President Obama may have the right lesson plan to finally fix the country's failing schools. In his first major speech on education, Obama fulfilled a campaign pledge to initiate a long-overdue overhaul of the public education system.
The president put all stakeholders on notice that he plans to make sweeping changes at every level, from kindergarten to college.
In his boldest moves, Obama wants to link teachers' pay to student performance and expand the number of charter schools. Those issues go to the heart of what is wrong with the public education system: Too many schools are straddled with bad teachers and too many students with no other choice are stuck in failing schools.
His positions on merit pay and charters put Obama at odds with many in the Democratic Party and with one of its most powerful constituents, the teachers unions, which have cautiously endorsed the plan, for now.
The plan announced Tuesday offered few specifics on what performance pay would mean for teachers. It should mean rewarding the best teachers with more money when they improve student achievement.
Republicans will like Obama's support for more charters but are likely to oppose spending $5 billion to expand early childhood education, even though preschool and kindergarten have yielded proven results.
Obama is on point in calling for states to lift rules that limit the number of charter schools. Philadelphia's experience, with some charters being investigated for mismanagement and misspending, shows oversight is critical. But charters do offer students a viable alternative when regular schools are sorry.
Obama's education speech didn't sit well with critics who say he should focus solely on trying to jump-start the recession economy. But the president is right to not put off an education agenda that is less about politics and more about doing what is best for students.
Public schools will get about $100 billion in new funding under the economic-stimulus package. Obama's education plan stresses accountability and urges states to set more rigorous, uniform academic standards.
The president also suggested longer school days and an extended school year. That would bring the United States in line with Asian countries, where students are performing better academically.
In making his remarks at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Obama acknowledged the obstacles facing Latino students, who have a 50-percent dropout rate in most cities, including Philadelphia. Black students are leaving school prematurely at a similar alarming rate.
Obama must still deal with the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind law, which was not addressed in his speech. The law should either be reauthorized with some changes, including adequate funding, or replaced with another measure that similarly holds schools accountable and requires states to test students annually in language arts and math.