Jonathan Alter on Obama and Education

One of the best things about the democratic primaries was that horse-race-obsessed reporters rarely asked the candidates about education. Why was that good? Because hundreds of delegates who were at stake are members of Paleolithic teachers unions, ready to pounce on any challenge to the failed system they dominate. When the subject did arise, it quickly became a pander party with President Bush's (and Ted Kennedy's) No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as the piñata.

But with the general election underway, Barack Obama has a chance to show that he can move at least as far toward real change in education as John McCain. Obama deserves kudos for drawing scattered boos earlier this month for mentioning merit pay when appearing via satellite before the National Education Association. (He was expected to be received more politely by the other big union, the American Federation of Teachers, at its convention last weekend.) But that was just a baby step. Now Obama needs to embrace a Grand Education Bargain—much higher pay for teachers in exchange for much more accountability for performance in the classroom. Good teachers need to be rewarded with more pay and respect for being members of our noblest profession. They need more resources. But they also need to be removed from the classroom when they fail to improve. Obama occasionally says as much, but goes fuzzy when it comes to how.

The stakes couldn't be higher. The United States now ranks 25th among 30 industrialized countries in math. "If I told you your basketball team finished in 25th place, you'd be outraged," says former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. When the landmark "A Nation at Risk" report was issued 25 years ago, the education system was ailing, but the United States was still No. 1 in college-graduation rates. Now we are No. 21. "We simply have not progressed," says former Colorado governor Roy Romer, who heads a commission that recently updated the report. "The rest of the world has." For example, the average European nation has 13 more school days than we do.

The irony is, we know what works to close the achievement gap. At the 60 KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, more than 80 percent of 16,000 randomly selected low-income students go to college, four times the national average for poor kids. While KIPP isn't fully replicable (not enough effective teachers to go around), every low-income school should be measured by how close it gets to that model, where kids go to school from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and part of the summer, and teachers are held strictly accountable for showing student improvement.

Railing against the tyranny of tests is fashionable, but it isn't going to save our children and our economy in the 21st century. Nor will more money for important programs like art and music. The more basic problem is that we have no way of determining which teachers can actually teach. That's right: teaching is arguably the only profession in the country with ironclad job security and a well-honed hostility to measuring results. Because of union resistance, NCLB measures only schools, not individual teachers. The result is that school districts fire on average only one teacher a year for poor performance. Before recent reforms (which have boosted test scores), New York City dismissed only 10 of 55,000 teachers annually. What business could survive that way?

Teachers unions bristle at the business comparison. But they should listen to Andy Stern, head of the nation's fastest growing union, the SEIU: "Education is like any business. You need a return on investment. Outcomes do matter. Paying people according to outcomes does matter. I don't care if a teacher has a high-school degree, college or a Ph.D. if he or she can produce results." Stern is worried that if his brethren in the teachers unions don't embrace accountability now, "parents will vote with their choices" and the unions will begin dying, as they already are in reform-minded cities like Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.

If Stern can say that, why not Obama? All the criticism of Obama's moving to the center is misguided. General elections are won among moderate swing voters, many of whom would respond well to a Democratic candidate willing to show he can slip the ideological stranglehold of a retrograde liberal interest group. Obama's right that the NCLB-inspired testing mania is out of control, but wrong to give teachers "ownership over the design of better assessment tools." That's a recipe for no assessment, because the teachers unions, for all their lip service, don't believe their members should be judged on performance. They still believe that protecting incompetents is more important than educating children.

Obama claims that he's bold on this topic. But he hasn't been direct enough about reforming NCLB so that it revolves around clear measurements of classroom-teacher effectiveness. Research shows that this is the only variable (not class size or school size) that can close the achievement gap. Give poor kids from broken homes the best teachers, and most learn. Period.

To get there, Obama should hold a summit of all 50 governors and move them toward national standards and better recruitment, training and evaluation of teachers. He should advocate using Title I federal funding as a lever to encourage "thin contracts" free of the insane work rules and bias toward seniority, as offered by the brilliant new superintendent in Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee. He should offer federal money for salary increases, but make them conditional on differential pay (paying teachers based on performance and willingness to work in underserved schools, which surveys show many teachers favor) and on support for the elimination of tenure. And the next time he addresses them, he should tell the unions they must change their focus from job security and the protection of ineffective teachers to higher pay and true accountability for performance—or face extinction.

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