Obama Criticizes U.S. Schools, Calls for Reform

President Obama says the U.S. must improve education to stay competitive in the world economy. Obama spoke about education Tuesday at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Video by AP
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

President Obama sharply criticized the nation's public schools yesterday, calling for changes that would reward good teachers and replace bad ones, increase spending, and establish uniform academic achievement standards in American education.

In a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Obama called on teachers unions, state officials and parents to end the "relative decline of American education," which he said "is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy and unacceptable for our children." The speech, delivered in a venue meant to underscore the changing demographics of the nation's public education system and its long-term priorities, sought to bring a bipartisan approach to education reform by spreading blame across party lines for recent failures.

"For decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline," Obama said. "Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though it can make a difference in the classroom. Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its importance."

Obama's speech, his first as president devoted to education, struck a tone of urgency at a time when public education is slated to receive about $100 billion in new federal money under the recently passed economic stimulus package. The money may give Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, more influence in reshaping a public education system traditionally guided by state governments and local school districts.

"The resources come with a bow tied around them that says 'Reform,' " Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, said in a telephone interview. "Our basic premise is that the status quo and political constituencies can no longer determine how we proceed on public education reform in this country."

Although Obama proposed many of the ideas on the campaign trail, he used the speech to link those prescriptions to the future success of the ailing U.S. economy. He encouraged experimentation in the public school system, including proposals to extend the school day -- to bring the United States in line with some Asian countries whose students are scoring higher on tests -- and to eliminate limits on the number of charter schools.

"A number of these things are simply encouragements to the states on matters that the federal government has little authority over," said Jack Jennings, president of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy. "But with this stimulus money comes the ability to talk more about these issues. And that is very powerful in itself."

The president signaled a willingness to take on influential Democratic constituencies, including teachers unions, which have been skeptical of merit-pay proposals. He said he intends to treat teachers "like the professionals they are while also holding them more accountable."

Good teachers will receive pay raises if students succeed, Obama said, and will "be asked to accept more responsibility for lifting up their schools." But, he said, states and school districts must be "taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom."

"If a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching," he said. "I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences."

Obama's support for ideas such as merit pay and toughened accountability for teachers is similar in tone to proposals placed on the table by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee in contract negotiations with the Washington Teachers' Union.

Rhee, a Democrat, said last year that voting for Obama was "a very hard decision" because of the party's traditional reluctance to take on influential teachers unions. A spokeswoman said last night that Rhee had no immediate comment on the president's speech.

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