The Obama administration will soon be awarding billions of dollars in education grants to help local school districts raise the bar on student achievement. In order to qualify for the money, schools may have to grade not only students, but also teachers.
Speaking at a middle school in Madison, Wis., President Obama said one of the most important factors in students' success is the teacher in the front of their classroom. That's why a system for identifying good teachers is one of the main requirements for schools that want some of the more than $4 billion in challenge grants that the Education Department is preparing to award.
On Wednesday, Obama told the crowd: "We've got to do a better job recruiting and preparing new teachers. We've got to do a better job of rewarding outstanding teachers. And, 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."
As part of its grant-making process, the federal government is encouraging schools to collect a lot more information about how students perform during the year, and to use that information as part of teachers' evaluation.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan says student performance shouldn't be the only yardstick for judging teachers, but it should be part of the mix.
"There are teachers every single year where the average child in their class is gaining two years of growth," Duncan said. "Those teachers are the unsung heroes in our society. Shouldn't we know that? On the flip side of it, if you have teachers or schools where students are falling further and further behind each year, I think we need to know that as well."
Teachers unions have traditionally been wary of any system that rewards or punishes teachers on the basis of their students' test scores.
Some states, including Wisconsin, have gone so far as to ban the practice. But in order to qualify for the federal grants, Wisconsin is preparing to change its law.
"We as professional educators give tests, write tests and use tests all the time," said Mary Bell, president of the teachers' union. "It is a question of knowing what the test says and what it doesn't say, and what it measures and what it doesn't."
Obama cautioned that as important as teachers are, students and parents also play a key role.
He mentioned how his own daughter had to knuckle down after a disappointing score of 73 on a recent sixth-grade science test. With her parents' encouragement, Malia Obama redoubled her efforts. On her next test, she scored a 95.