The sky over Washington, D.C., was gray and gloomy this past Saturday when Barack Obama addressed thousands of members of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, who had assembled several blocks from the Capitol for their annual convention.
Education has not been prominent in the presidential campaign to date and it’s unlikely that will change. Nonetheless, attention must be paid when Obama peddles his education wares to salivating teachers’ union members, who are equally ready to applaud or assail anyone — be he Republican or Democrat, mere mortal or Obama — who challenges their core beliefs.
The NEA always presents a particularly tough crowd for Obama because he sees education as one proven pudding of his bipartisan bona fides. Thus, on Saturday he could not simply recycle union claptrap and tell the NEA all the nonsense it desperately wanted to hear. The question, then, was this: In what way would Obama, in his speech, choose to break from the teachers’ union orthodoxy and thereby shore up his work-across-the-aisle credentials?
In the past, he has tried to do this by supporting the completely reasonable idea, unreasonably attacked by the NEA, that good teachers should receive more money than bad ones. Last year, well before he secured the presumption of presidential nomination, Obama suggested at the NEA convention that so-called merit pay for teachers made sense (for which suggestion he was the recipient of sundry boos). And in April of this year, in a segment on FOX News Sunday, Obama restated that position to host Chris Wallace.
Obama: I think that on issues of education, I’ve been very clear about the fact — and sometimes I’ve gotten in trouble with the teachers’ union on this — that we should be experimenting with charter schools. We should be experimenting with different ways of compensating teachers.
Wallace: You mean merit pay?
Obama: Well, merit pay, the way it’s been designed, I think, is based on just a single standardized test — I think is a big mistake, because the way we measure performance may be skewed by whether or not the kids are coming into school already three years or four years behind.
But I think that having assessment tools and then saying, “You know what? Teachers who are on career paths to become better teachers, developing themselves professionally — that we should pay excellence more.” I think that’s a good idea, so…
Paying useful employees more money than lousy employees is indeed a “good idea”; in most industries, in fact, it’s known as common sense. Not so, though, in the American public school bureaucracy in which educators — the good, bad, and ugly — all receive raises based not on which subjects they teach or how well they teach them but on how long they’ve been in the profession. Tenure trumps talent.
Saturday, via video from Butte, Montana, Obama again told the NEA that merit pay made sense, and again boos swelled from the crowd. Good for him. He deserves credit for backing a smart idea. But that in no way proves that Obama has gone against his party or subscribes to his own post-partisan speechifying.
Merit pay may arouse the NEA’s ire and Republicans’ ardor, but it’s hardly a policy out of step with many left-leaning thinkers or with the Democratic party. Last November the liberal Center For American Progress released a report, “The Future of Teacher Compensation,” on the reformation of teacher salaries through merit pay. In September 2007, Democratic Representative George Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, clashed publicly with NEA President Reg Weaver after Weaver opposed any inclusion of merit pay in an updated draft of the No Child Left Behind law that Miller constructed.
Merit pay for teachers is abundantly sensible — so much so, that opposing it is widely seen as batty. The USA Today editorial board wrote last year, “Objecting to merit pay today amounts to opposing a proven tool for making teachers more effective.” The same can be said about charter schools, which Obama commendably supports but which are nonetheless also supported not only by Republicans but by large swaths of liberals and the Democratic party.
And despite his advocacy for merit pay and charter schools, Obama still took from the NEA convention its presidential endorsement after 79.8 percent of the union’s voting delegates backed him.
What else did Obama say to the NEA on Saturday? He said public schools need more money, he said he was a stalwart opponent of vouchers and private-school choice, he said we need 100,000 new teachers, he said we can’t hold teachers and schools accountable without holding parents accountable too, he said we need “better pay for teachers across the board,” and he accused McCain of “recycling tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice.”
Such elocutions hardly amount to a post-partisan prescription for reforming the nation’s failing schools. Opportunities for Obama to show such post-partisan leadership have arisen– such as last month, when Washington, D.C.’s voucher program (supported by Marion Barry, even) was under attack from congressional Democrats — but the candidate has passed on these opportunities.
Nonetheless, Obama says that in the realm of education policy his actions have demonstrated his commitment to post-partisanship. Such meager efforts as his scarcely merit such claims.
– Liam Julian is a Hoover Institution research fellow who writes frequently about education.