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Obama's revolutionary reform of U.S. education Add to ...

Barack Obama proposed revolutionary reforms in Canadian education yesterday. Actually, he laid out a plan to transform America's beleaguered public education system. But in education, as in so much else, ideas flow south to north. Mr. Obama's plans for his schools will come to Canada one day. If we're lucky.

Mr. Obama wants pay for teachers to be based on merit, not seniority. Teachers who excel should receive raises; those who fail their students should be fired. "Let me be clear," he declared in a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "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. The stakes are too high."

Well, yes, that's pretty clear.

Under Mr. Obama's plan, the school day and year would be lengthened. States would be encouraged to toughen their curriculums and to raise and harmonize their testing methods to create a national standard. Math and science teachers, who are in short supply, would be paid more than other teachers.

And Mr. Obama wants the states to eliminate barriers to expanding charter schools - publicly funded but privately run schools that, in many cases, have shown astonishing results in turning underperforming black, Latino and native students into graduates.

Taken together, these measures would mark the most fundamental reform of the U.S. education system in 40 years. Just proposing them may turn out to be one of the bravest acts of his presidency.

He counted on the support of the teachers unions during the election. But those same unions vehemently oppose merit pay, standardized testing, a lengthened school year and charter schools. The President is taking on the most powerful interest within the education system and one of the most powerful interests within the Democratic Party. But he is undeterred: "Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom."

Canadian teachers unions mirror their U.S. counterparts. Alberta - quelle surprise - is the only province that permits charter schools. Unions stoutly resist any discussion of merit pay. And paying math and science teachers more than history or English teachers? Don't get them started.

Mr. Obama will face other obstacles. Education isn't eating up funding the way health care is, so Congress may be indifferent to any legislation he sends it. The states, like the provinces, are chiefly responsible for education, and resent being told by Washington what to do. Most important, the middle class doesn't want education reform, at least not the kind that matters. Parents with college or university degrees want a public education system that prepares their children for college or university. But the real challenge lies in closing the class and race gap by diverting resources to those most in need.

Real education reform involves (a) fixing up schools that serve the poorest kids (giving them computers, science labs etc.); (b) putting the very best teachers into those schools and paying them six-figure salaries to compensate for the challenges they face; (c) instilling discipline, lengthening the school day, mandating uniforms, teaching to a strong curriculum and testing, testing, testing, to measure the performance of both student and teacher; and (d) doing all of the above and more to create a safe, nurturing environment, so students from troubled homes and troubled neighbourhoods would rather be in school than anywhere else doing anything else.

This works. It's working in hundreds of (mostly charter) schools from New York to San Francisco, and it's working in Canada as well, as this newspaper's stories on the signal success of the Pathways to Education mentoring program attest. But it costs an awful lot of money. For too many school boards, keeping the music program going in suburban schools trumps tackling the problems downtown or in the high-rise ghettos.

So Mr. Obama may get nowhere with his proposals. But the body of evidence in support of reform grows every year. Many teachers - and even some union leaders - want to change the system. Union response yesterday was guarded but polite. "We finally have an education president," said Randi Weingarten, the powerful head of the American Federation of Teachers.

If American public education truly is on the cusp of revolutionary reform, then brace yourselves for a revolution in Canada's schools.

jibbitson@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

 

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