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Concord Monitor - Obama Shares School Plan

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Concord Monitor - Obama Shares School Plan

By Shira Schoenberg

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama introduced an education plan yesterday that would reward teachers for high levels of performance. His campaign stressed that the Illinois senator was not supporting the traditional concept of merit pay.

"I don't want to just talk about how great teachers are. I want to be a president who rewards them for their greatness," Obama said in a policy address at Manchester Central High School, where he spoke to students, teachers, parents and policy makers, many of whom volunteered for his campaign.

The $18 billion plan stressed the importance of early childhood education and featured a range of initiatives, including encouraging math and science education and expanding summer learning opportunities. Obama also criticized the federal No Child Left Behind act, saying it "has done more to stigmatize and demoralize our students and teachers in struggling schools than it has to marshal the talent and the determination and the resources to turn them around."

To encourage teachers, Obama would expand service scholarships of up to $25,000 to cover training costs for those who participate in teacher preparation programs and then teach in a high-need field or location. He would require accreditation for teacher preparation programs, create a voluntary national performance assessment, put money toward schools for professional development and provide $1 billion in funding for grants to create a mentoring programs.

Obama would also create a "Career Ladder Initiative" that compensates teachers based on skill and performance. He explained that the government would fund districts that design programs to reward teachers who serve as mentors or teach in impoverished areas.

"And if teachers acquire additional knowledge and skills to serve students better - if they consistently excel in the classroom - that work can be valued and rewarded as well," he said.

Teachers could be rewarded for subject knowledge, skills in special education or bilingual education, or high levels of performance measured by professional teaching standards, such as National Board certification or "local standards-based assessments," according to the plan.

Linda Darling Hammond, an education professor at Stanford University who advises Obama, said Obama's plan is different than a traditional merit pay system. "Usually, merit pay meant some kind of bonuses for teachers at the end of the school year," Hammond said. "It sets teachers against each other, has problems with the evaluation process . . . doesn't improve the capacity of the teaching force or improve education as a whole."

In contrast, Hammond described Obama's plan as a career track.

"As teachers gain expertise and take on greater responsibility, they can be recognized and rewarded in the sense that compensation will take into account the additional sense of responsibilities," she said. "It's more like what you would see with lawyers who move from associate to partner in a law firm, or a professor from associate to full professor."

The National Education Association opposes traditional merit pay and has not yet endorsed a candidate. Rhonda Wesolowski, New Hampshire President for NEA, said she was unsure of Obama's proposal.

"I have questions about, how is he going to measure consistent success? What is he speaking of when he says 'reward teachers'? What measure he has to indicate whether a teacher's been successful?" she said.

Wesolowski said Obama did not seem to be talking about traditional merit pay, which she defined as rewarding teachers "based on arbitrary test scores."

Obama's distinction between merit pay and incentive pay for working in needy areas is one that Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd made in a recent Democratic debate. Dodd said he would support paying teachers in poor districts more but opposed paying teachers for student performance just because students are in better neighborhoods. Former North Carolina senator John Edwards has also said he will raise teacher salaries in poor districts and pay more for teachers with national certification or who serve as mentors. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton said at the most recent Democratic presidential debate that she supports school-based merit pay, not rewards to individual teachers.

In promoting his plan, Obama criticized No Child Left Behind as an unfunded mandate, and he advocated changing its assessment methods.

"Promising high-quality teachers in every classroom and then leaving the support and the pay for those teachers behind is wrong. Labeling a school and its students as failures one day and then throwing your hands up and walking away from them the next is wrong," he said.

He added that standardized tests should not dilute classes teaching music, art or physical education.

He also criticized Edwards and Clinton. "It's pretty popular to bash No Child Left Behind out on the campaign trail, but when it was being debated in Congress four years ago, my colleague Dick Durbin offered everyone a chance to vote so that the law couldn't be enforced unless it was fully funded," Obama said. "Sen. Edwards and Sen. Clinton passed on that chance, and I believe that was a serious mistake."

In response, both Edwards and Clinton criticized Obama for voting as an Illinois state senator to require his state's board of education to implement the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

"In his rush to criticize, Sen. Obama left out the inconvenient fact that he supported No Child Left Behind as an Illinois state senator before he opposed it as a presidential candidate. It's not 'a new kind of politics' to try to have it both ways," Edwards spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield said.

Clinton spokeswoman Kathleen Strand said Clinton voted for a different amendment funding No Child Left Behind, which Obama did not. "Sen. Clinton has repeatedly called for fully funding the law and has voted several times to do so," she said.

Obama spokesman Reid Cherlin responded: "We realize it's a textbook Washington tactic to pass the buck for your mistakes, but the truth is, states are not to blame for Washington's failure to fund NCLB. Like other legislators who wanted to provide children with as much education funding as possible, Barack Obama voted to get the little money that was made available by NCLB but has been consistently critical of its design and implementation and believes it should've been fully funded from the start."

Molly Wienberg, a Central High student who wants to be a teacher, said she liked Obama's ideas. "I love the focus on the child and making sure teachers get the education they need," she said. "Now, tons of kids aren't learning enough."

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