November 20, 2007 -- Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., appears to have carefully threaded the needle on the contentious issue of merit pay: his proposal to reward teachers based on student performance, which he unveiled Tuesday in New Hampshire, was praised by education reform advocates while being cautiously welcomed by the head of an influential teachers' union.
"Where they do succeed," Obama said of teachers, "I think it's time we rewarded them for it."
"Cities like Denver have already proven that by working with teachers, this can work," Obama continued. "That we can find new ways to increase pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them and not just based on an arbitrary test score."
Obama's willingness to boost teacher pay based on performance separates him from his Democratic rivals, including Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who supports school-based, rather than individual teacher-based, merit pay. The broader political significance of his unorthodox proposal is that it gives him an opportunity to buttress his argument that he is the Democrat best positioned to bring people together for purposes of challenging the status quo.
"I believe it is a bold move on his part," said Marc Lampkin, the executive director of Strong American Schools, a non-partisan education group funded by the foundations of Bill Gates and Eli Broad. "It is a differentiator. It is the kind of bold initiative that we need to sustain broad education reform."
While winning plaudits from advocates of merit pay like Lampkin, Obama avoided a full-scale revolt from unaligned teachers' unions by carefully calibrating his proposal.
For starters, he completely avoided the term "merit pay" which unions view as code for basing raises solely on student performance on standardized tests.
He then indicated that his differentiated compensation system would reward teachers not only for demonstrated gains by students but also for undergoing additional training and for serving as mentors to other teachers.
Next, he specifically pointed to the experience in Denver where student scores on standardized assessments are not part of the pay-for-performance formula.
Finally, he assured unions by signaling that his ideas would be pursued through the collective-bargaining process which the head of New Hampshire's most powerful teachers' union called "the crux of the whole thing."
Obama's merit pay ideas are part of a much broader $16 billion per year plan to overhaul pre-K through 12 education.
Rhonda Wesolowski, the president of the 16,000-member National Education Association of New Hampshire, plans to quiz Obama on his proposal Monday when the Illinois Democrat appears before the government relations committee of her organization.
"He didn't answer any questions today," said Wesolowski. "On Monday, I will ask him: how would he measure consistent success? What measure is he talking about? We certainly don't want it to be just standardized tests."
According to Obama's domestic-policy staff, school districts under Obama's proposal would have the option of making standardized tests one of the factors used for determining compensation. But districts receiving grants under this proposal would not be allowed to rely solely on standardized tests.
Obama's policy team expects most school districts to rely on teacher observation by administrators and veteran teachers as well as student portfolios, where teachers can be evaluated on whether students' writing has improved over time.
Obama believes student performance on statewide standardized tests cannot be used to evaluate teacher performance because the assessments used in most states are not, in Obama's view, designed to reflect a teacher's impact.
New Hampshire NEA, which has already met with Obama's top rivals, is nearing the end of its endorsement process.
After hearing from Obama on Nov. 26, the government relations committee will meet on Nov. 28 to decide on whether to make an endorsement. Two days later, on Nov. 30, the executive board of N.E.A. New Hampshire will take up the advice of its government relations committee.
"The key to all of this is collective bargaining," said N.E.A.'s Wesolowski. "If the teachers have agreed to this in a collective bargaining agreement and it is done with their full input, we would be for it."