Remarks from President Obama Related to Education in Arnold, MO April 29th, 2009:

Missouri leaders heard some more details about the President’s drive for merit pay for teachers, real school accountability, and making smart investments in the classroom.  Below is an excerpt.

Q I’m a school counselor in the Fox T6 district. President Obama, what do you feel is the biggest challenge facing our educational system today, and how do you plan on meeting those challenges?

THE PRESIDENT: Okay, excellent question. I believe that we’ve got a multitude of challenges. So rather than just isolate on one, let me talk about several.

Our children are coming out of high school — in some cases, they’re not even graduating high school, but even if they graduate from high school — ranked lower on math and science scores than many other advanced industrialized countries. Nations like China and India are starting to turn out more engineers, more scientists. If we aren’t able to compete technologically we’re not going to be able to compete, because this is a knowledge-based economy. We can have some people who are really willing to work hard, but if the technology is coming from overseas and all we’re competing for is just our labor, then over time those countries will get richer, our countries will get poorer.

So we’ve got to upgrade across the board — not just in poor, underprivileged schools, but across the board — we’ve got to upgrade the performance levels of our young people. Now, in order to do that, the single-biggest ingredient is the quality of our teachers; single most important factor — (applause) — single most important factor in the classroom is the quality of the person standing at the front of the classroom. And that’s why our recovery package put a lot of emphasis on teacher training, teacher recruitment, teacher retention, professional development.

And I’ve got a terrific young Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who is — (applause) — and he is so passionate, but he’s tough, and he wants to push school districts to really do what it takes to give teachers the support that they need.

Now, that involves a whole range of things. It means that how we train and recruit teachers in the first place, how do we match them up with master teachers so that they learn best practices; how do we make sure that if they’re coming in and they don’t have all the professional background they need in something — a subject area like science, that we give them the training they need; and how do we recruit people who might be great teachers but didn’t go through the conventional channels. If there’s a chemist out there somewhere who wants to teach, we should be able to get him into the classroom in an expedited way, because he or she is bringing skills that we need.

I just gave an award to the Teacher of the Year, who was a police officer, a cop — had gone to the — had become a captain in the New York City Police Department and then decided that he wanted to pursue his lifelong love of learning and went back to teach — and asked for the toughest-to-teach kids. Well, we want to encourage people like that who have a passion for teaching.

Now, I also want to increase teacher pay so that a lot more people want to go into teaching. (Applause.)

The deal I’ve got to strike with teachers, though — I may not get as much applause on this — (laughter) — is I would like to work with teachers and the teachers unions, because I’m a union guy, but I do believe — (applause) — but I do believe that it’s important for the unions to work flexibly with school districts in a consensual fashion to find ways so that if you’ve got a really excellent teacher, after 15, 20 years, they can get paid a little bit more — right? — if they’re doing a really good job. (Applause.)

And now the flip side — I’m telling you, I’m getting to the point where I’m not going to get applause. (Laughter.) If you’ve got a bad teacher who can’t — after given all the support and the training that they need is just not performing up to snuff, we’ve got to find that person a new job. (Applause.)

Just a couple more comments on education generally. A lot of schools still aren’t using technology as well as they could in the classroom. And one of the things we’re trying to do with the Recovery Act is to help schools get broadband, get computers, but then also train people to use it properly. I think we can do more with technology. Once kids get out of high school, making college affordable is absolutely critical. (Applause.) We have to redesign the college experience so that — not everybody is going to go to school for four years right in a row when they’re 18. Some people are going to work for two years, then go back to school for two years once they figure out something they’re interested in; go back to work, maybe five years down the road they need to retrain.

We’ve got to create a pathway for lifelong learning for young people — and not-so-young people — so that all American workers are continually upgrading their skills. (Applause.) So we want to put a lot more emphasis on community colleges and how they are working effectively together.

Let me make a last point because I don’t want to — I could talk about this stuff forever. One last point which I always have to remind people of — I said that the biggest ingredient in school performance is the teacher. That’s the biggest ingredient within a school. But the single biggest ingredient is the parent. (Applause.) So this is an example where, people are always trying to say, oh, Obama, is he liberal? Is he conservative? Well, I want government to do what it should do, but there’s some things government can’t do. That’s where I’m conservative. Government can’t force parents to turn off the TV set and tell your kid to sit down and do their homework. I can’t do that. (Applause.) That’s not my job. That’s your job. Well, it is my job with Sasha and Malia. (Laughter.) Those two, I’m responsible for.

But the other part of it is it’s not just making sure your kids are doing their homework, it’s also instilling a thirst for knowledge and excellence. It’s been noted widely that there are a lot of immigrant students who come from very modest backgrounds economically that end up doing very well. And why is that? Well, the difference is, is that in their families and in their communities a lot of times they’ve got that attitude that used to be prevalent, but sometimes we’re losing — sometimes I worry we’re losing — and that is, boy, it is a privilege to learn, it’s a privilege to discover new things, it’s cool to be smart. (Applause.) We want to reward kids for doing well in school. (Applause.)

And the community can help the parents. Listen, I love basketball. But the smartest kid in the school, the National Science Award winner should be getting as much attention as the basketball star. (Applause.) That’s a change that we’ve got to initiate in our community.