In a 30-minute interview with Matt Lauer of NBC's "Today" show, President Obama made the case for nationwide public education reform, defending his administration's "Race to the Top" program, addressing charter takeovers of low-performing schools, and advocating for better teacher pay and benefits. He also announced a new goal of recruiting 10,000 science and math teachers over the next two years -- fields where American schoolchildren now rank 21st and 25th in the world, respectively. But when asked by an audience member whether the president had considered sending his daughters, Malia and Sasha, to public school in the District of Columbia, the president said, "I'll be blunt with you. The answer is no right now. The D.C. public school systems are struggling." (Both daughters attend Washington's private Sidwell Friends School.)
The president went on to note that the D.C. schools had made "some important strides" in the direction of reform and said "there are some terrific schools in the system." He expressed dismay at the lottery system by which most students are admitted to higher-performing schools, but acknowledged that "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 declined to explain why he had not done so. (The president has previously cited security concerns as one of the reasons the family chose private school.)
Obama discussed the federal government's new Race to the Top program -- a $4 billion competitive grant program announced last year that rewards states that best create the conditions for education innovation and reform. Some have criticized the competitive nature of the program, which allocates funds only to the handful of winning states. The president defended the structure of the program, saying the government would continue to aid under-performing schools in low-income areas, but that Race to the Top was "the most powerful tool for reform that we've seen in decades."
The president further pushed for increased teacher pay and a "professionalization" of the industry -- wherein "master teachers" were offered more of a career ladder for professional advancement and better pay. But he also noted the important role played by parents, using his own daughters to make the point: "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," he said, urging parents to let children know that their "job right now is to learn."
Throughout the interview, the president stressed the connection between education reform and economic strength, advocating for young people to enter the teaching profession because "there is not a more important profession for the success of our economy in the long term." He closed by reiterating his commitment to healing the nation's economic woes, citing high unemployment and poverty rates and saying he felt the American public's frustration "acutely." Said the president: "It's the thing I wake up with and the thing I go to bed with."
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