Obama urges education reform

President Obama outlined an ambitious education agenda on Tuesday that included the suggestion that states and local schools consider longer days and academic years.

"The challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom," Obama told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in a speech with sweeping goals but few specifics.

The goals include improved early childhood education programs, higher standards in elementary and high schools, better teacher pay and recruitment, and expanded college aid programs.

Obama tied education reform to addressing the economic crisis, saying a better educated workforce will enhance the nation's long-term prosperity.

"Education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it is a prerequisite," Obama said.

In a 40-minute address, Obama outlined five general areas of education reform, including many proposals he made during his presidential campaign:

•Early childhood education. Obama pledged new "early learning challenge grants" to states for programs to help infants prepare for kindergarten, citing research that such programs can lead to better math and reading scores later on.

The recently signed stimulus bill includes $5 billion in new funds for Head Start and Early Head Start, Obama said. Overall, the $787 billion stimulus package includes $41 billion in total grants to local school districts.

•K-12 improvements.

Obama called for "world class standards" in math and science, as well as "21st Century skills" such as "problem-solving and critical thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity."

There should also be less differences between the 50 states when it comes to "benchmarks for academic success," Obama said. He said 4th grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming, yet both sets of students are getting the same grade.

Higher standards are the goal of the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush administration's signature education initiative. Obama did not call for amending the No Child Left Behind law, but wants it to "live up to its name by ensuring not only that teachers and principals get the funding they need, but that the money is tied to results."

•Recruiting and keeping better teachers.

Obama again advocated merit pay for teachers, a proposal opposed by allies in the teachers unions and the Democratic Party. He also said states and school districts should take steps "to move bad teachers out of the classroom."

Citing some of the opposition, Obama said education has been hurt over the years by the "stale" political debates in Washington. He urged Democrats to support merit pay and said Republican should acknowledge a bigger government role in helping schools.

•Promoting innovation and excellence.

The idea would be to include more charter schools, another idea opposed by many Democrats. Obama called on states to lift caps on the number of charter schools, but also to shut down those that aren't working.

Obama also discussed his idea for a longer school calendar, noting that U.S. children spend a month less in school than their South Korean counterparts. "That is no way to prepare them for a 21st Century economy," he said.

The United States also needs to address an "epidemic" of rising drop-out rates, Obama said.

•Higher education.

Obama proposed increases in Pell grants, pegging them to annual inflation rates. He also cited a $2.5 billion program to help college students "persist and graduate," saying a college degree has never been more important than it is now.