $41 billion in grants to local school districts, some of which is to be used for piloting teacher pay reform ideas.
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