WASHINGTON -- The most interesting political developments violate ideological expectations. Why did Bill Clinton fight for NAFTA and accept an end to the welfare entitlement? Why did George W. Bush push a Medicare prescription drug benefit? In each case, some bold political calculation or deep policy conviction was at work.
So why is President Obama pursuing education reform with such creative vigor?
In its rhetoric, spending and budget, the Obama administration has promoted two ambitious principles: serious consequences for chronically failing schools, including mass teacher firings and takeovers by charters, and the use of student performance to assess individual teachers and principals.
There is no purely political explanation for this approach. At the last Democratic convention, about one in 10 delegates were members of teachers unions. Unions, not unexpectedly, oppose the wholesale firing of teachers. In a number of states, unions have helped pass legislation making it illegal to base teacher evaluation or compensation on student performance.
Administration officials are careful to point out that measuring student performance by classroom is directed toward rewarding good teachers and improving the performance of marginal teachers, not just weeding out the weakest. A recent Gates Foundation survey of 40,000 public school teachers found a broad hunger for better information about student performance. Good teachers would rather not operate in the dark.
But this kind of data is likely to seed a revolution. It introduces a foreign concept -- professional rigor -- into public school teaching. Under the administration's proposals, principals would be given information on individual teacher performance. Over time I suspect that parents would want access to that data as well. Some teachers would be honored or become motivated to change; others would be exposed and threatened. Merit works that way.