Tuesday, March 10, 2009

New Teacher Performance Policies: Does Obama Mean It?

As reported in the Washington Post today:

The president signaled a willingness to take on some traditional Democratic constituencies, including teachers unions, which in the past have been skeptical of some merit pay proposals. Senior administration officials, who declined to be named because they were describing the speech before it was delivered, said Obama would include the unions in discussions about any incentive plans.

He said he intends to treat "teachers like the professionals they are while also holding them more accountable." Good teachers will be given pay raises, he said, and "be asked to accept more responsibility for lifting up their schools."

But Obama also said stated that schools districts must be "taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom."

"Let me be clear: If a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching," Obama said. "I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences."
These are astounding words from a Democratic President, especially one who was supported so vigorously by the teachers' unions.

And he said exactly what I believe, as you can read from an article I wrote in 2006 called "Sacred Cows."

So now the question is: Does he mean it? Will he spend valuable political capital to actually make it happen? Or will it get watered down into some compromise that fails to achieve the goal and ultimately costs us even more?

I remember when JFK said we would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. While lots of bad stuff happened in the 60s, the space program kept driving toward JFK's goal, and in July 1969 I, like the rest of the world, was glued to the TV watching live pictures of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the surface of the Moon. I wish JFK had been alive to see it as well. One could argue that the space program was one of the key threads that kept our nation together at a time when it seemed everything else was blowing apart.

You might accuse me of being overly dramatic comparing JFK's goal to this one President Obama has put before us. But I think in doing so you would be underestimating the enormity of the task of changing the way teachers are employed. I suspect that in aggregate, the teachers' unions are the largest labor union in the country, in terms of active members. Few initiatives have been fought against more vigorously than the implementation of merit pay and the abolition of tenure. Ask Michelle Rhee, the innovative Chancellor of public schools in Washington DC.

This will be a very interesting story to follow...


  1. I'm still curious how a teacher gets "rated"? Do teachers in the inner city, who are teaching kids from one parent families, etc, get treated the same as our suburban teachers, whose kids come from a different background, i.e. 2 parents, both of whom probably went to college and are truly interested in how their kids are doing? I don't think you can tie student test scores into how good the teachers are, at least not in a broad sense. Ideas?

  2. Paul -

    I was pretty surprised as well. I hope that he does mean it. As far as I'm concerned, bring on merit pay. Accountability is a good thing.

  3. Hillirdite:

    All teachers already get periodically evaluated by an administrative leader. So a process exists, it's just not used to set compensation.

    I think it's a mistake for those of us outside the education profession to impose our views on the teacher evaluation process. It would be like me asking a customer of my firm to evaluate the job performance of one of the design engineers on my team. The customer certainly gets a vote in the matter, by continuing to spend money on our service or not, but they don't have to understand how a design engineer performs to make that determination.

    This is one of the reasons I'm a big fan of vouchers. I may not be able to evaluate a teacher as a professional, but I can certainly decide whether I think my kid is learning stuff at the pace I expect. If I'm not happy, I'll find another school where the teachers are known to deliver the goods.

    After all, we make exactly this value decision at the college level for/with our kids. We're motivated to make a good 'buying decision' because we have the visceral experience of writing a check each semester to some university.

    I wonder how differently parents would behave as consumers if they had to write tuition checks to their local school districts each quarter (with financial assistance as needed - see the prior post titled Food Stamps)