Thursday, May 22, 2008

Barack Obama's Education Plan: The Devil is in the Details

As promised I will look more closely at some of the education proposals outlined on Barack Obama’s Web site.

Here is what he says about recruiting, preparing, retaining and rewarding teachers:

• Recruit Teachers: Obama will create new Teacher Service Scholarships that will cover four years of undergraduate or two years of graduate teacher education, including high-quality alternative programs for mid-career recruits in exchange for teaching for at least four years in a high-need field or location.
• Prepare Teachers: Obama will require all schools of education to be accredited. He will also create a voluntary national performance assessment so we can be sure that every new educator is trained and ready to walk into the classroom and start teaching effectively. Obama will also create Teacher Residency Programs that will supply 30,000 exceptionally well-prepared recruits to high-need schools.
• Retain Teachers: To support our teachers, Obama's plan will expand mentoring programs that pair experienced teachers with new recruits. He will also provide incentives to give teachers paid common planning time so they can collaborate to share best practices.
• Reward Teachers: Obama will promote new and innovative ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them. Districts will be able to design programs that reward accomplished educators who serve as a mentor to new teachers with a salary increase. Districts can reward teachers who work in underserved places like rural areas and inner cities. And if teachers consistently excel in the classroom, that work can be valued and rewarded as well.

Vague stuff, but there are some hints at what this all means. For instance, at first, his proposal for recruiting teachers sounds very much like Wendy Kopp’s “Teach for America” (TFA) programs that started in 1990. But unlike that program that recruited teachers from prestigious schools after they had their undergraduate degrees and then provided grants for them to take classes that would allow them to get certified, Obama’s proposal would provide scholarships for students in college who want to pursue teaching careers, with the stipulation that they must teach for four years in a high-need subject or hard-to-staff location.

The test of the program will be measured by the retention rate and effectiveness of these teachers. Many TFA teachers drop out of the program before they finish their commitment. Some jump to KIPP and leave the public school system. Others leave the classroom and work in some kind of education administration positions. Even though the track record is basically a good one, the placement of new teachers in hard-to-staff schools often leads to a hasty departure.

Now as a teacher unionist, I’m running into some problems with the second proposal. What is a “voluntary national performance assessment” and how will that be used? And, since the test is voluntary how will it measure “that every new educator is trained and ready to walk into the classroom and start teaching effectively?” If you’re an educator you know the pitfalls of that kind of thinking. Do we measure the performance of teachers based on student results on standardized tests? Or, does it mean that we give the test to new college grads who volunteer to take it because they want to go into teaching?

Obama has it right on mentoring. One of the key components to retain teachers is based on whether they were mentored by a senior, quality teacher. Also, giving teachers “paid common planning time” so they can share experiences and best practices really works and would go a long way to retain new recruits and educational communities.

When teacher unionists see phrases like “new and innovative ways to increase teacher pay,” “reward accomplished educators,” and reward teachers who “consistently excel in the classroom,” it’s like smelling smoke. It’s instinctual to immediately look for a fire and to be on the alert. But Obama says that these programs should be “developed with teachers, not imposed on them.” So what is there to worry about?

Success in the restaurant business depends on three things: location, location, location. It’s not much different for education, except that the three things are: implementation, implementation, implementation.

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