President Obama Says, "America's Future Depends on its Teachers." Does America Agree?

03/10/2009 03:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today, Barack Obama outlined his vision for reforming education in America. Speaking a the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and flanked by his Secretaries of Education and Labor, the president offered five pillars of importance and discussed his plans for strengthening each of them. They are:

1. expanding early childhood education

2. ending the "race to the bottom" by implementing world-class standards and curricula

3. fostering teacher quality by recruiting, training, supporting, and rewarding teachers

4. encouraging innovation in the education field

5. making higher education more accessible

This makes a lot of sense. Bolster our students in each of these five areas and we will regain the world-class standing from which we have slipped. It's hard to see an argument against these, short of a whole dismissal of public responsibility for quality public education. (Usually this naysayer ideology is cloaked in a fanaticism for school vouchers and a penchant for trotting out the hypocritical phrase, "throwing money at the problem.")

Obama's supportive comments on teacher quality were particularly refreshing, given the distorting, relentless assault on teachers' unions garnering so much media attention in Washington, DC. (Would-be union-buster Michelle Rhee was pictured in December on the cover of Time Magazine scowling and holding a broom.) Obama manages to throw a bone to the right, however, with his endorsement of merit pay and an acknowledgment that a small number of teachers should be shown the door.

Here are his words on the topic.

America's future depends on its teachers. And so today, I'm calling on a new generation of Americans to step forward and serve our country in our classrooms. If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation, if you want to make the most of your talents and dedication, if you want to make your mark with a legacy that will endure -- then join the teaching profession. America needs you. We need you in our suburbs. We need you in our small towns. We especially need you in our inner cities. We need you in classrooms all across our country.

And if you do your part, then we'll do ours. That's why we're taking steps to prepare teachers for their difficult responsibilities, and encourage them to stay in the profession. That's why we're creating new pathways to teaching and new incentives to bring teachers to schools where they're needed most. That's why we support offering extra pay to Americans who teach math and science to end a teacher shortage in those subjects. It's why we're building on the promising work being done in places like South Carolina's Teachers Advancement Program, and making an unprecedented commitment to ensure that anyone entrusted with educating our children is doing the job as well as it can be done.

Now, here's what that commitment means: It means treating teachers like the professionals they are while also holding them more accountable... New teachers will be mentored by experienced ones. Good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement, and asked to accept more responsibilities for lifting up their schools. Teachers throughout a school will benefit from guidance and support to help them improve.

And just as we've given our teachers all the support they need to be successful, we need to make sure our students have the teacher they need to be successful. And that means states and school districts taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom. But let me be clear -- the overwhelming number of teachers are doing an outstanding job under difficult circumstances. My sister is a teacher, so I know how tough teaching can be. But let me be clear: If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there's 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. We can afford nothing but the best when it comes to our children's teachers and the schools where they teach.

Barack Obama's speech today on reforming education in America sounded like a great step forward. Now we need consensus and action to match the president's impressive insight and will.

Dan Brown is the author of The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle. He teaches English at a charter school in Washington, DC.