Obama renews call to remove underperforming teachers, lengthen school year

President Obama on Monday renewed his call to purge public schools of underperforming teachers and lengthen the school year so that the U.S. keeps pace with other advanced countries.

"We've got to be able to identify teachers who are doing well [and] teachers who are not doing well. We've got to give them the support and the training to do well," Obama said in an interview on NBC's "Today" show. "And, ultimately, if some teachers aren't doing a good job, they've got to go."

The president's comments echoed some of his earlier remarks as well as comments made by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The Obama administration has made teacher evaluation one of the centerpieces of its "Race to the Top" education reform funding.

In Los Angeles, school district officials have begun negotiating a new contract with the teachers union and have called for including "value-added" analysis in formal evaluations. Value-added estimates teachers' effectiveness by analyzing student improvement on standardized tests. It has been embraced by many education reformers and policymakers, including Duncan, as a way to bring a measure of objectivity to evaluations.

The local teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, has resisted efforts to include student test scores in evaluations.

Unions remain an important part of the Democratic Party base. Yet, Obama's view of teachers' unions, while positive, was also tempered.

"I'm a strong supporter of the notion that a union can protect its members and help be part of the solution, as opposed to part of the problem," he said in the interview. "What is also true is that sometimes that means they are resistant to change when things aren't working."

Teachers unions in many states have been partners in finding solutions, Obama said, adding that sometimes "radical change" in schools is necessary.

In a major education address last year, Obama endorsed merit pay for teachers and a longer school year. In the "Today" interview he said that the extra cost of a longer school year would be worth it.

"We now have our kids go to school about a month less than most other advanced countries," the president said. "And that month makes a difference. It means that kids are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer."

He added: "It's especially severe for poorer kids, who may not be seeing as many books in their house during the summers. So the idea of a longer school year, I think, makes sense."

During the interview, Obama said he did not think his two daughters, who attend an elite private school in Washington, could receive as good an education in the local public schools.

In Washington, D.C.'s recent mayoral primary, voters rejected the incumbent, first-term Mayor Adrian Fenty, who had made a major effort to overhaul the district's public schools by removing underperforming teachers, attempting to tie their salaries to student performance and closing schools with low enrollment.

Obama said that, as president, he could probably find a public school able to provide his daughters an excellent education.

"But the broader problem is for a mom or a dad who are working hard but don't have a bunch of connections, don't have a lot of choice in terms of where they live," he said. "They should be getting the same quality education for their kids as anybody else. And we don't have that yet."

Obama also said that more spending is needed to update textbooks, facilities and equipment, but added that money without reform would not solve the problems of education. He restated his support for charter schools as an alternative to public schools, saying, however, that he wanted to make sure they were of high quality and accountable.

"Charter schools are not a panacea," he said. "We shouldn't say, just because a school's a charter, that it's an excellent school, because there are some actually very poor-performing charters."

peter.nicholas.latimes.com

Times staff reporter Jason Song contributed to this story.

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