President Barack Obama’s 35-minute speech on education at Wright Middle School in Madison on Wednesday was interrupted by applause at many points, but most of the reaction was pretty low-key. Three lines drew what seemed to be more enthusiastic responses from the crowd of more than 500, most of them teachers, parents, and students at the 250-student school. Each of those lines says something significant about public sentiment and Obama administration priorities on education issues.
One: Obama said, “I’ve got to be honest, we’ve got to do a better job of moving bad teachers out of the classroom, once they’ve been given an opportunity to do it right.” His calls for recruiting higher-quality teachers and rewarding top teachers better didn’t get applause, but this line did. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a telephone interview after the speech that this didn’t surprise him — it happens wherever the president speaks about education, he said. Raising the quality of teachers, in large part by doing more to identify quality teachers (and those who aren’t) is one of the highest, but most difficult, priorities for Obama and Duncan. And moving out the ones who really aren’t good at it is especially difficult, particularly given the defensiveness of teachers’ unions when such issues come up.
Two: His call for overhauling the way testing is done nationwide.
He said he didn’t want to see more testing. “What we want to do is finally get testing right.” he said. This drew applause, and so did a line about getting test results back to teachers in a short enough time to be useful. Wisconsin’s current testing regimen means students are taking the annual tests this month, but schools won’t get results for several months. This is hugely unpopular in the state, with educators arguing it leaves results almost useless to them. One of the highest priorities for a revamping of the state testing system is speeding up the cycle.
Three: His call for parents to do more to be part of the education process. “Lifting up American education is not a task for government alone. It will take parents getting more involved,” Obama said. (He then digressed into an anecdote about his daughter Malia struggling with tests in science, which also clearly struck a chord with the audience.) Duncan said the call for parents to do more also consistently generates warm reactions. A subject of huge importance but formidable complexity, parent involvement is getting more attention from educators across the U.S., including in Milwaukee. There appears to be a growing belief that schools can do more than simply throw up their hands when it comes to parents, and that strategies exist to lead many parents to become better allies of their children’s education.