Sunday, March 29, 2009

Obama push to shake up schooling

PRESIDENT Barack Obama called for ideological truce in the US public school system, but also outlined a strategy to bring more discipline to school teachers' employment, which would see good teachers rewarded and bad ones fired.

Risking the ire of the powerful teachers unions, Mr Obama is pressing ahead on his campaign promises with the kind of reforms that have been championed by New York schools chief Joel Klein, whose ideas are popular with Australian Education Minister Julia Gillard.

Mr Obama yesterday called on teachers unions, education officials and parents to change a "relative decline of American education" that "is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy and unacceptable for our children".

"For decades, Washington has been trapped in the

same stale debates that have paralysed progress and perpetuated our educational decline," Mr Obama said.

"Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though it can make a difference in the classroom.

"Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its importance."

Mr Klein later told The Australian: "It was a terrific speech."

He added: "It raised all of the right issues. Now he needs to execute."

Overall, Mr Obama wants changes at every level from before kindergarten through to university. He is putting particular focus on solving the US high school dropout crisis and pushing states to adopt more rigorous academic standards.

Mr Obama's speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington -- a venue that reflects the fact that Hispanic-heritage children are expected to make up the majority of children in US schools in just over a decade -- was his first devoted to education in his presidency.

Among the proposals are plans to introduce longer school days -- and years -- to help American children compete in the world.

Mr Obama's speech lamented that in one generation the US had slipped from No1 to No11 in countries with the most students completing university.

"The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens," he said.

"We have everything we need to be that nation ... and yet, despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short and other nations outpace us."

Mr Obama acknowledged his proposals would foment dissent in his own party, but union leaders welcomed his words, saying it seemed clear he wanted to include them in his decisions in a way that former president George W.Bush did not.

"We finally have an education president," said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4million-member American Federation of Teachers.

"We really embrace the fact that he's talked about both shared responsibility and making sure there is a voice for teachers, something that was totally lacking in the last eight years." A statement from Mr Klein's Education Equality Project said Mr Obama had acknowledged economic progress and educational achievement were linked and added the President was urging "us to rise above partisanship to hold our schools and educators accountable for results".

The changes are also designed to tie education funding to student outcomes, establish stronger hire and fire rules governing teachers, and promote educational innovations such as charter schools.

These schools receive government funding but are relatively independent and free of rules that constrain regular schools. In return, these schools are required to meet strict performance measures regarding academic results, as well as budget accountability.

They are a source of considerable controversy since many teachers are concerned such schools drain money and talent from regular schools.

There are limits on the number of charter schools in each state in the US, but Mr Obama said the state limits aren't "good for our children, our economy, or our country".

He said many of the innovations in education were happening in charter schools.

Mr Klein said the announced proposals must be implemented "in order to transform our schools and prepare our students to succeed in the 21st century global economy".

"We are taking the President's words seriously -- and are eager to work with him and other school reformers to back the words up with action."

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