President Barack Obama outlined his Race To The Top education funding initiative at Madison’s J.C. Wright Middle School Wednesday. In a speech before an invited audience of politicians, parents, teachers and students, Mr. Obama challenged the nation’s educators to reverse the status quo in American schools.
“This status quo has held back our children,” said the President. “It’s held back our economy, and it’s held back our country for too long. It’s time to stop just talking about education reform, and start actually doing it. It’s time to make education America’s national mission.” Obama was accompanied by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for the speech at Wright, a charter school located on Madison’s south side, with an enrollment of about 250 students.
Obama said $4 billion will be available through Race To The Top, and he challenged states to compete for the money. “It’s not just going through the usual political formulas,” he said. “We challenging states to compete for it. And I have to tell you, this was not an easy thing to get through Congress. This is not normally how federal dollars work.”
The President laid out four strategies which he believes are necessary to turn around the most troubled school. They include transforming the nation’s lowest-performing schools; using timely information on outcomes to improve teaching; supporting outstanding teachers and principals, and implementing higher standards and better assessments to prepare students for life beyond the classroom. Obama said willingness to adopt those strategies will play a crucial role in determining how much Race To The Top funding individual states ultimately receive.
Obama says there will be a set of common assessment standards available to all states early next year, to “raise the bar” on educational achievement. “This is not just about more tests, because I know that in the past people have been concerned about, you know, is this about standardized tests, or are we going to have our young people being ‘taught to the test.’ That’s the last thing we want,” he said to applause.
Addressing the issue of teacher performance, the President said “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.” Those comments drew sustained applause from the crowd.
And Mr. Obama said that some failing schools will have to be closed. “There’s always excuses for why these schools can’t perform, but part of what we want is an environment in which everybody agrees . . . that’s there’s no excuse for mediocrity.”
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said that while his city doesn’t face many of the challenges that plague Milwaukee Public Schools, the Race To The Top initiative can help. “We have a 45 percent poverty rate now in our schools, and that’s a challenge for us. We’re finding ways to educate kids and get good results even with those challenges, but it’s tough.” The mayor said there’s now hope at the federal level. “With No Child Left Behind, we had high standards, but nothing in the way of resources to meet them. I think what Obama promises us is continuing high standards, but the resources to help us meet them.”
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who along with Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle has proposed mayoral takeover of MPS, said he didn’t talk with the President specifically about that issue. “I think the mere fact that he’s here in Wisconsin, he knows, the Secretary of Education knows, that this debate is going on. He wouldn’t be here if he wanted to stay away from that debate.”