In his first major speech on overhauling the country's education system, President Barack Obama broke with members of his own party and urged states to open more charter schools and expand programs that pay teachers based on performance. The president also called on states to stop "low-balling" academic standards and end the use of "off-the-shelf" student testing. "We have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us," Obama told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "What is at stake is nothing less than the American dream."
Obama said that making the country's education system the envy of the world again will require a mix of innovation and investment. Besides urging states to expand the number of charter schools that give parents a choice, the president called for a longer school day and academic year. "I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas," he said. "But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom."
In a speech that was remarkable for its candor, the president chastised Democrats and Republicans alike for refusing to acknowledge each other's good ideas. He took swipes at Republicans for refusing to invest in early education, even though research has proven that children in these programs are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college. But the most pointed criticism seemed directed at members and supporters of his party, mainly teacher unions, which historically have opposed tying teacher pay to student outcomes. "It is time to start rewarding good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones," Obama said, adding that his administration will invest in merit pay programs that attract the best and brightest into the profession, especially to fill critical areas such as math and science. He added, "Let me be clear: if a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences."
Obama also said his administration would overhaul President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act to make sure that the law "finally lives up to its name." Although he stopped short of proposing federal academic standards to ensure that all students receive the same education, the president said states that agreed to raise standards would receive assistance from the federal government. "This is an area where we are being outpaced by other nations. It's not that their kids are any smarter than ours—it's that they are being smarter about how to educate their kids," Obama said, noting that the American curriculum for eighth graders is two full years behind the top performing countries'.
Recognizing that government alone can't solve the nation's education crisis, Obama called on parents to take more responsibility for their children's education. He even had a message to those students who watched his speech, "Don't even think about dropping out of school. As I said a couple of weeks ago, dropping out is quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country, and it is not an option—not anymore."