WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Tuesday that American children should go to school longer — either stay later in the day or into the summer — if they're going to have any chance of competing for jobs and paychecks against foreign kids.
"We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day," Obama said, adding U.S. education to his already crowded list of top priorities.
"That calendar may have once made sense, but today, it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea. That is no way to prepare them for a 21st Century economy."
He urged administrators to "rethink the school day" to add more class time.
"I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas," he said. "Not in my family, and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom. If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America."
He proposed longer class hours as part of a broader effort to improve U.S. schools that he said are falling behind foreign competitors.
"Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us," Obama said. "In 8th grade math, we've fallen to 9th place. Singapore's middle-schoolers outperform ours three to one. Just a third of our 13- and 14-year olds can read as well as they should."
Among his proposals: extra pay for better teachers, something opposed by teachers unions. "It is time to start rewarding good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones," he said in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom."
Teachers' groups applauded Obama's speech, largely sidestepping the thorny question of merit pay. "Teachers want to make a difference in kids' lives, and they appreciate a president who shares that goal and will spend his political capital to provide the resources to make it happen," said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers. "As with any public policy, the devil is in the details, and it is important that teachers' voices are heard."
Despite his call for changes and his use of examples from around the country, Obama didn't mention the simmering dispute over one program in Washington.
Democrats in Congress were poised Tuesday to use a budget bill to wipe out $14 million for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program.
The federally financed program gives grants or vouchers averaging $6,000 to 1,700 poor children in Washington to help them attend private schools.
Obama, who sends his children to private school rather than to Washington's public schools, didn't mention the program.
"President Obama himself passed up the District's public schools and sent his daughters to prestigious Sidwell Friends," the Washington Post said in a recent editorial. "Two Sidwell students will lose their Opportunity Scholarships if Congress kills the program. There is nothing wrong with choosing the best possible school for your children, but doing so while denying that choice to poor D.C. students is shameful."
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