Obama Bucks Party Line on Education

Barack Obama signaled he's willing to boost teacher pay based on performance

ByABC News
November 20, 2007, 6:45 PM

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."