Obama Talks the Talk on Schools

Yesterday’s education speech by President Obama left me on the edge of my seat. The man is saying all the right things. The man knows how to talk, and he made some bold declarations about national standards, merit pay, and getting rid of bad teachers.

On standards, Obama was pretty clear. All the recent talk of accountability means nothing if we’re keeping score with 50 different sets of rules:

“Today’s system of fifty different sets of benchmarks for academic success means 4th grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming - and getting the same grade. Eight of our states are setting their standards so low that their students may end up on par with roughly the bottom 40% of the world.

That is inexcusable, and that is why I am calling on states that are setting their standards far below where they ought to be to stop low-balling expectations for our kids. The solution to low test scores is not lower standards - it’s tougher, clearer standards. Standards like those in Massachusetts, where 8th graders are now tying for first - first - in the world in science. Other forward-thinking states are moving in the same direction by coming together as part of a consortium. More states need to do the same.”

But that’s the easy part. After all, a whole crew of governors, school leaders and even union officials have come out in support of some kind of common standards. The question is, what will the standards be? Will this endeavor also include a national test, which would make the most sense? Is Obama right to entrust the details to Congress—which has so far utterly failed to use its stimulus leverage to push schools to enact real, sweeping reforms?

OK, OK, moving on to teacher quality, the heart of the issue. Obama’s rhetoric is tantalizing, but I am wary of the fine print. Notice the caveats built into this alleged call-to-arms:

“...Just as we have to give our teachers all the support they need to be successful, we need to make sure our students have the teacher they need to be successful. That means states and school districts 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. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high. We can afford nothing but the best when it comes to our children’s teachers and to the schools where they teach.”

Say, here’s an idea: Why not just move bad teachers out of the classroom? For the kids in said classroom, there is no time to spare. If a child has a bad teacher three years in a row, that child will never catch up. So why just “take steps” to remove the teacher? Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations...

I am not saying teachers should be fired arbitrarily or without legal protection. Like the rest of us, they are protected by a long list of federal and state laws that prohibit unfair, discriminatory firing (laws that did not exist when tenure was first invented). I am saying teachers who do not move students forward—on average over several years—should not—on average—be teaching. They should be let go, just like other professionals who are not successful at their critically important jobs. But that is not the case in America today.

Here’s what worries me: “Taking steps” is a euphemism. It means following the established teacher tenure rules, which is to say, if a principal deems that a teacher is no good (which rarely happens to begin with), that principal should begin to wind his or her way through the labyrinth of union-approved contract rules designed to delay and deflect accountability. These processes often take years. And at the end, nary a teacher gets fired.

If you “reject a system that rewards failure,” you should be thinking bigger than baby steps.

GeneralAmanda Ripley