Outlining his proposals for education reform in a speech this week at the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, President Obama praised the ‘legacy of excellence’ of America’s schools and colleges, but added, ‘we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short and other nations outpace us.’

America’s education system has fallen behind other countries, he noted. ‘The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy and unacceptable for our children – and we cannot afford to let it continue.’

To recover from this decline, Obama put forward some basic reforms he hopes Congress, states and local school districts will consider as a way to improve the quality of American education.

The president called for overcoming ideologically-motivated divides on the issue and for combining new investments in education with new reforms. He challenged students, parents, teachers, administrators, state and local governments as well as Washington politicians to do better and to work together to rebuild the education system.

Specifically, Obama sought a serious commitment in three key areas: early childhood education, implementing reforms that will improve teaching excellence at the primary and secondary levels, and making access to college more affordable.

The president touted a plan to help an additional 150,000 pre-school children enter the Head Start program as part of the economic stimulus package. This plan will create several thousand jobs and give tens of thousands of new lower-income pre-school aged children exposure to basic language, reading and math skills.

Beyond this, the Obama administration has proposed issuing grants to states that can demonstrate success in preparing pre-school children for kindergarten.

For K-12 schools, the Obama administration has created what it calls a ‘race to the top fund’ for states and districts to improve curricula and reward teachers who demonstrate success. In addition, the administration will support a joint effort by teachers, community leaders and other education professionals to construct national education standards.

Obama also called for lifting state-imposed caps on the number of controversial charter schools that have demonstrated success, but also urged closing those charter schools that have failed.

On the topic of higher education, Obama pressed for increasing Pell Grants and tying them to the cost of living, as well as boosting subsidies for families who are paying for college.

In his speech, President Obama expressed support for stronger national standards, pointing out that ‘[t]oday’s system of fifty different sets of benchmarks for academic success means 4th grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming – and getting the same grade. Eight of our states are setting their standards so low that their students may end up on par with roughly the bottom 40 percent of the world.’

The president further explained that his goal is to treat teachers ‘like the professionals they are’ and give them the support they need to be successful, but to also hold them accountable for high standards.

The push for rigorous national standards of excellence in education have been welcomed by the teachers’ unions. In an op-ed in the last month, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten argued, ‘Abundant evidence suggests that common, rigorous standards lead to more students reaching higher levels of achievement.’

‘I propose,’ Weingarten continued, ‘that a broad-based group – made up of educators, elected officials, community leaders, and experts in pedagogy and particular content – come together to take the best academic standards and make them available as a national model.’

The National Education Association (NEA), another major teachers union, agreed with Weingarten’s proposal. In a statement released after the president’s March 10th speech, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel welcomed President Obama’s broad vision for reform.

The NEA ‘advocate[s] for improving professional development and mentoring for new and less effective teachers; a national investment in recruiting some of the most talented individuals into the field of teaching, as well as investing in scaling up innovative teacher preparation and induction models; and raising teachers’ compensation based on their knowledge and skills,’ Van Roekel said.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hinted agreement with the teachers’ proposals on standards during a teleconference with reporters on wed. March 11. ‘We want to work with a set of states that commit to a high set of standards.’ These standards would not be developed in Washington but by experts and education professionals who can create such a model.

Duncan also elaborated on the main goals of the ‘the race to the top fund’ in a conference call with reporters, Wed. March 11. Fifty states doing their own thing has created ‘a race to the bottom’; the administration wants to reverse that, Duncan said. The ‘race to the top funds’ will be used to strengthen standards, methods of measuring student success, modernize information technology to track student progress and rewarding teacher excellence.

‘I wish there was one thing we could do to solve all of our education problems but obviously it’s much more complex than that,’ Duncan added. ‘These strategies collectively are going to help drive dramatic change.’

The education secretary also expanded on Obama’s explanation of his administration’s plan on teacher incentives. Duncan, the former Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, recalled that his district saw great success when it asked teachers to design an incentive and rewards program themselves. ‘This idea of doing stuff with people rather than to them is very important,’ he explained to reporters. He added that while test scores will play a role in determining teacher excellence, they cannot be the sole factor.

‘This is something we have to work on,’ Duncan stated, sounding a note of cooperation on how to put these reforms into place. ‘We have to work with the unions, superintendents, state superintendents. They’re a lot of great people working on this.’

Both of the teachers unions have expressed an enthusiastic willingness to work with the administration to design and implement the proposed reforms.

Echoing the president, Duncan also linked the importance of education reform to recovering from the economic crisis. ‘We have to educate our way to a better economy,’ he said.

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