Barack Obama is a pragmatist.
His foreign policy approach wouldn't raise eyebrows in a Bush Senior administration up to a point (the point of greed for resources where the "fasciosphere" drools on its suit). Still, Bush Senior, you recall, didn't invade Iraq, rather, he contained Saddam in the ethos of "stability" that governed foreign policy during the Cold War.
In the energy squabble last summer, Obama relented on the offshore drilling ban, a sacred cow of the left. He saw the timelines involved and realized that in the race for developing renewables versus developing offshore drilling, given the considerable largess for renewables and electric transport that was built into the best proposals, and with that held up to the cost/benefits of offshore drilling, renewables won.
And now, public education.
Charter schools and merit pay come under the umbrella of an Obama reform movement, so I've let the issues overlap here.
Back in the Fleetwood Mac seventies I was handed the office of president of a non-profit community group that wanted to start a Waldorf school, based on the insights of Rudolf Steiner, a gnostic Christian and Goethe scholar. We succeeded, and the school ran for many years (Orcas Island). Later I copped a degree that included a California school psychologist certificate. Those years shaped my opinion of American public education. After witnessing the mediocrity and spiritless atmosphere of these outfits compared with the vitality of Waldorf, or Steiner, schools, I became convinced that something needed to be done. I also met some nice neighbors in Oregon who were part of a charter school run by Christians, and they were good folks. So there's my take. Enter Obama.
Last February, in an interview with John Harris at Politico, Obama spoke about charter schools:
I think that the Democratic Party is a big tent, which means that there are positions I may not agree with. I mentioned one, charter schools, and experimenting with our school system, to make it work. I think that’s something we really have to pay attention to.
When asked if teachers' unions have been an impediment to charter schools, he said
...they haven’t been thrilled with me talking about these kinds of issues. And my sister is a teacher, so I am a strong support of teachers, but I’m not going to be bound by just a certain way of talking about these things, in order for us to move forward on behalf of our kids. And I think a lot of teachers want to talk about how to continually improve performance. The broader point is that we’ve got to get beyond a lot of the traditional categories.
In the two decades since Mr. Obama arrived in Chicago, its public schools have undergone a sweeping turnaround, from an education wasteland to a district that, while still facing major challenges, is among the most improved in the nation. The city has closed many failing schools and reopened them with new staffs, making it an important laboratory for one of the country’s most vexing problems.
One of the biggest lessons Mr. Obama drew from his experiences in Chicago, associates said, is that student achievement is highly dependent on teacher quality.
During the primary campaign both Obama and Clinton treaded lightly on the toes of the the education lobby. An August Boston Globe article said so. But:
Obama earned a brief, stunned silence at the National Education Association's annual conference last month when he repeated his support for the controversial notion of paying teachers based on performance.
But he followed with a string of caveats, suggesting that he would not link teachers' pay to students' test scores...
Performance rewarded: merit pay:
...merit pay, the way it's been designed, I think, is based on just a single standardized test--I think is a big mistake, because the way we measure performance may be skewed by whether or not the kids are coming into school already 3 years or 4 years behind. But I think that having assessment tools and then saying, "You know what? Teachers who are on career paths to become better teachers, developing themselves professionally--that we should pay excellence more." I think that's a good idea.
But it appears that the teaching establishment is softening its position on charters:
“Those of us in the education community can learn from charter school success stories and failures. The key is to identify what is working that can be sustained and reproduced on a broad scale so that as many students as possible can benefit.”
That's a quote from Dennis Van Roekel, the NEA president, and it came in a statement issued right after Obama's speech in Dayton, Ohio, where he unveiled his education reform plan that, among other things, calls for doubling funding for charter schools.
"Sen. Obama gets it,” Van Roekel says about the plan. “He knows that reform cannot take place overnight or by using quick fixes. Obama wants to invest in comprehensive strategies, both immediate and long-term, which will pay dividends for our children, our economy and our country.”
In Oregon, Measure 60 on teacher compensation brings together two unlikely allies. This front page story in the Willamette Week has it:
Two weeks ago, during the final presidential debate, Barack Obama made Bill Sizemore very happy. And all he did was utter three simple words: “pay for performance.”
“That’s at least a $50,000 to $100,000 ad for my measure,” Sizemore says he told his wife, Cindy, as they watched the Oct. 15 debate from their Klamath Falls home.
Sizemore’s “measure” is Measure 60, also known as the “merit pay” for teachers initiative, which Sizemore says will raise the salaries of effective teachers.
the name Sizemore is so anathema to progressive Oregonians that many voters need only to see his name on a measure to rapidly go in whichever direction he isn't. But whoa, now he seems to have Obama in his corner. He also has a Portland School Board member, Sonja Henning, as the lone advocate for merit pay and for reforming teacher evaluations to go beyond mere seniority.
Measure 60 would do “something local districts cannot do, quite frankly,” said Henning, a Stanford graduate who’s been on both sides of the labor disputes as a former president of the Women’s National Basketball Association players’ union and a labor lawyer representing corporate management.
“Nothing is more important than getting an effective teacher in front of students,” Henning said. “[Measure 60] gives experts the opportunity to come up with solutions...and I’m confident enough smart people in a room can come up with criteria that are workable.”
The WWeek article is a must-read for Oregonians.