Obama tells teachers he supports merit pay

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama visits with well-wishers at the NEA Convention. He spoke to the NEA Representative Assembly yesterday in Philadelphia.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama today endorsed the idea of merit pay for teachers before an audience hostile to the idea, the giant National Education Association, but he softened the blow by telling the union's national assembly that he would not use "arbitrary tests" to link pay to performance.

"I think there should be ways for us to work with the NEA, with teachers' unions, to figure out a way to measure success," Obama told a crowd of about 9,000 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. "I want to work with teachers. I'm not going to do it too you, I'm going to do it with you."

It was a measure of Democrat Obama's rock-star appeal that he did not draw any hisses with the pronouncement, and even got scattered applause. Obama's endorsement of merit pay for teachers was the first note deviating from the promise-anything tenor of visits by several presidential candidates to the union this week.

Obama said that improving public education was vital to the U.S. ability to compete in a global economy, pointing out that students here score well below their counterparts in other industrialized nations, particularly in science and mathematics.

"In the 21st century, countries that out-educate us now will out-compete us tomorrow," Obama said. "The work you do and the difference you make has never been more important to the future of this country."

He promised more pay "across the board" for teachers and extra incentives for those willing to work in lower-performing schools in urban and rural areas, though he noted that he would release the details of those goals and other education policies at a later date.

Obama was firm in his denunciation of the No Child Left Behind law, saying he would not support its reauthorization, an issue now pending before Congress, unless the reliance on standardized test scores was softened and more federal funding was poured into compliance.

"Don't pass a law called No Child Left Behind and leave the money behind," Obama said.

Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.