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Obama backs merit pay, early childhood education

With an emphasis on 21st-century education, President Obama called for better early childhood education programs, tougher teaching standards, and increased pay for outstanding educators and desperately-needed math and science teachers.

Obama stressed the danger in letting U.S. education fall behind, saying the nation’s place as a global economic leader will be put at risk if the U.S. does not do a better job of educating students.

“Economic progress and educational achievement have always gone hand-in-hand in America,” he said.  “Education is a prerequisite for success.”

The U.S. education system is in dire need of an overhaul, he said, and the nation’s ability to compete globally will be severely compromised if education is not reformed.

“Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us,” Obama said. “The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy. … What is at stake is nothing less than the American dream.”

The president outlined four major areas of education reform: early childhood education programs; tougher standards, assessments, and accountability; recruiting, rewarding, and supporting outstanding teachers; and promoting excellence and innovation in U.S. schools.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan will examine and evaluate education programs based on their effectiveness, he said, and funds from ineffective programs will instead be directed to early childhood initiatives.

Studies have shown that children in early childhood education programs are more likely to perform well in school, attend college, hold a job, and earn more in that job. Obama’s education stimulus package allots $5 billion for federal Early Head Start programs.

Under Obama’s reforms, states would be eligible for an “early learning grant” that Obama will ask Congress to approve, provided they develop cutting-edge programs and outline plans to raise the quality of their early education programs and prepare children for kindergarten.

By encouraging and adhering to tougher standards and assessments, U.S. students will keep pace with other nations, Obama said.

The problem is not that students in other nations are smarter, he said; it’s that other nations are smarter about how to educate and prepare their students.

“I challenge states to adopt more rigorous standards to bring classrooms to the 21st century,” he said.

Governors and state education chiefs must develop standards and assessments to ensure that children have 21st-century skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity, Obama said. Tougher, clearer standards will lead to better test scores, he added.

Statewide data systems that track student performance from kindergarten through the end of high school are another important element to reform.

In his March 10 speech at a meeting of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Obama said it is “time to start rewarding good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.”  Teachers’ unions have strongly opposed bringing such a system to public education.

Teachers would be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement, and extra pay would go to math and science teachers in an effort to end a shortage of highly qualified teachers in those subjects.

Once in the classroom, teachers would have the support of more experienced educators through teacher mentoring programs, Obama said. Excellent teachers would be encouraged to enter inner-city schools, where they are desperately needed.

The stakes are too high to keep ineffective teachers, Obama said.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the teachers’ union looks forward to working with President Obama on making education reform a priority.  National Education Association (NEA) President Dennis Van Roekel said the NEA is eager to work with Obama and Duncan on 21st-century education initiatives.

Neither teachers’ union directly addressed Obama’s comments on charter schools.

The traditional school calendar puts the U.S. at a competitive disadvantage, Obama added. While once useful when children were needed to help their families tend farmlands during the summer, the calendar is now outdated and leaves children out of school for too long.

Educators should “rethink the school day to incorporate more time, whether it’s during the summer or [through] expanded-day programs,” Obama said. A longer school day and longer school year “aren’t wildly popular, but the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom,” he said.

The president also voiced his support for charter schools, which have been unpopular with some educators because they take away tax dollars from traditional public schools.

Obama again addressed higher-education accessibility, calling for the country to commit to having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

By 2016, Obama said, four out of every 10 new jobs will require at least some form of advanced education.

The president’s speech was characterized as the first step in a process that will change American schools.

Progress in the U.S. education system has been hampered by political hesitation, Obama said, acknowledging that some of his ideas would be met with criticism. Democratic supporters have resisted the ideas of rewarding teacher excellence with extra pay, and Republicans have opposed investments in early education programs.

Obama did not propose any new spending during his speech, although education is set to receive $105.9 billion, including $650 million for the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program, in the economic stimulus package.


President Obama’s education reform speech, via the Associated Press

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