A Lesson From Barack Obama

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

Extra pay for teachers who get results. Dumping bad teachers who never get better. Expansion of charter schools. A longer school day.

This is not a review of George W. Bush’s education policies.

These are a few ideas from a recent speech by President Barack Obama.

It was the first major speech Obama has made on education since coming to office. It was delivered nearly two weeks ago to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce — business leaders from a community whose children are often amongst the most struggling academically.

True to his campaign promises, Obama spoke of the need for high-quality, pre-schooler programs, extra money for excellent, in-demand teachers, cutting the drop-out rate and the need to focus on improvements in math and science.

But he did not shy away from hard truths — truths that would be like sticking a finger in the eye of many of those in our public education universe here.

“In a 21st-century world,” Obama said. “Where jobs can be shipped wherever there’s an Internet connection, where a child born in Dallas is now competing with a child in New Delhi, where your best job qualification is not what you do, but what you know — education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it’s a prerequisite for success.”

In this province, the last government to raise the notion of rewarding excellent teachers with better pay was the Ernie Eves Conservatives. We know what happened to them. Here’s what Obama had to say:

“Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom,” he told his audience.

Although short on detail, Obama said good teachers “will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement” and his administration would support extra pay to end a shortage of math and science teachers.

Steps must also be taken “to move bad teachers out of the classroom … if a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences.”

Obama pointed out that nations doing better academically than the U.S. (and for that matter Canada) are “spending less time teaching things that don’t matter, and more time teaching things that do.”

Some also keep their kids in class longer, such as South Korea, whose children are in school a full month more than American kids. He called for an expansion of after-school programs and a rethink on the length of the school day.

I have written recently in this space about concerns Ontario is lowering its high school graduation standards to reach an 85% graduation target by 2010. We are not alone.

Obama said states that have lowered educational standards to make it look as though more kids are getting over the bar should “stop low-balling expectations for our kids. The solution to low test scores is not lowering standards — it’s tougher, clearer standards.”

Finally, Obama said he would remove restrictions to allow expansion of the country’s charter schools. Charter schools operate within the public system, are self-governing and accountable to a charter they have signed with their state government.

In Canada, teacher unions have successfully persuaded even the most conservative politicians that charter schools are tantamount to letting McDonald’s run our schools. The U.S. meanwhile has more than 4,000 charter schools and the number is rising.

The predictable reaction by many in our edu-establishment to these ideas will be to ignore or dismiss them and say we are different or better (according to international test results that’s not quite true). But the eventual competition into which our children will be cast, like it or not, will be the same.

We ignore Obama’s ideas at our children’s peril.