Obama, Teachers Unions and New Democrats: Which one of these things doesn’t belong?

As I squeeze in trips to both conventions while getting my three daughters ready to go back to school (our local public elementary school) I continue to hope for more focus on the important education challenges facing our country.  The ED in 08 and the Education Equality Project are doing great work trying to put this issue on the media radar screen. In fact, my colleagues and I on the McCain team were all smiles as we read Mickey Kaus’s overview of the Education Challenge Event on Sunday. The event, which featured a few of our favorite reformers such as Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, took on the teachers unions like no public event we have ever seen. In this respect, hats off to groups like Democrats for Education Reform for finally nudging their party to take education reform seriously and giving political cover to reformers who are ready to take on the unions. But Randi Weingarten’s reaction (via Michele McNeal’s post) is a sober reminder of the tough road ahead for Barack Obama if he is going to heed the advice of those who were featured at this event.

Truth is, despite what the new Democrats gathered on Sunday at the Ed Challenge event had to say, Senator Obama will have a hard time embracing any reform that the unions oppose. Let’s take teacher pay for performance for instance or the notion of offering strong teachers higher pay and bonuses, a concept that is widely embraced in every other sector of our economy). So far, he has done what any good politician would do. He comes across as open to the idea while his official advisor, Linda Darling-Hammond, has rejected the idea in debates with my colleague Lisa Keegan. And his newly announced, VP candidate, Joe Biden had this to say about the topic during one of the Presidential debates: “An excellent teacher should be judged by whether or not that teacher, outside of the classroom, improves themselves and their teaching skills. My wife got two master’s degrees and a doctorate degree. That’s merit pay.” –That’s called professional development, last I checked.

Enhancing teacher quality by rewarding high quality teachers with greater pay is one of the cornerstones of Senator McCain’s campaign. He will provide performance bonuses to teachers who raise student achievement and enhance the school-wide learning environment. He will empower principals to manage their federal dollars and focus these dollars on raising student achievement. He will promote alternative teacher recruitment programs such as Teach for America, Joel Klein’s New York City Teaching Fellowship Program and Michelle Rhee’s former venture, the New Teacher Project.  And most of all, he will provide tools (such access to better public schools, tutoring and online instruction) to struggling students attending low performing schools.

At the end of the day, these are the types of common sense reforms that reformers, teachers and parent can agree on! 

–Guestblogger Jane Swift, former governor of Massachusetts and education advisor to McCain08  

7 Replies to “Obama, Teachers Unions and New Democrats: Which one of these things doesn’t belong?”

  1. We may agree on those reforms but unfortunately they will do *nothing* to improve our children’s education.

    Why are you not promoting reforms that might actually improve our schools.

    Student learning is competely dependant upon quality teaching, quality curricula and developing quality assessments that align with classroom instruction. There is nothing in your list of reforms that addresses any one of these issues let alone all three.

    Our schools are doing very poorly when compared to high quality school systems around the world. Even our best students are considered *mediocre* when compared to the average student in the top school systems.

    When you speak about tutoring and teacher recruitment, these resemble more the rearrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. They will fail to improve anything in the classroom, where the bulk of our children learn.

    Where is the passion for education? Where is the committment that every child recieves a quality learning experience?

    It seems as if you picked up those few ed reforms that will offend the least amount of people instead of showing real educational leadership.

    Education is essential for our future. Improving our schools should be a national priority. Unfortunately, you have picked ed reforms that resemble more milquetoast than presidential.

  2. It’s exciting to hear that a candidate is promising these things. I’m always skeptical, though, since teachers and educators represent a huge block of votes that a sneaky candidate would say anything to reach. I’m also skeptical because these things don’t seem to line up with other parts of his platform.

  3. Erin, I think what you’re missing is the campaign’s surrogates direct connection between alternative recruitment and teacher quality. They do believe that teacher quality matters, but they also believe that quality is only achievable through mechanisms like TFA and NTP. In other words it’s all about “fixing” the teachers (by bringing in Ivy League educated temp workers, a la TFA), and not about substantive system change.

  4. Marktropolis,

    Yes, and that approach is doomed to fail. It is the quality of the *teaching* not some innate quality of the teacher that matters in the classroom.

    Even if they recruit all the top college students to teach, it won’t be enough to fill all the teaching positions. And why does anyone think that those top recruits will learn to teach any better than what we already have in place? The study from TFA only showed that the recruits were only slightly better. Are we looking at just making our schools slightly better or truely competitive with the best school systems around the world?

    Those top recruits still will not have system support to improve their teaching. They will have no idea about what good teaching really is. They will still have to work with the poorly written, horribly organized curricula that they are given. They still will have to deal with the silly/innane mandates that largely prevent improvements in classroom instruction.

    All school reforms need to focus on what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the classroom, for that is where the bulk of student learning occurs.

    Tinkering around the edges may make us feel good. It will do nothing to improve student learning.

  5. The real world of teaching…I just returned from a four year leave of absence as a local President. I was assigned to a Title I school in a large, suburban, middle class school division in Virginia.
    The first two days of the teacher work week were spent almost entirely in meetings with no time to prepare our rooms much less write lesson plans. Of note were the meetings on “Bullying” and “Diversity.” I say of note, because I started teaching in 1970…if at this point in my career, or life, I need some additional coaching on bullying and diversity, I should have been weeded out of the classroom a long, long time ago.
    I am an art teacher, so I thought I was going to be on a cart. However, a teacher was cut, so I got a room. Although the floor was relatively clean, the rest of the room was filthy. The computers were dusty; the chalk board unwashed; chalk dust in the chalk tray; the pencil sharpener doesn’t work; the desk, as I was moving it, fell to the floor with a broken leg; no teacher chair; the teacher computer was removed from my room while I was at lunch and I was left with one student computer that I must use while I sit in a chair for kindergartners. There were mouse droppings on the sink counter. The sink does not have hot water. and the front counter strip is taped on. Oh, I cannot adjust the air conditioner and the room was freezing with condensation on each of the units.
    And I just spent $72.00 on “teacher supplies.”
    There is something wrong with this picture. It is not the way professionals are treated in other professions. Can you see an attorney reporting for work and having to wash off the desk or ask for another desk because the WWII issue metal desk had fallen to the floor? Or how about a doctor reporting for their first day in a hospital that was filthy with no supplies? If they go out and buy new equipment for their hospital, they are considered heroes. When teachers spend money on their classrooms, its considered part of the job.
    What is wrong with all of these discussions about the union, pay for performance, recruiting competent teachers, getting rid of incompetent teachers is that teaching is not respected, period. If this is all about children, as many, including Michele Rhee, say, then we do not value our children very much or we wouldn’t allow those people who work the closest with children return to a job, year after year, and face these obstacles: We would treat these teachers with respect, give them time to prepare for their jobs, and treat like the professionals they are. The message is loud and clear: It isn’t about children (that’s political spin)…its about power and money…and arrogance. These kinds of articles and discussions do more to set public schools back than they are about moving public education in America forward.

  6. There are reasons teachers do not believe in merit pay. I would probably earn a higher salary as a result, yet I still condemn it.
    1) There is not an objective measure for which to judge teachers. If you base it on test scores, teachers will attempt to only have the brightest students in their classrooms. If you base it on administrators reviews, this is obviously a very subjective and easily biased possibility.
    2) Unlike businesses, teacher performance does not create a higher profit for the school. The same pool of money will still be there. If you give it you one teacher, it will take away from another. Teachers already just make enough to get by, and a decrease in salary would be devastating. No matter how you slice it, half the teachers will lose.
    3) Teachers currently collaborate about great ideas. If these great ideas are going to be the basis for their salary, they would not be as willing to share with coworkers. It would create a nasty environment that would be hurtful to the overall education of our students.

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