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Obama: Shutter failing schools and bring down the teacher 'firewall'

In a tough talk on education, the president spells out criteria for winning $4.35 billion in federal grants. He challenges rules that say teachers should not be judged by how their students perform.

November 05, 2009|Christi Parsons

MADISON, WIS. — Declaring there should be "no excuse for mediocrity" in public schools, President Obama on Wednesday pledged to push for recruitment of better teachers, better pay for those who succeed and dismissal of those who let their students down.

When principals are trying to determine which teachers are doing well, he said, they should be able to consider student performance as part of the evaluation.

And when schools are failing, "they should be shut down," Obama said. "But when innovative public schools are succeeding, they shouldn't be stifled, they should be supported."

The president's tough words came as Obama spoke to students and teachers at a charter middle school in Wisconsin's capital, Madison. But as he announced the criteria by which states can win grants from the Department of Education's $4.35-billion "Race to the Top" fund, Obama spelled out standards that depart from conventional Democratic dogma.

Obama called for the abolition of "firewall" rules, which prevent many schools from judging teacher performance based on student performance.

To win the grant money, they'll also have to develop internationally competitive standards, find innovative ways to recruit educators and track the progress of students to make sure every child graduates ready for college.

"If a state wants to increase its chances of actually winning a grant, it will have to do more," Obama said. "It will have to collect information about how students are doing in a particular year -- and over the course of an academic career -- and make this information available to teachers so they can use it to improve the way they teach. That's how teachers can determine what they should be doing differently in the classroom. That's how principals can determine what changes need to be made in our schools."

The president, who delivered his remarks at James C. Wright Middle School on the first anniversary of his election, went off script for a few moments, telling of a C grade that his 11-year-old daughter, Malia, brought home from school recently. It didn't meet the standards at the Obama home, he said, and Malia knew it.

More recently, he said, she came home with a score of 95.

"What was happening was, she had started wanting it more than us," he said.

The president challenged parents to set a high bar at home, but he also pledged support from the government in demanding the same of public schools.

"In the 21st century, when countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow," he said, "there is nothing that will determine the quality of our future as a nation, or the lives our children will lead, more than the kind of education we provide them."

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cparsons@latimes.com

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