Obama’s Push for Merit Pay

The Obama administration has proposed new regulations that would require states receiving federal education stimulus dollars, including California, to evaluate teachers based, in part, on the results of standardized tests. The proposals put the president at odds with teachers unions, which have long opposed the evaluation of instructors based on test scores.

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California state law currently bans using scores to measure teacher’s performance, a position U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called “absurd” and “ridiculous”, according to a July 24, 2009 piece in the Los Angeles Times. “No one in California can tell you which teacher is in which category,” the paper quotes Duncan as saying. “Something is wrong with that picture.”

The administration’s position continues a trend for Obama in supporting merit pay for teachers. Obama supported it during his campaign for the presidency and reiterated his stance in a speech on March 10th of this year to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents, it’s the person standing at the front of the classroom,” he said. Explaining his education plan, Obama said, “New teachers will be mentored by experienced ones. Good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement, and asked to accept more responsibilities for lifting up their schools.”

The president’s remarks have drawn the ire of teachers unions, however, most of whom supported Obama during the presidential race. “To be perfectly honest, it’s disappointing again,” California Teacher’s Association president David Sanchez told the Sacramento Bee. “Our perception is that it’s more of the same, and that’s not good, because we thought we were going to be able to change something.”

Opponents of evaluating teachers based on test scores claim that it is an incomplete record of the full quality of a teacher, or evidence of student learning. “It takes more than the ability to fill in bubbles to be an educated person,” said California Federation of Teachers president Marty Hittleman in a letter to the Obama administration. Those opposed to the plan also fear that it could lead to students being deprived of skills not needed to pass the test. “The overemphasis on testing does not \ enhance educational quality, but instead will promote schooling that leaves too many of our children underprepared for higher education, unskilled at critical thinking and less engaged in their communities. Parents and business leaders consistently say they want us to develop in students the types of skills least valued in a test-driven educational atmosphere,” write David Cohen and Alex Kajatani, two educators, in a Sacramento Bee editorial.

However, Obama and Governor Schwarzenegger, who also supports merit pay for teachers, have found allies within the state’s minority communities. The Sacramento Bee story featured Alice Huffman, president of the California chapter of the NAACP. “I have watched this for 20 years,” Huffman said. “And I have nieces and nephews that have come out of the public schools that can’t read, can’t write, will never be employable. This is happening right here. … Something profound has to happen. We can’t wait another decade and another decade while people tweak with it.”

The state legislature will meet in special session to decide whether to adopt Obama’s request to implement merit pay, as well as other educational reforms. Obama’s proposal is entitled “Race to the Top” and in addition to using test scores to evaluate teacher performance would also provide money for school reform ideas, such as charter schools and improving low performing schools.

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