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Business Groups Cautiously Optimistic on Obama's Education Plan

They like the focus on improving standards and holding teachers accountable.

Business groups are warming to education reforms that Obama is proposing. In their review of the president’s outline for revamping No Child Left Behind (NCLB), several business advocacy organizations, including the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, sounded a positive note.

“It includes many of the priorities in our principles,” says Susan Traiman, director of public policy of the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of leading U.S. companies.

Business groups say they like the idea of doling out aid in a competitive fashion, instead of relying on a formula, because they believe competition is an effective tool for influencing state policy whether or not states actually get the money. “By making it competitive you have the opportunity to get the best ideas and only pick the best,” Traiman says.

For its part, the administration complains that the current law leads states to water down their academic standards so their schools can meet federal benchmarks, that it focuses too heavily on punishing schools instead of providing support and that it lays down a one-size-fits-all antidote for turning around schools that are failing.

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Business groups say they are also pleased with plans to get tough on poorly qualified and ineffective teachers. One scenario under Obama’s plan to turn around low performing schools involves firing all a school’s teachers and allowing no more than half of them to be rehired by the school.

Another area of agreement is Obama’s focus on career readiness of students. The administration’s proposal calls on states to adopt standards aligned with college and workplace needs. And beginning in 2015, formula funds would be available only to states that implement assessments based on the college- and career-ready standards.

Teacher accountability and charter school support get a thumbs-up, too. States and districts would be required to put in place evaluation systems to gauge a teacher’s effectiveness and provide feedback for improvement. The administration’s blueprint calls for supporting the expansion of high performing public charter schools and for failing schools to be converted to them.

But business groups say that more could be done to improve student performance in science, technology, education and math, which they say is urgently needed if the country is to remain competitive in the 21st-century global economy. Of particular concern is a massive shortfall of qualified science and math teachers at the secondary level. Another area of contention is the loss of some supplemental education services, such as tutoring, which is available under the terms of the current law.

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It’s mostly Democrats who’ll give the president grief in getting approval for his changes. Teachers unions -- and their Hill allies -- are up in arms over the drastic remedies proposed for underperforming schools.

Critics of Obama’s plan say teachers should be given more support in carrying out their duties. They also say that teacher evaluation systems shouldn’t be given so much weight in matters of hiring, firing, promotion and compensation.

Traiman says that the blueprint for reforming No Child Left Behind is encouraging. “We would look at it as an opening gambit,” she says. “It’s an excellent framework to get the conversation going.”