For education-policy wonks, Senator Barack Obama is something of an enigma. In his best-selling book The Audacity of Hope, Obama notes that “half of all teenagers can’t understand basic fractions, half of all nine-year-olds can’t perform basic multiplication or division, and although more American students than ever are taking college entrance exams, only 22 percent are prepared to take college level classes in English, math, and science.” He then goes on to blast both Democrats and Republicans for not implementing “bold” reforms and asserts that “what we’ve seen from government for close to two decades has been tinkering around the edges and a tolerance for mediocrity.”

The education prescriptions that Obama has offered so far, however, are mostly puny and uninspired. His main proposal is the creation of federally funded “Innovation Districts.” School districts that want to be “seedbeds of reform” would apply for these grants, and the federal government would select the 20 with the best plans “to put effective, supported teachers in all classrooms and increase achievement for all students”—hardly innovative or bold. Obama has also steadfastly refused to support school-choice efforts that would enable poor, minority children to receive the kind of first-class, private school education that he enjoyed throughout his academic career—and that his two young daughters are getting today. And though he was once a proponent of the No Child Left Behind Act, Obama has more recently been reciting the Democratic Party mantra that the law is “underfunded” and focuses too much on test results. Yet federal education spending is up dramatically, and it is mind-boggling that anyone would argue that asking school districts to test third- through eighth-graders in reading and math each year constitutes an undue burden.

Obama does deserve credit, however, for championing one truly bold reform idea: merit pay for teachers. In a 2005 speech before the Center for American Progress, he offered these strong words: “Right now, teaching is one of the only professions where no matter how well you perform at your job, you’re almost never rewarded for success.” Obama reprised this theme in a speech at the National Education Association’s annual convention this summer—which, given the union’s hostility to private-sector-style accountability and pay structures that take performance into account, is akin to addressing the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association on the virtues of vegetarianism.

Obama has done his homework on the issue. In previous speeches he has cited important studies of schools in Dallas and Tennessee that show how much teachers matter. These studies tracked students who had started third grade in the middle range of math achievement until the end of fifth grade. In both studies, students who were taught in the third, fourth, and fifth grades by “high-quality” teachers—teachers with proven track records of raising student achievement—outscored those taught by ineffective teachers by 50 percentile points. But Obama seems, disappointingly, to be caving to union pressure. When asked about merit pay at the August 19 Democratic debate in Iowa, he said that he would only favor it “if the teachers themselves have some buy-in in terms of how they’re measured. They can’t be judged simply on standardized tests.” Translation: big increase in pay, tiny increase in accountability.

As a member of the Senate’s Education Committee, Obama could be an important voice for reform, especially as the No Child Left Behind Act comes up for reauthorization this year. He could support the strengthening and expansion of a small but important NCLB program called the Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants to school districts that are “reforming compensation systems so that teachers and principals are rewarded for increases in student achievement.” He could also lend his support to efforts to reform teacher tenure, encouraging districts to offer it only to those teachers who have proven effective in raising student achievement.

Of course, if Obama really wants to be daring, he could reconsider his opposition to injecting choice and competition into our ossified education system. As part of the reauthorization of NCLB, the Bush administration has proposed a number of ideas to expand options for parents whose children attend chronically failing public schools. The Washington, D.C. scholarship program that Congress created in 2003—which allows some 1,800 poor children in our nation’s capital to attend private schools—will also be up for renewal in the coming year. Could Obama make education his issue, stand up to the unions, and prove that his inspiring words aren’t just empty rhetoric? Now that would be audacious.


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