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Union backs Obama teacher pay plan

A teachers' union said it supports President-elect Barack Obama in trying to tie pay raises to student performance.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A teachers' union said it supports President-elect Barack Obama in trying to tie pay raises to student performance.

Many teachers dislike the idea; Obama was booed when he mentioned it at union meetings in 2007 and again this year.

Yet Randi Weingarten, the newly elected president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Monday there is a role for teacher raises based on how students are learning.

"Of course there is," she said in a speech at the National Press Club.

'Collaborative and fair'
She described the teacher pay system in New York City, where school-wide bonuses are based on overall test scores in high-poverty schools. Weingarten, as head of the New York teachers' union, negotiated the system last year with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The new system is working, she said: Teachers already are getting bonuses for improving student achievement in 128 of 200 eligible schools.

"If an innovation is collaborative and fair, teachers will embrace it, and it will succeed," she said.

Monday's speech was the first major address for Weingarten as newly elected president of the 1.4 million-member AFT.

Unions anticipate new administration
It came at a time of great anticipation by the two big teachers' unions — AFT and the larger National Education Association. Both were effectively shut out of the administration of President George W. Bush. Bush's first education secretary, Rod Paige, once labeled the NEA "a terrorist organization."

In her speech, Weingarten avoided serious controversy. Though she mentioned the New York system — and was introduced by Bloomberg — she said nothing about the thornier issue of pay raises for individual teachers, as opposed to school-wide bonuses. Under such a system, pay raises would go to teachers whose students do better on standardized tests, something being done in Denver and a few other public school districts.

Obama, too, navigated away from this contentious idea, saying during the campaign that teacher raises should be tied to test scores but not based solely on them. Like Obama, Weingarten argues that performance pay should be negotiated by teachers, not imposed upon them.

And Weingarten said teacher pay should go beyond bonuses for student performance. "Why not pay teachers more for working in hard-to-staff schools or in subjects with shortages of qualified teachers?" she said. These ideas are in place in many districts around the country.