Obama Faces Teachers' Unions on Pay

After weeks of pleasing Democrats by overturning policies set by the previous administration, President Barack Obama Tuesday will for the first time confront a powerful constituency in his own party: teachers’ unions.

Obama will propose spending additional money to reward effective teachers in up to 150 additional school districts, fulfilling a campaign promise that once earned him boos from members of the National Education Association.

Obama’s plan to embrace merit pay will come in a speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, say administration officials who briefed reporters. Teachers’ unions say merit pay causes teachers to compete against each other, rather than collaborate, and is unfair to those who work in disadvantaged areas where it can be harder to boost student performance.

But polls show the policy is overwhelmingly supported by the public, and it offers Obama a chance both to burnish his reformer credentials, and point to a split from party orthodoxy.

In addition to rewarding good teachers, Obama also will seek to push out those who aren’t getting results.

“He supports improved professional development and mentoring for new and less effective teachers, and will insist on shaping new processes to remove ineffective teachers,” said a background statement issued by the White House.

The Obama officials didn’t elaborate on how much he would spend on a merit pay program, or how he would propose to weed out bad teachers, but there is money included in the stimulus package for improved tools to track teacher performance.

Notably, the administration officials also avoided discussing No Child Left Behind – the federal education standards set by President George W. Bush – and made clear that Obama won’t be addressing the law in his speech.

“The president is not calling tomorrow for specific amendments to No Child Left Behind,” said a senior administration official.

The law is deeply unpopular with teachers’ unions, and Obama railed against it during the campaign, where it was listed as the very first issue on his website’s education page.

Obama will use his address to challenge states to implement “world-class standards,” a senior official said, but he won’t propose specific benchmarks they must meet.

In a move that may make the merit pay proposal more palatable for teachers’ unions, Obama will speak out against the current standardized tests so loathed by educators in favor of upgraded assessments and better data systems for tracking student progress.

Obama also plans to: 

• Tout grants in his budget that would bolster data collection among early education programs. 

• Address the drop-out rate as “a new national priority,” with a specific eye on the 2,000 American high schools that produce more than half of the country’s dropouts. 

• Link the growth in Pell Grants to the rate of inflation to ensure regular increases as part of a goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

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