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Why is NEA cheering Obama's education ideas?By Elizabeth Hovde, Oregonian columnist
The National Education Association appears to be humming "Stand By Your Man," even after President Barack Obama promoted both merit pay and an expansion of charter schools in his recent comments about education.
What gives? Whenever a conservative leader talks about pay differences for educators instead of one-size-fits-all raises, teachers' unions say "no," "no" and, "hell, no." And whenever a Republican supports charter schools, NEA members start calling politicians enemies of public schools.
In a statement released after Obama's "cradle-to-career" education speech last week, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel welcomed Obama's "vision" for strengthening public education and said, "He's off to a solid start. ... His 'cradle-to-career' proposal mirrors what NEA and its 3.2million members have been advocating."
The union clearly heard what it wanted to hear (more money) and ignored much of Obama's talk. Merit pay, charter school expansion and more school accountability are not what the union has been advocating. Given the NEA's glowing review, I wondered if the union would even have blinked if the president demanded an end to undemocratic, mandatory unionism. (That was not on Obama's radar, needless to say.)
Perhaps the NEA is supportive of the president's education plan because it thinks his emphasis on merit pay and accountability won't actually materialize into the sort of policies supporters of these ideas hope to see. Meanwhile, Obama's tough talk might be able to buy him some sway with lawmakers and interest groups who are rightly skeptical of even more government-funded obligations. (Obama stressed the need for universal preschool and more school days each year, even though by his account we are underinvested in the K-16 system already in place.)
While Obama talked about getting rid of so-called "bad" teachers, he didn't lay out how poor-performing, union-protected educators would be removed. Further, promoting merit pay for other teachers could mean something as simple as giving bonuses to teachers who use their time and money to gather board certifications and to feed the higher-ed machine. That's not the kind of merit pay that will make a difference. Actual effectiveness in classrooms is what needs rewarding.
We all need to hold our applause for Obama's vision until we see details. Merit pay is hard to implement. Whatever Obama's team advises, it should avoid the pitfall of tying extra money to student test scores or other student-based outcomes. (Now I sound like a teachers union.)
The reality is that students change from year to year and they come from families who have a greater influence over student outcomes than teachers do.
Teachers could be evaluated the way many in the private sector are: by bosses, based on professional goals and outcomes. But a teacher's pay should not stagnate for reasons beyond his or her control.
This failure to recognize the role family plays and should play has been one of the biggest flaws in the No Child Left Behind Act . Children will be left behind, but often it isn't schools or teachers leaving them there.
What Obama doesn't seem to buy yet is that the government already does a lot. Families can do a lot more. My husband, a high school counselor, has no shortage of stories about students whose parents are the biggest obstacles to their educational success.
As Obama continues to talk about change, he needs to find a way to make families say "yes, we can" to helping their own kids be school-ready at all ages. He started that conversation Tuesday, but offering cradle-to-career programs for all ignores what many families, rather than government, can and should provide.
Obama should also propose increasing teacher effectiveness by encouraging states to allow schools to hire untraditional teachers, meaning individuals with an expertise and a demonstrable ability to work with students even if they aren't certified. Hiring private-sector experts in math and science (some of whom have been laid off recently) makes sense.
Oregon is already on the right track with charter schools, which Obama propped up as part of the solution Tuesday. Washington state has shunned such innovation and some school teachers on both sides of the river are still convinced charters drain other public schools of dollars and talent. Maybe Obama will be able to change their minds.
I suppose that is what Obama's speech -- and educators' reactions to it -- shows: that Obama is in a unique position to guide education into the 21st century, even if he has too many, mostly borrowed ideas. The audience is finally listening.
Elizabeth Hovde writes a Sunday column for The Oregonian and also posts during the week on oregonlive.com/thestump
Reach her at email@example.com
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