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