Obama calls for merit pay and an end to “the same stale debates” in education policy

President Obama probably didn’t make too many teacher union friends this morning after a speech about education at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Obama called for the support of successful charter schools, a new academic calendar that would add more instruction time, and better assessments of student achievement — and of teacher performance.

Here’s an excerpt from a detailed CBS/AP story:

He did not propose any specific legislative goals on education in his speech Tuesday at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Instead, the president talked about how America must work much harder to keep pace with international competitors.

Part of the blame he put down to Washington bickering, “the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline.” He rapped Democrats on the knuckles for resisting the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, and Republicans for opposing new investments in early education.

“It’s more money versus more reform; vouchers versus the status quo,” he said. “There has been partisanship and petty bickering, but little recognition that we need to move beyond the worn fights of the 20th century if we are going to succeed in the 21st Century.

You can find the full text of his speech here, on a Wall Street Journal blog.


photo of Obama from jurvetson’s photostream at flickr.com/creativecommons

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Katy Murphy

    The American Federation of Teachers, a smaller union than the National Education Association (to which the Oakland Education Association belongs), just put out this release about Obama’s speech:

    Statement by Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers,
    On President Obama’s Remarks Today
    To the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

    WASHINGTON—We embrace the goals and aspirations outlined today by President Obama when he called for providing all Americans with a comprehensive, competitive education that begins in early childhood and extends through their careers. The president’s vision of education—and the AFT’s—includes world-class standards for all students, new and better tools for teachers, greater effort to recruit and retain good teachers, and competitive teacher salaries with innovative ways to reward teaching excellence.

    We also fully support the president’s call for shared responsibility for education—among public officials, school administrators, parents, students and teachers. Teachers want to make a difference in kids’ lives, and they appreciate a president who shares that goal and will spend his political capital to provide the resources to make it happen.

    As with any public policy, the devil is in the details, and it is important that teachers’ voices are heard as we implement the president’s vision. The AFT stands ready to work with the president to make America the leader in public education.


    The AFT represents more than 1.4 million pre-K through 12th-grade teachers; paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel; higher education faculty and professional staff; federal, state and local government employees; nurses and healthcare workers; and early childhood educators.

  • ProStudent

    “National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said he thought the speech was “wonderful” and that the incentive pay proposal didn’t endorse “failed merit-pay plans.” The money could be used to support things like National Board Certification (which is pretty much the only type of incentive pay the union formally endorses), he argued.”

  • Katy Murphy

    Maybe I stand corrected about union leadership’s response to Obama’s merit pay and teacher evaluation talk. I haven’t see anything on the OEA listserv about it so far. Are the sands shifting?

  • Nextset

    The Feds need to get out and stay out of K-12 education. There is no provision in the US Constitution for federal incursion into that subject and what has happening is another example of extra-constitutional legislation by Congress the Supremes should have checked.

    As far as “Merit Pay” for teachers I’m concerned that this sets up a chase for high scoring/high IQ students to work on, trophy students if you want to call them that. Public schools are not about trophy students and they shouldn’t be. It’s nice to have a Lowell High where students can expect to be taken seriously by Ivy League colleges but Public Schools are mainly about the average and less than average students and making those people do well in society. Think Los Angeles Unified.

    The public school teachers need to be free and comfortable working with the left half of the bell curve – finding among them those who really have what it takes to become Ivy League and pushing them up the ladder also. Putting a price premium on trophy students would shortchange the bulk of the public school clients who need attention and help getting on the ladder in life.

    Do we have a way to give “Merit Pay” to a teacher who has a higher rate of single mother girls who don’t get pregnant by 19? Do we pay “Merit Pay” to a teacher who produces a record class rate of military acceptances (compared to attemps to enlist) in OUSD or LAUSD? Maybe we should. Because one can say that a teacher or a group of teachers is doing something marvelous if they can change the numbers in their students measure of progress – which isn’t always measured in college acceptance, but in other ways.

    I would like the public school unions to make it clear that they are not in the business of educating Nobel contestants even if they can find a few. Public Schools serve the most vulnerable of our population and must provide a floor one can’t fall under. Public School teachers are not in competition with the private schools or the Charters. Those schools are selective, Public Schools are not. Merit Pay the Publics accordingly!

  • localed

    Obama said something like, “we need to end the stale debate of more money vs. educational reform”, and I agree. However, a colleague brought up a good point, merit pay, presumably based on test scores, will create havoc in lower socio-economic communities where low scoring students will chase away good teachers. Who is going to teach at a school where test scores are routinely low, and kids come to school hungry, sleepy, and exposed to horrible out-of-school conditions? I hope if/when merit pay is implemented, it is based on outcomes that are scaled and the population and demographic of the students are considered, otherwise, like a previous comment said, it’s awarding the cream of the crop of students, or trophy students, and denying all others.

  • Oakland Citizen

    Merit based pay should be based on academic growth of students. A 6th grader reading at the 2nd grade may not reach grade-level by the end of the year, but if they are able to read at the 4th grade level by the end of the year, that is something to be rewarded.

    Also, merit pay should not go to individual teachers. This breeds a negative brand of competition and destroys faculty communities as they begin to hurl accusations such as having been assigned a difficult class of students, etc. Instead, a teacher whose students reach a certain level of growth should have a certain sum bestowed on the school, to be distributed among all the teachers equally. This will lead to a positive accountability and assistance, as poor teachers will feel pressure to improve and successful teachers will have an incentive to help the struggling teachers.

  • TheTruthHurts

    As usual, people who are bickering are missing the point. Teachers understandably want rewards based on somethiing they can control. Parents and taxpayers should be paying based on results. There should be some balance among these interests. Merit pay is not a solution, but it will be the way Obama gets Republicans to support higher teacher compensation. Sounds like Weingarten has figured that out.

    By the way, last time I checked, every selective college in America uses test scores in admissions. Interesting how the institutions preparing their applicants don’t want to be judged by them.

  • Lisa


    Students who apply to selective colleges WANT good test scores. They even pay big bucks to test prep companies to help get them.

    High school students, especially juniors, just want to finish their last “no consequences for me” standardized test after filling in CST bubbles for 10 years. They aren’t interested in proving to anyone that their teachers taught them.

    One of my most brilliant students fell 170 points on the standardized tests last year. He says he was sick that day, but was forced to take the test. So my salary might fall, or my job might be in jeopardy, because he was sick on one day?

    How are art teachers going to get their raises?

    It might surprise you that I am all for some type of differentiated pay, but I sure hope it doesn’t rest on test scores … at least not at the high school level.


  • TheTruthHurts


    I give teachers far more credit for creativity to design a system that rewards performance and results without boiling everything down to a single test on a single day. I think that is a straw man argument to avoid the challenging work of putting our heads together and devising a system that respects teachers and supports and rewards performance.

    As I look at where to send my kids, I shudder to think of the incentives created by a seniority-based tenure system where the worst are rewarded more than the best based on “years of service.” I cannot in good conscience put my kids in such a system unless I am willing to be involved daily to ensure my kids get the best the system has to offer. That system was not designed for the benefit of children.

  • Ms. J.

    One part of Obama’s plan, which he did mention in his speech but which I’ve yet to see highlighted in articles covering the latter, is the focus on improving teachers so that more of us could be effective in improving the performance of our students. I am glad that he wants to treat us like professionals (as he himself put it)and I think that if we want to be so treated we will have to be willing to submit to some constructive criticism.

    I have the same anxieties about merit pay and how it will be measured as previous posters, but one part of Obama’s plan calls for extra pay to be given to mentor teachers who have shown that they are accomplished not only at teaching but at sharing their best practices. Teacher who fulfill this role would be receiving a kind of recognition as well as extra pay. That would be a great way to improve teachers, improve their salaries, and give them something substantial to strive for.

  • aly

    Nextset- you are totally speaking my language, and i’m excited to wholeheartedly support your argument. especially true is the fact that we cannot- and should not- be selective about the candidates we receive in our classrooms. the students we serve come from an insane variety of backgrounds, which can and often does impact their standardized test scores.

    Truth- i completely agree with you that it is frustrating to have a system that rewards longevity instead of success. as a second year teacher busting my butt, working 70 hours a week on things for school, it kills me to know that some of the terrible teachers i see in district gatherings or hear about from my colleagues make 50% more than i do.

    HOWEVER… you are sadly mistaken when you put your faith in the hands of teachers to figure out how to make the tests matter, or that one day doesn’t have as strong of an impact. our legislators are the ones who decide these things, not us, and although we elect them, they are still in the business of making policies they have no true understanding of. they are not, and have not been, teachers. until we can make the test have an immediate or very short-term impact for the kids, they will continue to approach it in the apathetic manner they do now. this is especially true in poorer, less academically successful communities.

    a significant problem is the kids don’t even get their scores until the mid-summer or beginning of the following school year; by the time they have to deal with the results, they don’t even remember that they took the test. meanwhile, teachers like lisa and me are stuck paying the price because they weren’t invested that day. it would also be nice if all parents cared because that would be an enormous part of buy-in. i’ve had more than a handful of students tell me that their parents just throw the scores away because they don’t understand them and don’t care.

    california used to have a governor’s scholarship, which offered $1,000 toward college for each year you could score in the top 10% of the state on your age group’s STAR/CST. i enjoyed the tests as a high schooler because i wanted to see how well i could do, but for a lot of my friends, that scholarship was a decent source of motivation. from the program, i was able to get $2,000 towards college (it started my junior year and was retroactive for one year). unfortunately, due to budget issues, it was cancelled after just three years, so now we’re back to the starting line.

    teachers CAN come up with creative and meaningful ways to make these things count, but we’d have to be given the leeway and support to accomplish that mighty goal. it could start with getting the scores back before the year is up.

  • Teri Gruenwald

    California used to have a mentor teacher program that did award outstanding teachers who were able to share their ideas for best practices. Unfortunately, that went by the wayside, as did so many other things.

    Also, back under Gray Davis, when we were flush with money, schools were getting rewarded based on CST results. It was great for those schools that got this huge influx of money. But the schools that didn’t get it in our district were resentful, because those teachers were working just as hard as we were. But their student demographics were different.

    Also, let’s try not to generalize about veteran teachers. I read far too many comments in various places about these dead weight teachers who are clocking in until they retire and earning the big bucks. First, there aren’t a lot of big bucks for teachers. But more importantly, yes, like all professions, you will find a few mediocre and even bad apples. But I work with a lot of veteran teachers who look upon each day and each year as a new opportunity to perfect our craft. I am pleased that Aly is working so hard in her first few years–those will be the years when you do, in fact, work the hardest, because you are learning a skill and craft. I also see quite a few new and newer teachers who aren’t putting in the time to develop their lessons, organize themselves, think about their students, etc. And I know many teachers, myself included, who do put in the many hours at home, not at school, grading papers and lesson planning.

    I worry about merit pay because for the last 5 years more than a solid majority of my students were engaged, open, and willing to learn, and their test scores went up. I was a fabulous teacher for them and they gave me back so much in return. However, this year, in my classes, I have students who either get A’s or F’s, with very few grades falling on the rest of the spectrum. I have met with (and continue to meet with) parents–today I had a conference before school and then 1 after school. I send out emails regularly, call home, have a web page where I explain what we did in class, what’s for homework, and where I upload the assignments, and the end result is no difference. I get a lot of empty promises from parents/guardians and nothing else. So, would I be perceived as a bad teacher this year compared to other years? (I sure feel this way, but I know that I am still a good teacher, but I have kids who checked out such a long time ago and so did their folks).

    Plus merit pay would require a lot more observations and evaluations. I haven’t had an observation written up in years, and hardly anyone has come in to observe me anyway. We have too few administrators and too many teachers for them to follow through on that and get their administrative work done, apparently, because I am not the only one not getting observed.

    A veteran teacher of 20 years

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