Friday, July 06, 2007

Obama's speech to the NEA

Obama addressed the NEA yesterday (the full text of the speech is at -- what Democrats for Education Reform Executive Director Joe Williams correctly calls Pander-Palooza -- and, well, took some steps in the right direction.  Given the audience and the politics around this issue in the Democratic Party, I'll applaud him for these steps, esp. differential pay, and hope that he uses this as a springboard for more boldness and specificity on this issue.  Ditto for Hillary, who I commend for having the guts to at least briefly mention her support for charter schools in her speech earlier this week.
I certainly appreciate the awful dilemma Hillary, Obama and the other Dems have: I think they get the joke and understand how tepid their "reform" plans are, but it's not reasonable of us to expect them to commit political suicide.  The onus is on us to change the political dynamics in the Democratic Party to that it's not political suicide to say and do the right thing.
Here's Joe's take on DFER's blog ( (full disclosure: I am supporting Obama's candidacy and see Joe's disclosure below):

July 6, 2007

Obama: Breath of Fresh Air, Or Most Clever Panderer?

Sample standardized test question of the week: Who is the least popular person in the Hillary Clinton campaign this morning?

Answer: The poor soul who scheduled Hillary to speak BEFORE Barack Obama at the National Education Association pow-wow in Philly.

I have a whole bunch of unrelated points to make, so hang tough, troopers. 

1. Check out the You Tube speeches below to see how easy Hillary made it for Obama to present himself as the common sense education dude. (I'll get to the substance of his speech in a minute.) Hillary is worried that kids aren't taking field trips anymore because they are taking too many tests; Obama is worried about our growing achievement gap, equality, and international competitiveness. Hrumph. Compare and contrast. Which candidate brought more of a sense of urgency to the table?

2. I do want to post the clips from the speeches so you can see for yourself. This is important because I have an important disclosure issue here. While DFER has not endorsed a candidate, and our board members are individually backing several candidates for president, my wife and I both have maxed out on $2,300 contributions to the Obama campaign. This doesn't mean we won't max out to other candidates as well, and we very well might, but you should know that.

3. Even the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that Obama's appearance before the 9,000 NEA delegates was different from the rest of the field. "Obama's endorsement of merit pay for teachers was the first note deviating from the promise-anything tenor of visits by several presidential candidates to the union this week." That's why it is called Pander-Palooza, folks.

4. But yes, as Eduwonk notes, the real news is that Obama waded into the one place in America which for several days this week claimed the highest concentration per cubic inch of persons opposed to merit pay and called for something that sounded a little bit like... merit pay. This is not a small thing. Sure, he had to do a rhetorical kabuki dance of sorts (he wouldn't use test scores as sole determinant, he would let teachers decide how it would be crafted, etc.) but he went there. Previous candidates like John Kerry were taken to the woodshed by NEA President Reg Weaver and forced to stop all talk about merit pay, something I described in my book and Robert Gordon described in The New Republic. When you are running for president as a Democrat, you are supposed to play along with the idea that there are no teachers who are better than others - they are all great. Another Philadelphia Inquirer analysis called it a "faint endorsement of merit pay" but noted that not only did Obama not get boo'd or hissed, teachers were literally crawling on the ground to get a better viewing spot.

5. Nonetheless Jeff Berkowitz in Chicago wasn't impressed. And Mike Antonucci says it wasn't a Sister Souljah moment at all. And since the teacher delegates actually seemed to like the speech, one DFER friend emailed in a headline suggestion: "Rift Grows Between Union Head, Rest of Universe."

6. Some of my friends in the school choice world were tremendously disappointed that Obama made no mention of charter schools and went out of his way to badmouth vouchers. I wouldn't worry about the charter schools piece quite yet. He's out there on it already. You have to remember what the point of the speech was: to show the American public that he was a heck of a lot more interesting than Hillary on education issues. He did that. Nailed it. Now the key will be to see how the candidates react. Will Hillary get some attitude? Will someone like Bill Richardson have an opening to talk about kids and families? Will Obama convince himself that his speech was so good his work on education is now complete? There is still plenty of time to develop common sense strategies which will promote the fundamental reform of America's school systems. Will anyone go there?

Check out video of some of Hillary's speech here.

Obama speech footage is here.

Don't Go There! He Went There...

At the NEA convention Senator Obama called for something that sounds a lot like merit pay today in his speech...that'll be the headline. On Monday Senator Clinton said something nice about charter schools and that was the headline. The name of the game here is do no harm and they both did that and Obama likely helped himself in the process. But, I'd still really like to see someone make the true and courageous point that while hardly perfect, No Child Left Behind isn't nearly as horrific as it's made out to be. That's post-partisan in today's climate. Also, when Senator Kerry flirted with performance pay in 2004 the NEA went nuts, so keep an eye on the reax here especially if the press is really boffo. But, Obama is harder for them to demonize...Finally, some interesting goings on around ed policy.
Because of all the presidential candidates, the NEA Representative Assembly ended much later than it has in recent years - 9:34 p.m., if you had that in your office pool. I'll have some video of Barack Obama, Mike Huckabee and Joseph Biden once I can edit it all together.

I've resisted the great temptation to write about the candidates' appearances and speeches as they occurred, but I feel there's a lot to be said that you're not getting from the newspaper coverage. A prime example is the Philadelphia Inquirer's story about Barack Obama supporting merit pay.

This was no Sister Souljah moment. Sen. Obama - who probably does support performance pay - merely misunderstood the inner workings of the union he was addressing.

"I commend the work you've done in Minnesota with the governor there to craft an innovative pay system that not only values your performance in the classroom, but the performance of your students as well," he said. "You helped craft it and you and your students benefit from it."

He was referring to Q-Comp, an alternative pay plan of Gov. Pawlenty's that was put together with plenty of input from Education Minnesota, NEA's and AFT's state affiliate. What Sen. Obama probably didn't know is: a) Education Minnesota's participation in Q-Comp has not been, shall we say, universally embraced within NEA and its other state affiliates; and b) it can't really be considered the pride and joy of Education Minnesota either.

In short, by citing Minnesota, Obama had no reason to believe his statements on alternative pay would be all that controversial with his audience. Nevertheless, there was some murmuring in the hall.

If he miscalculated, he would not be the first politician at the NEA convention to do so. Back in 1999, Hillary Clinton was greeted with a moment of silence when she expressed her great admiration for charter schools. But at the time, NEA had its own Charter School Initiative, and she cited it in her speech. Of course, the Charter School Initiative soon disappeared, and even if Q-Comp does not, there is virtually no chance that NEA desires it as a national model.

I doubt Obama will have to back away from his statement, the way John Kerry had to do in 2004, because he spoke only of discussing such a system with NEA. But I strongly suspect in the future this particular plank in his education platform will see its way out of the woodshed only at more opportune times.

I'll have a lot more on the candidates in Monday's communiqué. I would like to mention that I think I was wrong about Mike Huckabee's appearance here. After hearing him speak, I think he did himself some good, striking just the right humorous tone and avoiding the pitfalls.


Post a Comment

<< Home