Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Obama to Teachers -- Raises for Everyone

It is true Obama supports "merit pay" for teachers. It is also true he thinks almost every teacher "merits" higher pay. Thus, teachers who feel betrayed by Obama are actually demonstrating their inability to "read between the lines", a skill that is an essential part of "critical thinking."

In the world Merit Pay for Teachers, the job least likely to result in a pay increase is a teaching post in a top school, where only minor improvements are possible. However, teachers working in the worst schools are starting from the lowest possible base, which means earning bonus money will come rather easily. Teachers will have a financial incentive to come as close as possible to giving kids the answers to test questions. But that might be nothing more than repeated reviews of past tests -- an acceptable and time-honored practice.

However, except in the rarest of cases, schools are powerless in the battle to overcome the dissipating effects of the social pathologies by which they are surrounded outside of school. Obama seems determined to appoint schools as substitute parents for the millions of kids coming from random, disorganized or non-existent families.

The Teachers' Union has been pushing its pay gambit for years. It works like this: math and science teachers are in short supply in the nation's public school system. Meanwhile, it is widely believed the only way to fill the gap is by offering math and science teachers better pay. But since all teachers are paid on a union scale, a raise for one means a raise for all.

However, the Teachers' Union depends on false logic to push its claim. The reason for the shortage of math and science teachers lies in the lunacy of the certification process, not in pay.

Certification in math and science requires applicants to have a minimum number of credits in their math, science or engineering major. So far, so good. However, would-be science and math teachers must also have college level foreign language credits. Why? Who knows?

But many math, science and engineering students receieve B.S. degrees, which means they are relieved of the requirement of taking foreign-language classes. Thus, if they decide they want to teach math or science, they must spend time and money obtaining foreign language credits in addition to other credits commonly included in curriculums for students at "education" schools.

In New York City a would-be teacher must pass the Liberal Arts and Sciences Test (LAST), which is similar to the SAT except it is easy. Easy.

Second is the Assessment of Teaching Skills -- Written. This exam tests the teaching knowledge of aspiring teachers. It tests teachers on material usually learned in four years at a Teachers' College. However, from personal experience I can tell you that with one review book and several evenings devoted to learning the basics, passing the test is a breeze. In a rational world, it should seem that passing the test is enough. But it's not. Perhaps a person passing this test with nothing more than several hours of review upsets the sensibilities of educators who spent four years in college attempting to obtain the same knowledge.

Third is the content exam. This one tests subject knowledge. Thus, those seeking math and science certification must demonstrate their knowledge of the material. The content exam is by far the most challenging of the three. But due to the fact that the math and science content exams are difficult, many teachers avoid them. Instead, they take easier content exams and receive their certifications in other subjects. Even though they lack certification in math or science, principals are willing to assign them to teach math or science.

All this because the certification process discourages applications from people who are qualified to teach the subjects themselves, but lack a peripheral, contrived and meaningless qualification.

Thus, the Teachers' Union has successfully manufactured an artificial labor shortage, which is the wedge it hopes to use to drive paychecks higher.

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama embraced merit pay for teachers Tuesday in spelling out a vision of education that will almost certainly alienate union backers.

Educators oppose charter schools because they divert tax dollars away from traditional public schools. Merit-based systems for teachers have for years been anathema to teachers' unions, a powerful force in the Democratic Party.

Obama acknowledged this in his talk to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"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 said, delivering the first major education speech of his presidency. "Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its importance."

But he argued that a far-reaching overhaul of the nation's education system is an economic imperative that can't wait, despite the urgency of the financial crisis and other pressing issues.

"Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us," Obama said. "The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy, and unacceptable for our children. We cannot afford to let it continue. What is at stake is nothing less than the American dream."

The ideas the president promoted were nearly all elements of his campaign platform last year. He only barely mentioned the reauthorization of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, which introduced sweeping reforms that schools are struggling to meet without the funding to match. Obama said his administration would "later this year" ensure that schools get the funding they need and that the money is conditioned on results.

Among the principles Obama laid out were:

_Challenging states to adopt world-class standards rather than a specific standard. Obama's economic stimulus plan includes a $5 billion incentive fund to reward states for, among other things, boosting the quality of standards and state tests, and the president said the Education Department would create a fund to invest in innovation.

_Improved pre-kindergarten programs, including $5 billion in the stimulus plan to grow Head Start, expand child care access and do more for children with special needs. He also said he would offer 55,000 first-time parents regular visits from trained nurses and said that states that develop cutting-edge plans to raise the quality of early learning programs would get an Early Learning Challenge Grant, if Congress approves the new program.

_Reducing student dropout rates. To students, Obama said: "Don't even think about dropping out of school." But he said that reducing the dropout rates also requires turning around the worst schools, something he asked lawmakers, parents and teachers to make "our collective responsibility as Americans."

_Repeating his call for everyone to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training, with the goal of highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020.

On charter schools, he said the caps instituted by some states on how many are allowed aren't "good for our children, our economy, or our country."

Obama also spoke at length about what he described his policy toward teachers, what he called an `unprecedented commitment to ensure that anyone entrusted with educating our children is doing the job as well as it can be done." In up to 150 more school districts, Obama said, teachers will get mentoring, more money for improved student achievement and new responsibilities.

Also, Obama said, "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."

The president acknowledged that a rethinking of the traditional American school day may not be welcome — "not in my family, and probably not in yours" — but is critical.

"The challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom," Obama said. "If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America."


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