As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Education Agenda

I know I've said once before that education looks to be the area where Republicans could find some common ground with Barack Obama's agenda. Interestingly, that's where Democrats found common ground with George Bush over No Child Left Behind early in his term. That's not an endorsement of NCLB, but a description of where the politics were at the time.

There is a split in the Democratic Party on education policy between reformers and those who favor a more traditional approach. While Obama is borrowing from both sides of that divide, he is definitely siding with the reformers on key issues, like merit pay and charter schools.

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama laid out his "cradle to career" agenda for education Tuesday, including a controversial plan to boost pay for teachers who excel.

In a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Obama said he backs the idea of merit pay for the best school teachers.

"It is time to start rewarding good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones," he said. Teacher unions have strongly opposed bringing such a system to public education. But in his talk, Mr. Obama said the time has come to do just that.

He said, "too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay," and the resistance has continued "even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom."

The merit pay proposal would significantly expand a federal program that increases pay for high-performing teachers to an additional 150 school districts.

Obama is really begging to be seen as selling out teacher's unions, although I'm not convinced that merit pay really would do that. For one thing, as Dana Goldstein notes, he's not even actually proposing merit pay, and this is a bad job by traditional media for not understanding the difference:

Teacher pay: Obama promised a federal investment in developing "performance pay" plans in 150 school districts. The language here is key. "Performance pay" is supported by teachers' unions, and awards salary bonuses to teachers based on a variety of factors, including classroom observations, teaching in hard-to-staff subjects and schools, and improving student achievement. "Merit pay," on the other hand, is understood as directly aligning teacher salaries to student test scores.

I don't agree with merit pay because it judges teachers on the cognitive ability of their students, which is neither static nor constant. A child who was not well-prepared before stepping into a teacher's classroom and gets the expected low test scores as a result is not the fault of the teacher. But performance pay sounds like it's based on better metrics.

As far as the other proposals, I really like his plan for cutting out middlemen in the student loan business. If the government is supplying loans, they don't need private companies to be doing work that adds nothing but cuts them into the deal with a profit. What's more, President Ben Nelson doesn't like it because it would hurt a private student lending firm in his home state of Nebraska. Gotta love those "fiscal conservatives" stoking wasteful parochial interests.

In addition, there is a strong push toward early childhood education, a clear predictor of success for young people. Obama would lift caps on charter schools, which encourages experimentation but has had mixed results, and he would move toward promoting a national standardized curriculum. Finally, he talked about lengthening the school year to provide more intensive education. That's just a question of funding, IMO.

If a Republican was looking to draft off of the President's popularity, it would seem that supporting his education initiatives, particularly charter schools and performance pay, would be the smart thing to do. Education has such a real-world effect on constituents, too, that it's a natural. I haven't heard much from Republicans in Congress on this, because they're too busy trying to self-immolate, I guess.

...Maybe Obama could jump on the rubber room at the New York City Board of Education. This is nuts - hundreds of teachers put on probation who show up at a room, with full pay, for sometimes years, and do nothing. Somehow, I think we can do better than this.

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