Barack Obama took a stand today that probably won't move the polls in his favor, and could possibly hurt him down the line. Speaking to the National Education Association, Obama announced that he supports merit pay for teachers--a step sort of comparable to walking into a Boston sportsbar wearing full Yankee regalia.
Obama's endorsement of merit pay for teachers was the first note deviating from the promise-anything tenor of visits by several presidential candidates to the union this week.
Obama said that improving public education was vital to the U.S. ability to compete in a global economy, pointing out that students here score well below their counterparts in other industrialized nations, particularly in science and mathematics.
"In the 21st century, countries that out-educate us now will out-compete us tomorrow," Obama said. "The work you do and the difference you make has never been more important to the future of this country."
He promised more pay "across the board" for teachers and extra incentives for those willing to work in lower-performing schools in urban and rural areas, though he noted that he would release the details of those goals and other education policies at a later date.
Obama did evidently hit several of the expected (and valid) Democratic notes as well, blasting the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind policy with a clever one-liner--"Don't pass a law called No Child Left Behind and leave the money behind"--as well as its overreliance on standardized testing. But by supporting merit pay as well as differential bonuses for working in higher-need areas, Obama began to put some substance where his sentiments have been: if his campaign really is to transcend tired zero-sum partisan battles, he needs to acknowledge that arguments on both sides of those battles have some merit.
Resistance to merit compensation is one of two deeply dug-in positions of the teachers' unions that most everyone else hates. (Unwillingness to empower principals to fire crappy educators is the other.) It gives the sense, and understandably so, that the unions are more concerned with protecting the job security and earning power of bad teachers rather than rewarding great ones as a means to improve educational outcomes and ensure qualified teachers in shortage areas (math, science, special education, et al). While the devil certainly resides in the details of how to define and reward "merit"--one reason why he's right to seek a methodology in partnership "with" the NEA rather than doing it "to" them--the concept has to go forward.
I don't have the mental toughness to go track down Hillary Clinton's remarks to the NEA... but then again, do I really have to? You know and I know what she served up: a long list of platitudes about the importance of the profession, a few subtle or overt references to the role of the educator in the "village" she believes it takes to raise a child; an anecdote or two about a Very Special Teacher who helped shape her emerging personhood as a young woman; a promise that her administration will stand shoulder to shoulder with the teachers rather than just placing ever-heavier burdens on them as the Bushistas have done through the imposition of NCLB.
That's all fine. But it neither addresses the real problems within the teaching profession--which I believe should be thoroughly professionalized, with salaries comparable to lawyers and doctors and performance expectations similarly elevated from the current dismal level--nor moves the discussion of education issues forward in a way that's meaningful to anyone who wasn't in the room.
Obama's taking a whack at this particular sacred cow won't do much for him in the short term; most obviously, I can't imagine he'll get the union's endorsement now. But it does suggest that some of those traits liberals were unsure he possessed--a measure of courage, a willingness to take stands--might be there after all, underlaying the lofty rhetoric with a real vision of leadership.