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Obama on Education

Given the nature of this blog, I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on Obama’s speech yesterday on education – so here goes:

First off – anything that upsets the Teachers’ Union is fine by me. Like most areas where a union gets involved, it makes the situation better in the short term for its members, but in the long term ultimately becomes untenable through ever-increasing pension costs and pay demands. Meanwhile, unions invariably make the end product less effective and more expensive to the consumer.

In this case, the product is education and the consumer is the general public. The dominance of the teachers’ union over public education has directly resulted in a glut of unfireable lousy teachers and a shortage of effective teachers. Who’s going to want to stick around in a profession in which people putting in half the effort are going to be rewarded just as much? Those who are happy putting in half the effort.

However, as with every union, the union itself as an entity benefits from having as many members as possible. Each member is paying dues, so the more members, the more money for the union and its leadership. Therefore, it’s in the best interest of the union to keep as many members as possible in its ranks, whether they’re doing a good job or not.

So to Obama – the good:

“President Obama declared Tuesday morning it’s time to start ‘rewarding excellence’ in the classroom and called for performance-based pay for deserving teachers. ‘It is time to start rewarding good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.’ “

Good. Who could be against this, except an organization that doesn’t care whether or not teachers are good, just that they are paying union dues?

“Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay,” Obama said, “even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom.”

See above.

“Obama proposed expanding programmes under which teachers are given extra pay if their students improve their scores, increasing access to early-childhood education, opening more ‘charter schools’ – state-funded schools run independently of government standards and bureaucracies – and other initiatives.”

Fine, especially the charter schools part – anything free of governments standards and bureaucracies is great.

“(Obama) said that the US academic calendar, in which students attend school roughly from 8.30am to 3pm, late summer to late spring, is an outmoded relic of America’s agrarian past, and should be updated.”

Again, fine by me. As much as I look forward to the schedule of a teacher, I think it’s counterproductive to have summers off, such long breaks, and days ending at 3.

The Meh:

“Obama will use his address to challenge states to implement ‘world-class standards,’ a senior official said, but he won’t propose specific benchmarks they must meet.”

Ok, fine, unlike most instances where this meme is applied, I think we’ve got a lot to learn from certain parts of the rest of the world when it comes to methods of education. But his lack of specifics is troubling, and seems a definite part of a pattern.

“The Obama officials didn’t elaborate on how much he would spend on a merit pay program, or how he would propose to weed out bad teachers, but there is money included in the stimulus package for improved tools to track teacher performance.”

Again, why so vague. On paper merit pay and weeding out poor teachers sounds great, but it’s easier said than done, particularly without using straight test scores which is problamatic.

“Obama also plans to:

• Address the drop-out rate as “a new national priority,” with a specific eye on the 2,000 American high schools that produce more than half of the country’s dropouts.

• Link the growth in Pell Grants to the rate of inflation to ensure regular increases as part of a goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.”

The first part is nice, dropouts don’t help folks, but at the same time, one can only make so much of an effort to keep kids in school who don’t want to be there. At a certain point the time and effort required to do so begins to have a definite impact on the rest of the students. Reducing the dropout rate isn’t in itself a worthy goal. Doing so by increasing the quality of teachers is.

The bad:

The second bullet, increasing college graduation rates, is something I’ve got a problem with. As I’ve mentioned before, dragging students through college who don’t need it or can’t afford it or can’t handle it isn’t going to help anyone. Not everyone needs a college education, and certainly not everyone can handle the academic workload without lowering standards for everyone.

All-in-all, I think this is about as good as I could have expected from Obama on this. I certainly didn’t expect him to come out and say that he’s ending government dominance over the educational system, gutting the Teachers’ Union and expanding the voucher program everywhere, but this isn’t a horrible start. So kudos to him. Main things that bother me:

a) It’s so vague. Give me some specifics please. In particular, how do you propose to judge teacher merit? I think that’s the biggest potential sticking point in all of this.

b) I just don’t trust him to do any of this. Based on what we’ve seen of Obama to this point, he’s happy to make big speeches full of sweeping changes that sound great, but then he turns around and either breaks his promises, or decides that they were nothing but campaigning. I’ve seen nothing of him to this point that changes my mind, and I definitely worry that all of this is just a means to get Republicans to buy in, and then he’ll sweep the rug out from under their feet. We’ll see.


03/10/2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. […] Dan Lips on Obama’s and Education In the Corner, Dan Lips offers a tighter, more critical analysis of Obama’s speech on education than mine. […]

    Pingback by Dan Lips on Obama’s and Education « Retake Education | 03/10/2009 | Reply

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