Lee, Collier teachers’ unions lukewarm with Obama’s support of merit pay for teachers

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama called for tying teachers’ pay to students’ performance and expanding innovative charter schools Tuesday, embracing ideas that have provoked hostility from members of teachers unions. He also suggested longer school days — and years — to help America’s kids compete in the world.

In his first big speech on education, Obama said the United States must drastically improve student achievement to regain lost international standing.

“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.”

His solutions include teacher pay and charter school proposals that have met resistance among members of teachers unions, which constitute an important segment of the Democratic Party.

Obama acknowledged that conflict, saying, “Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom.”

Despite their history on the issues, union leaders publicly welcomed Obama’s words, saying it seems clear he wants to include them in his decisions in a way President George W. Bush did not.

“We finally have an education president,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-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.”

Collier County Education Association President Cal Boggess said the union’s position is that the Collier County School District’s current salary schedule is a merit pay schedule. He said that there are 12 domains where a teacher must meet certain educator accomplished practices before they can move up a step in the salary schedule.

“If you don’t accomplish them, you don’t move up,” he said. “You are judged by the principal and if he or she does not think that you have met those accomplishments, you are not moved up.”

However, Boggess said merit pay plans that require teachers to meet certain levels on standardized tests do not work.

“The FCAT cannot score everything. It gets away from the whole process of teaching to the total child. There are things that teachers do that are not measured in the testing,” he said.

While Boggess did not dismiss Obama’s idea, he pointed out that state politicians have tried, and failed, to institute merit pay plans. He added that doing it based on standardized testing would take authority away from the school principal.

“By basing the merit pay on a test or other external things, the principal has lost control of the school. He knows who in the school is making the right environment for the school. And he knows that there might be a teacher who does so much for the school, but that work is not measured by FCAT scores.”

Jonathan Tuttle, executive director of the Collier County Education Association — which represents 80 percent of the district’s teachers, said things like a special needs teacher helping a student learn to tie her shoes would never be measured on a standardized test.

“There are so many teachers that do miraculous things with kids out there everyday that will not be scored on a standardized test,” he said.

Mark Castellano, president of the Teachers Association of Lee County, said education is too woefully under-funded in Florida to begin talking about a merit program.

“Florida is $4,000 to $5,000 below the national average for teacher salaries,” Castellano said. “I really don’t want to hear ‘We’re going to put more money into performance pay’ until our salaries are at the national average.”

Catellano’s group represents Lee County teachers during labor negotiations, which are underway in the district as the school board considers a potential three percent pay cut for district employees. That would include teachers, administrators and the myriad bus drivers and maintenance workers employed by the district.

In light of across-the-board cuts, it is a stretch to imagine how to find the money to funnel back into a merit program, Castellano said.

Still, national unions are hopeful members can work with the president on the plan.

The president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, Dennis van Roekel said, “President Obama always says he will do it with educators, not to them.”

“That is a wonderful feeling, for the president of the United States to acknowledge and respect the professional knowledge and skills that those educators bring to every job in the school,” van Roekel said.

Van Roekel insisted that Obama’s call for teacher performance pay does not necessarily mean raises or bonuses would be tied to student test scores. It could mean more pay for board-certified teachers or for those who work in high-poverty, hard-to-staff schools, he said.

The union leaders also liked that Obama took on Republicans in his speech, saying the GOP has refused to spend more money on early childhood programs despite evidence they make a difference.

There also has been considerable friction over charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently, free from some of the rules that constrain regular schools. Many teachers are concerned that such schools drain money and talent from regular schools.

However, Obama said state limits on numbers of charter schools aren’t “good for our children, our economy or our country.” He said many of the innovations in education today are happening in charter schools.

Obama addressed the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a setting intended to underscore the need to boost academic performance, especially among Latino and black children who sometimes lag behind their white counterparts.

President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law aimed to close that achievement gap, but progress has been slow, and Obama says his administration can do better. None of what he outlined Tuesday was new; his education agenda reflects Obama’s campaign platform.

Broadly speaking, Obama wants changes at every level from before kindergarten through college. He is putting special focus on solving the high school dropout crisis and pushing states to adopt more rigorous academic standards.

Some of his promises already are in the works: Public schools will get an unprecedented amount of money — double the education budget under Bush — from the economic stimulus bill over the next two years. To get some of those dollars, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan insist states will have to prove they are making good progress in teacher quality, on data systems to track how students learn and on standards and tests.

After the scheduled event, Obama made a surprise visit with Duncan to a meeting of state school chiefs at a Washington hotel. Duncan said last Friday that states will get the first $44 billion by the end of the month.

Obama also wants kids to spend more time in school, with longer school days, school weeks and school years — a position he admitted will make him less popular with his school-age daughters.

Children in South Korea spend a month longer in school every year than do kids in the U.S., where the antiquated school calendar comes from the days when many people farmed and kids were needed in the fields.

“I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas, not with Malia and Sasha,” Obama said as the crowd laughed. “But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom.”

“If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America,” Obama said.

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