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Video: Obama on education, children’s futures

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    Announcer: From NBC News , this is Education Nation , an interview with President Barack Obama , live from the White House . Here's Matt Lauer .

    MATT LAUER, co-host (Washington, DC): And good morning, everyone. I'm Matt Lauer , live at the White House on this Monday morning, kicking off a weeklong initiative here on NBC Universal we're calling Education Nation . And I welcome you, all of you, who are watching on the many different networks of NBC Universal . It's arguably the most important thing we can give our children, a good education, and yet it seems to be very difficult to accomplish. A recent poll in Time magazine found that 67 percent of you feel the education system in this country right now is in crisis. The most important question, of course, is can we fix it . I'm joined now by the president of the United States , Barack Obama. Mr. President, thank you for your time this morning. I appreciate it.

    President BARACK OBAMA: Thank you for doing this program, Matt. There's nothing more important than the issue we're talking about today.

    LAUER: We agree. Let me start with the statistics, and some of them are alarming. A third of our students in this country don't graduate. Another third aren't college-ready when they get their high school diploma , and 35 percent of 12th-graders, only 35, are proficient in reading. In the wealthiest nation in the world, how'd it happen?

    Pres. OBAMA: Well, it's been a long time coming. Historically, when we first set up the public school systems across the country , we were leaps and bounds ahead of the vast majority of countries around the world. That just is not true anymore. They have caught up and now in some cases are surpassing us, especially in math and science. It happened over decades. There are a lot of contributing factors, but part of the challenge, I think, for the entire country is to understand that how well we do economically, whether jobs are created here, high-end jobs that support families and support the future of the American people , is going to depend on whether or not we can do something about these schools.

    LAUER: President Clinton once said when it came to the crisis in education, it's not just a money thing, but it's a money thing. Can we spend our way out of it?

    Pres. OBAMA: We can't spend our way out of it. I think that when you look at the statistics, the fact is, is that our per-pupil spending has gone up over the last couple of decades...

    LAUER: While results have gone down.

    Pres. OBAMA: ...even as results have gone down. Money plays a factor, and obviously there are some schools where money plays a big factor. You know, they don't have up-to-date textbooks, they don't have computers in the classroom . So those who say money makes no difference are wrong. On the other hand , money without reform will not fix the problem . And what we've got to do is combine a very vigorous reform agenda that increases standards, helps make sure that we've got the best possible teachers inside the classroom , make sure that we're clearing away some of the bureaucratic underbrush that is preventing kids from learning. We've got to combine that with deploying resources effectively.

    LAUER: One of the ways you want to accomplish that is with your initiative called Race to the Top .

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: And I 'll sum it up -- correct me if I don't get this right...

    Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

    LAUER: ...you've set aside about $4 billion of federal money .

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: States will compete for that money ...

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: ...that goes into their education system at the state level if they bring reform about in their communities.

    Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

    LAUER: And while some are applauding it, you're meeting some resistance at another level. Some have criticized it because it's a competition. It's almost a March Madness -type atmosphere surrounding education when we should be funding all of these states . How do you respond to that?

    Pres. OBAMA: Well, here's -- keep in mind what happens, Matt. The federal government provides assistance to all states under a formula system, especially to help poorer school districts so that they can buy supplies, make sure that they can hire supplemental reading instructors and so forth. So that hasn't changed. But that money , because it was in a formula -- everybody was getting it no matter what you did -- wasn't really a catalyst for reform . So what we said is, 'Let's set aside a small portion, about $4 billion, and let's say you've got to compete for this and you got to compete around things that reformers know make a difference, high standards , accountability, really training teachers effectively, making sure low-performing schools are being boosted up.' And what's happened is 32 states already have changed their laws, where previously all that stuff was stuck in state legislatures . Suddenly, because they had an incentive, they're starting to actually make changes. It's probably the most powerful tool we've seen for reform in a couple of decades.

    LAUER: It -- then if it's that powerful...

    Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

    LAUER: ...let me argue the other side of the coin -- why such a small fraction of what the federal government gives to states ?

    Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

    LAUER: Four billion dollars sounds like a lot, but it is a fraction.

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: Why not make more federal funding dependent on the kind of reforms you just talked about?

    Pres. OBAMA: Well, what we want to do is make sure that we're still helping poor school districts that just don't have enough money .

    LAUER: Right.

    Pres. OBAMA: But it turns out that $4 billion, although a small fraction of the overall money that we spend on schools, is enough to get people's attention. And now I'm not going to lie to you, there is going to be resistance as we move forward during tight fiscal times. A lot of members of Congress say to themselves, 'Well, you know, if I -- my state loses the competition, you know, I don't feel as good about this even if I initiated reforms.'

    LAUER: And how do the kids in that state feel? If their state didn't quite compete as well as another state ...

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: ...they're out of luck.

    Pres. OBAMA: So that's why we want to make sure that every state 's still getting help from the federal government , but let's set aside a small portion. And there's no state that can't win this thing because all they have to do is to say, 'We are going to take seriously those things like making sure you've got a terrific teacher in each classroom and making sure that we've got high standards and accountability.' Every state can accomplish that. It's a matter of getting through the resistance that oftentimes builds up in these states .

    LAUER: Since you mentioned teachers , let's go there for a second. There are some good and great teachers in this country .

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: There are also some mediocre and poor teachers in this country .

    Pres. OBAMA: Yes.

    LAUER: Can...

    Pres. OBAMA: Sort of like -- sort of like politicians and journalists.

    LAUER: Broadcasters. Exactly right. Can real reform take place unless you identify those mediocre and poor teachers and remove them? And when I say remove them, I don't mean shuffle them from school to school ...

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: ...or put them in a room. I mean fire them.

    Pres. OBAMA: Well, first of all, I think everybody who looks at this says the single most important ingredient inside the classroom is the quality of the teacher . And there are terrific teachers out there and, you know, my sister teaches, and when you hear stories about how hard they work, when they come home from school they're still doing lesson plans, they're oftentimes in tough schools serving as counselors...

    LAUER: Right.

    Pres. OBAMA: ...and social workers. So teachers are doing heroic jobs. Sometimes they're digging into their own pocket to buy school supplies. And so one of the things I want to do is lift up the teaching profession to honor it the way it needs to be honored in our society. And, by the way, when I travel to China , for example, and I sit down with the mayor of Shanghai and he talks about the fact that teaching is considered one of the most prestigious jobs and a teacher 's getting paid the same as an engineer, that, I think, accounts for how well they're doing in terms of boosting their education system . Having said that, what is absolutely true is, is that if we can't identify teachers who are subpar, give them the opportunity to get better, but if they don't get better at a certain point, saying, 'These teachers should not be in the classroom ,' if we don't do that, then we are doing a disservice to our kids. And the school system has to be designed not for our -- the adults. It's got to be designed for the children.

    LAUER: There's a new documentary out right now. It's called " Waiting for Superman."

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: And it gives a fairly blistering account of teachers unions...

    Pres. OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

    LAUER: ...saying that basically they're set up simply to protect their members...

    Pres. OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

    LAUER: ...and protect the status quo and protect those mediocre and bad teachers and, as a result, are getting in the way of real reform and really educating our children. Is it a fair assessment in your opinion?

    Pres. OBAMA: Here's what's true, is that oftentimes teachers unions are designed to make sure that their membership are protected against arbitrary firings. And historically teachers were predominantly women and as a consequence they were paid less professionwide. And so I'm a strong supporter of the notion that a union can protect its members and help be part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem . What is also true is that sometimes that means they are resistant to change when things aren't working. Now, to their credit, you've had a lot of unions who are now working with states on these reform plans that include things like charter schools , include things like pay-for-performance and higher standards and accountability for teachers , and so we've seen states be able to work with teachers unions to bring about reforms as opposed to resist them.

    LAUER: Well, if you could -- if you could speak to the leadership of...

    Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

    LAUER: ...and the membership of the two most powerful teachers unions right now...

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: ...and tell them what they must do starting today to be a legitimate partner...

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: ...in reform , what would you tell them they have to do?

    Pres. OBAMA: Well, it turns out, as president, I actually can speak to them, and what I have said to them and what Arne Duncan , my secretary of education, has said to them, is, 'We want to work with you. We're not interested in imposing changes on you' -- because the truth of the matter is, is that if teachers aren't feeling good about their profession, they're not going to do a good job in the classroom -- 'but you can't -- you can't defend a status quo in which a third of our kids are dropping out. You can't defend a status quo when you've got 2,000 schools across the country that are dropout factories' -- and they really are, where more than half of the kids are dropping out. In those -- in those schools you've got to have radical change . And radical change is something that is the interest of the students and ultimately in the interest of the teachers because the vast majority of teachers want to do a good job. They didn't go into teaching for the money ; they went into teaching because they believed they could make a difference, but they're in structures that don't work. And what that means is we've got to be able to identify teachers who are doing well, teachers who are not doing well. We've got to give them support and the training to do well, and ultimately, if some teachers aren't doing a good job, they've got to go.

    LAUER: You mentioned dropout factories. One of the -- the other things you'd like to do is is you'd like to identify the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in this country and either close them down or in some cases turn them over to charter operators.

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: That would increase the number of charter schools in this country enormously. It could double...

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: ...the number. Are you worried that by expanding that program so rapidly you would dilute some quality in charter schools ?

    Pres. OBAMA: Well, look, charter schools are not a panacea. In fact, one of the things when you're looking at school reform is you -- it turns out there's no -- there are no silver bullets here. Reform is hard, it's systematic, it takes time, but we know that there are some charters who have figured out how to do a very good job in the lowest-income schools with the kids who are two, three grade levels behind, and yet they can achieve 90, 95 percent graduation rates, boost reading scores and math scores very high. What we've got to do is to look at the success of these schools, find out how do we duplicate them, and make sure that we are still holding charter schools accountable the same way we are all the schools. We shouldn't say just because a school 's a charter that's it's an excellence school because there's some actually very poor-performing charters. But what I -- what I'm interested in, what my secretary of education are interested in is fostering a -- these laboratories of excellence where we start learning. You know what? If it turns out if we lengthened the school day here or we give them a little more homework there or we're setting aside time for professional development for teachers here or we're building a culture of excellence among kids at that school , that that works. And once we find out something works, then we want to import that to every school , not just into charter schools .

    LAUER: In that documentary -- I'm not shilling the documentary, by the way, I just think that people...

    Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

    LAUER: ...are going to be talking about it...

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: ...so I want to bring some things up. They talk about the lack of choice that people -- you mentioned charter schools in those very bad neighborhoods ...

    Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

    LAUER: ...that -- the lack of choice that people in our poorest neighborhoods have.

    Pres. OBAMA: Mm-hmm. Right.

    LAUER: If they live in an area where there's an underperforming school and yet there's a great charter school , the number of applicants for a few positions at that charter school ...

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: ...can be enormous. And so what happens by law is the kids are put into a lottery and literally and figuratively their future is based on the roll of a dice or their name being drawn out of a hat.

    Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

    LAUER: It's a bit of a disgrace, isn't it?

    Pres. OBAMA: Ah, it's heartbreaking. And when you see these parents in the film, you are reminded that -- I don't care what people's income levels are, you know, their stake in their kids, their wanting desperately to make sure their kids are able to succeed is so powerful, and it's obviously difficult to watch to see these kids who know that this school 's going to give them a better chance, that that should depend on the bounce of a ball. And so our goal is to make all schools high-quality schools, make every classroom one where if a kid is showing up, taking the responsibility seriously, doing what they're supposed to do, that they can succeed, they're going to be able to read, they're going to have high math scores. It's going to take some time, but what we've now learned is there are schools that can work even in the toughest circumstances. And once we know that, then it's inexcusable that we don't try to make sure that every school is performing at that same level.

    LAUER: Since we've brought up the subject of parents , you know, we asked some of our viewers to give us some e-mail questions for us.

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: We had Bethany Lutwin in Norton , Ohio , who wrote us this: "I'm a middle school teacher in Cleveland . One of our biggest concerns in education is the fact that parents are rarely held accountable for their children's education. The blame for failing test scores always falls on the teacher . The responsibility of education should be shared by teachers , administrators and parents . Why doesn't anyone ever hold parents accountable?"

    Pres. OBAMA: Well, I have to say there's not been a speech I've made about education over the last five years in which I haven't said the exact same thing. I mean, at some level, no matter how good the teacher , if the kid's coming home from school and the parents aren't checking to see if they do their homework or watch TV , that's a -- that's going to be a problem . And that's, by the way, true here in this White House . I mean, Malia and Sasha are great kids and great students, but if you gave them a choice, they'd be happy to sit in front of the TV all night long every night. At some point you have to say, 'Your job right now, kid, is to learn. And I 'm going to check with your teachers and I'm going to make sure that you're doing your homework and you're not doing anything else until you've done your homework.' And that kind of attitude, I think, makes a huge difference at every level. And one thing I want to make -- I want to point out, Matt , there's no doubt that the schools in the toughest neighborhoods and the poorest neighborhoods are oftentimes the ones that are poorest performing. They are in crisis. But one of the things that everybody needs to understand is, is that across the board, in middle-class suburbs in schools that are considered actually pretty good, you are still seeing a decline in terms...

    LAUER: Right.

    Pres. OBAMA: ...of math and science performance. And one of the things that we are very excited about -- because we need to focus on math and science -- my administration is announcing that we are going to specifically focus on training 10,000 new math and science teachers . We've got to boost performance in that area. We used to rank at the top; we are now 21st in science, 25th in math. That is a sign of long-term decline that has to be reversed. And so we're going to be putting a big emphasis on math and science education , and part of that means getting better teachers . But part of it also means parents understanding, yeah, their kids need to excel in those subjects in particular.

    LAUER: Here's another question. We can probably get through this one pretty quickly. You're going to make a lot of friends or a lot of enemies here. Mr.

    Cohen's sixth-grade class, Roll Hill School, Cincinnati: " President Obama , we understand there are discussions regarding the idea of attending school year-round. Do you think we should attend school year-round? If so, why?"

    Pres. OBAMA: I think we should have longer school years. We now have our kids go to school about a month less than most other advanced countries. And that month makes a difference. It means that kids are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer. It's especially severe for poorer kids who may not be -- have -- seeing as many books in their house during the summers, aren't getting supplemental educational activities. So the idea of a longer school year, I think, makes sense. Now, that's going to cost some money . So here's an example of where you've got a good idea of reform -- make sure our kids are in school longer -- well, that means the school is open, it means you got to pay teachers , custodial staff, etc. But I think that's -- that would be money well spent.

    LAUER: Got a young lady by the name of Kelly Burnett back up in New York in our Learning Plaza . She's from Nassau County , Florida , and I believe she has a question for you. Kelly , good morning. What's your question for President Obama ?

    Ms. KELLY BURNETT: Good morning. Thank you for taking my question, President Obama . As a father of two very delightful and seemingly very bright daughters, I wanted to know whether or not you think that Malia and Sasha would get the same high-quality, rigorous education in a DC public school as compared to their very elite private academy that they're attending now?

    Pres. OBAMA: Well, thanks for the question, Kelly .

    Ms. BURNETT: Mm-hmm.

    Pres. OBAMA: And I 'll be blunt with you. The answer's no right now. The DC public school systems are struggling. Now, they have made some important strides over the last several years to move in the direction of reform .

    Ms. BURNETT: Right.

    Pres. OBAMA: There are some terrific individual schools in the DC system -- and that's true, by the way, in every city across the country . In my hometown of Chicago there are some great public schools that are on par with any private school in the country . But it goes to the point Matt and I were talking about earlier. A lot of times you've got to test in or there -- it's a lottery pick...

    Ms. BURNETT: Right.

    Pres. OBAMA: ...for you to be able to get into those schools, and so those options are not available for enough children.

    Ms. BURNETT: Right.

    Pres. OBAMA: I'll be very honest with you. Given my position, if I wanted to find a great public school for Malia and Sasha to be in, we could probably maneuver to do it. But the broader problem is for a mom or a dad who are, you know, working hard but don't have a bunch of connections, you know, don't have a lot of choice in terms of where they live...

    Ms. BURNETT: Right.

    Pres. OBAMA: ...they should be getting the same quality education for their kids as anybody else. And we don't have that yet.

    LAUER: Kelly , thank you very much for your question. I appreciate it.

    Ms. BURNETT: Thank you.

    Pres. OBAMA: Thanks, Kelly .

    Ms. BURNETT: Thank you.

    LAUER: One more on education and then I'll move briefly onto some news of the day. How do you inspire those teachers you talked about, the ones that are so important? How do you inspire a young college student right now who's considering going into teaching, who sees budgets being slashed...

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: ...layoffs, sees those teachers having to dip into their own pocketbook to pay for classroom supplies and now sees new pressure to get their kids to perform in a system that a lot of people think is broken? How do you inspire the next generation of teachers ?

    Pres. OBAMA: Well, first of all, there is nothing more important than teaching. I genuinely believe this. And I don't know a teacher who can't look back and say, 'You know what? Here are so many lives that I've touched, so many people who I've had influence over,' and each of us have memories of some great teacher who steered us in the right direction.

    LAUER: Sure.

    Pres. OBAMA: What I want to also do, though, is make sure that if they go into teaching they can stay into teaching, they can afford it, which means that we've got to raise teacher pay generally. We want to professionalize it so that if you get to be a master teacher , a better teacher , you can make more money . That's true of any profession. We've got to make sure that they've got a structure around them in which they can succeed. And if we do those things, I think there are tons of kids who want to teach. You know, the Teach For America program, you see some of the smartest kids in the country applying and oftentimes having to be on waiting lists to get in. The problem is not that we can't attract great young people to go into teaching, the problem is, is that typically after two to three years they start dropping out. They feel discouraged because no matter how hard they're working in the classroom , you know, they just can't afford it once they start trying to raise a family, particularly in urban areas where the cost of living is higher. And they don't feel that they're getting enough support from the principal, the school system , the school district .

    LAUER: So you reform that system, they will come.

    Pres. OBAMA: They will come. In the meantime, though, anybody who's watching, you know, we're going to have to fill about a million teaching slots around the country , and I want young people to understand that there is not a more important profession for the success of our economy over the long term than making sure that we've got great teachers in the classroom .

    LAUER: Some other topics. Recently the poverty rate in this country was announced. It's at 14.3 percent.

    Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

    LAUER: That means roughly 44 million Americans are living at or below the poverty level .

    Pres. OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

    LAUER: It was stunning to me to know what the poverty level is, $22,000 a year for a family of four. So consider a family of four making 30,000 or 40,000.

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: They're not living the dream either.

    Pres. OBAMA: No.

    LAUER: They're struggling every single week. How can any American president hear those numbers and not decide to declare this some kind of national emergency?

    Pres. OBAMA: Well, look, we have gone through the worst recession since the Great Depression , and although the steps that my administration have taken have been able to stem some of the crisis and stabilize the situation, we're still in the midst of the aftereffects of that. When you've got eight million people unemployed, when you've got a lot of people underemployed, it means that the poverty rate 's going to go up. And that's why taking the steps that I've been pushing for to make sure that we've got tax breaks to encourage companies investing here in the United States , making sure that the small-business bill that I pass and that I'm going to be signing today provides loans to small businesses and cuts their taxes on things like capital gains to encourage investment, building infrastructure so that we are improving our ability to perform internationally, all those things are going to make a difference because the single most important anti- poverty program we can initiate is making sure that there's enough job growth out there.

    LAUER: Last time we sat down...

    Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

    LAUER: ...you said to me you were confident that this recovery, when it seemed like it was more of a recovery at the time, would not be a jobless recovery .

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: Seems to me I'm listening to more and more economists who aren't so sure about that. Have you changed your thinking at all that a lot of these eight million jobs simply aren't coming back?

    Pres. OBAMA: Well, here's the challenge. It's not that this is a jobless recovery . We're actually -- we've seen eight months in a row of private sector job growth . We're actually seeing more job growth so far in this recovery than we did in the last recovery that we had back in 2001 . The problem is we just lost so many jobs because of the crisis that we've got a much bigger hole to fill. And that means we're going to have to accelerate job growth and we've got to do everything we can to focus on that, and that means making sure that anything we do we're spending that money wisely and that -- you know, one of the major disagreements I've got, for example, with the Republicans right now has to do with tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans , you and me. You and I , Matt , you know, we're not likely to spend any additional tax cut because whatever we need for our families we can afford right now. What we need is tax cuts for the middle class who are struggling. And if they get a tax cut they're likely to spend it, which means that a small business is potentially going to get a customer and we're going to see job growth . So we can't spend $700 billion on a tax cut that is not going to spur job growth . We can spend money on things like infrastructure, on things like school construction, on making sure that small businesses are getting loans because those are the things that are more likely to generate the job growth we need.

    LAUER: You remember Velma Hart ? Velma Hart...

    Pres. OBAMA: I do.

    LAUER: ...was a woman you met at a -- at town hall meeting...

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: ...on CNBC a week ago today....

    Pres. OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

    LAUER: ...and she's the woman who said that she was one of your biggest supporters...

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: ...your core supporters, and she was exhausted defending you.

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: It seemed to me what she was saying -- and I 've heard others say as of late, Mr. President -- is that there's a feeling that in some way you have lost touch with the struggles of the average person on the street. I say it with some sense of irony because you began your career in public service as a community organizer .

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: That is all about getting in touch with people on the street. So how can this criticism now be coming up of a guy who started out as a community organizer ?

    Pres. OBAMA: You know, it's interesting. Velma , I think, subsequently was interviewed and she just talked about the fact that, look, she thought, 'The president's really trying, he's working hard. A lot of things he's doing I think are right, but it's just not happening fast enough.' Well, everybody's feels that frustration right now. I feel it and -- acutely. And, you know, the fact of the matter is that as long as unemployment is as high as it is, as long as we haven't recovered as quickly as we should have, people are going to be hurting. And even if they think that I know they're hurting, what they're asking is, 'When are you going to be able to do something concrete that allows me to get a job or make sure that I can pay my bills or make sure that I don't lose my house ?' And, you know, all I can communicate to the American people is that every single day the thing that I wake up with and the thing that I go to bed with is the fact that there are too many Americans out there who are doing the right thing, working hard, taking their responsibilities seriously and are still having a tough time in this economy. We are doing everything we can to make sure that they have an opportunity to live out that American dream .

    LAUER: We are five weeks before the midterm elections and it's getting pretty heated.

    Pres. OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

    LAUER: There's no question. You said at a speech recently, you said, 'You know, the Republicans , they're treating me like a dog.' There's a lot of rhetoric out there, coming from the Republicans toward you, coming from the tea party toward you.

    Pres. OBAMA: Right.

    LAUER: Former President Clinton said he doesn't think that Democrats , and you included, have been rigorous enough in pushing back against some of the Republican attacks. Over these next five weeks, Mr. President...

    Pres. OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

    LAUER: ...do you intend to change your tone or your emotion in terms of your pushing back?

    Pres. OBAMA: Well, I think that if you've have heard me speak around the country over the last several months, I think that it's clear we -- I've got a very sharp difference with the Republicans on a lot of issues. And when I say Republicans , I really should say Republican leadership because I think there are a lot of wonderful people out there who consider themselves Republicans or independents who have maybe some criticisms of my administration but basically recognize we've got to solve some big problems, we've got to be serious, we've got to base our decisions on facts. What I'm seeing out of the Republican leadership over the last several years has been a set of policies that are just irresponsible, and we saw in their Pledge to America a similar set of irresponsible policies. They say they want to balance the budget , they propose $4 trillion worth of tax cuts and 16 billion in spending cuts, and then they say we're going to somehow magically balance the budget . That's not a serious approach. So, you know, the question for voters over the next five weeks is, 'Who is putting forward policies that have a chance to move our country forward so that our schools have improved, so that we have world-class infrastructure, so that we're serious about helping small business , we're serious about getting a handle on our spending, and who's just engaging in rhetoric?' And I think that if that debate is taking place over the next five weeks, we are going to do just fine.

    LAUER: In the 40 seconds I have left, Rahm Emanuel , your chief of staff, is considering a run for...

    Pres. OBAMA: Yeah.

    LAUER: ...the mayor's office in Chicago . A lot of people think his time is getting short to make that decision.

    Pres. OBAMA: Mm-hmm.

    LAUER: Has he communicated his decision to you?

    Pres. OBAMA: Well, I think that Rahm will have to make a decision quickly because running for mayor in Chicago is a -- is a serious enterprise. And I know this is something he's thinking about...

    LAUER: Has he told you what he wants to do?

    Pres. OBAMA: He hasn't told me yet. But as soon as he does, I'm sure that we'll announce it.

    LAUER: And under any circumstances would you support him, would you endorse him in that race?

    Pres. OBAMA: I have said I think he would be an excellent mayor. But until he makes a decision I'm not going to be making decisions about how I'm going to approach it.

    LAUER: Back to education and just say that we really appreciate you taking part in Education Nation . We really appreciate your time this morning.

    Pres. OBAMA: Nothing's more important. Thank you, Matt.

By
TODAY staff and wire
updated 9/27/2010 8:44:05 AM ET 2010-09-27T12:44:05

Money alone isn't the cure for America's ailing school system, President Obama says.

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Speaking to TODAY's Matt Lauer in the Green Room of the White House for nearly 30 minutes, Obama said that additional funding tied to significant reforms — including a longer school year and lifting teaching as a profession — is a much-needed fix.

"We can't spend our way out of it. I think that when you look at the statistics, the fact is that our per-pupil spending has gone up during the last couple of decades even as results have gone down," explained Obama, invited to appear by NBC as the network launched its weeklong "Education Nation" initiative.

"Obviously, in some schools money plays a big factor ... ," Obama said, pointing out that schools in the poorest areas often don't have up-to-date textbooks. "On the other hand, money without reform will not fix the problem." 

Obama said his administration's "reform agenda" includes increasing standards, finding and encouraging the best teachers, decreasing bureaucracy and deploying financial resources effectively. Teachers who fail to live up to expectations need to be given a chance to improve, he said, while those who do not should move on.

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Longer school year?
Obama repeated his support for a longer school year after being asked about it by students from a sixth-grade class in Cincinatti, Ohio. He did not specify how long that school year should be, however he noted that U.S. students attend classes, on average, about a month less than children in most other advanced countries.

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"That month makes a difference. It means students are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer ... The idea of a longer school year, I think, makes sense," Obama said. "Now, that's going to cost some money ..., but I think that would be money well spent."

Vote: Do you support a longer school year?

The 20 students in Matt Cohen's class at Roll Hill Elementary School were so thrilled that President Obama answered their question about extending the school year that Cohen had to reply his answer three times.

"They were excited," said Cohen, who submitted the question online on the students' behalf. "Some of the students think that we should not have an extended school year because their brains need time to rest — that's what they said. Others think it is good ... it keeps them busy and out of trouble."

Role of teachers
Obama says his administration's Race to the Top initiative has been one of the "most powerful tools for reform" in many years. Through the program, states compete for $4 billion in funding by highlighting their plans for reform.

NBC News
President Barack Obama spoke to TODAY's Matt Lauer about education reform.

The president said he wants to work with teachers' unions, and he embraced the role of defending their members. But he said unions cannot and should not defend a status quo in which one-third of children are dropping out. He urged them not to be resistant to change, particularly in schools which he said have become "dropout factories."

"The vast majority of teachers want to do a good job ... We have to be able to identify teachers who are doing well," the president said. "Teachers who are not doing well, we have to give them the support and the training to do well. And ultimately, if some teachers are not doing a good job, they've gotta go."

While the nation’s poorer schools are of immediate concern, Obama said his administration is also concerned about the decline in math and science scores in middle-class districts, and hiring teachers is key to reversing that trend.

“My administration is announcing that we are going to specifically focus on training 10,000 new math and science teachers," he said. "We have to boost performance in that area. We used to rank at the top; we are now 21st in science, 25th in math. That is a sign of long-term decline that has to be reversed.”

Reforms linked to economy
During the interview, the president returned several times to a discussion of the economy, job creation and the staggering unemployment rate that has hurt tax revenues at every level of government.

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"It's not that this is a jobless recovery. We've seen eight months in a row of private sector job growth ... The problem is that we just lost so many jobs because of the crisis that we've got a much bigger hole to fill," Obama said.

Asked if he was aware that some Americans think he is out of touch when it comes to jobs, Obama assured Lauer that the economy is forefront on his mind.

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"The fact of the matter is, as long as unemployment is as high as it is, as long as we haven't recovered as quickly as we should have, people are going to be be hurting," Obama said. "All I can communicate to the American people is that every single day, the thing that I wake up with and the thing I go to bed with is the fact that too many Americans are out there who are doing the right thing, working hard, taking the responsibilities seriously, and are still having a tough time in this economy."

Parental accountability
Obama reminded Lauer that he is a parent of school-age children, although his daughters, Sasha, 9, and Malia, 12, are both enrolled in private schools that Obama acknowledged are much better than the public schools in Washington, D.C.

Parents can and should do more to foster learning by introducing good study habits at home, he said.

"No matter how good the teacher, if the kid's coming home from school, and the parent isn't checking to see if they are doing their homework or watching TV, that's going to be a problem," he said. "And that, by the way, is true here in this White House. Malia and Sasha are great kids, and great students. But if you gave them a choice, they'd be happy to sit in front of the TV all night long, every night. At some point you have to say, ‘Your job, kid, right now, is to learn.’ ”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive

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