September 25, 2012 — As part of the NBC News 2012 “Education Nation” Summit this week, President Barack Obama sat down with NBC’s Savannah Guthrie to discuss his vision for the future of education in America.

The exclusive interview aired Tuesday on “TODAY” and this afternoon on MSNBC. A full transcript is below.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
Mr. President, thank you for being with us for Education Nation. We really appreciate it.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:
It’s great to be here.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
Well, they say all politics is local. But sometimes local politics turn national. So I want to ask you about the strike in Chicago. There was a leading reform advocate who said, “This shows is it a new day for Democrats. They are no longer kowtowing to the unions.” Is that how you see it?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:
You know, that’s not how I see it. What I see is that, all across the country, people want results. And I’m a strong believer that the way you get results is to get everybody involved. So it starts at home. Parents have to parent and turn off the T.V. and the video and make sure your kids are doing their homework and communicate with your teachers.
It means teachers striving for excellence in the classroom. It means school boards making sure that teachers have the resources and the creativity to do their best, principals who are leaders. And I think what you saw in Chicago, for example was the fact that they had the shortest school day in– in the country, just about. And– or the shortest school year.

And it was very important, I think, for Mayor Emanuel to say, “Let’s step up our game.” And it was important for the teachers unions also to say, “Let’s make sure we’re not just blaming teachers for a lot of big problems out there. Let’s make sure we’ve got the resources.”
So I’m glad it was resolved. Ultimately, the most important thing, obviously, is performance and– and making sure these kids are doing well. But I do think that from the perspective of Democrats we can’t just sit on the status quo or say that money’s the only issue. Reform is important, also. And that’s been sort of the– the benchmark we’ve used in my administration, is to say, “We’re going to give more money to those schools that are serious about reform but we’re not going to let people make excuses and suggest that it’s just a money problem.”

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
Mitt Romney said that, “President Obama has chosen his side in this fight,” that you’ve sided with the unions. At another time last spring, he said, “He can’t talk up reform while indulging in groups that block it.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:
Well– you know– I think Governor Romney and– and– a number of folks try to politicize the issue– and do a lot of teacher-bashing. When I meet teachers all across the country, they are so devoted, so dedicated to their kids. And what we’ve tried to do is actually break through this left/right, conservative/liberal gridlock.
And that’s what my key reform’s been all about, “Race To the Top.” What we’ve said to school districts is, “You’ve gotta emphasize high accountability, high standards. Make sure that teachers know that we’re going to be paying attention to the actual outcomes for kids. But we’re also going to give more resources to schools who are doing the right thing: Training teachers providing them the professional development and support that they need.” some of the things that we’ve done haven’t been popular with teachers unions. You know, I’m a big proponent of charter schools, for example. I think that pay-for-performance makes sense in some situations.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
One of the things that Mayor Emanuel was fighting for was tying teacher evaluations to student performance. The teachers fought it. That’s something that’s at the bedrock of your education policy.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:
Well, the key is to work with teachers. When you look at what’s happening in Denver, for example, School District, teachers have embraced the idea of merit pay for teachers who are really doing a great job. But what is still a challenge, and I think teachers have a legitimate gripe here, is making sure that the assessments are done properly, that it’s not just based on standardized tests, which, oftentimes, forces schools to teach to the test.
And one of the reasons that we have sought reforms to No Child Left Behind. I think it had great intentions. I give President Bush credit for saying, “Let’s raise standards and make sure that everybody’s trying to meet them.” But because so much of it was tied just to standardized testing, what you saw across the country was teaching to the test.
And I– I can’t tell you how many teachers I meet who say, “You know what? This makes school less interesting for kids. And as a consequence, I’m ending up really shrinking my curriculum, what I can do in– in terms of creativity inside of the classroom.” And that’s not how you or I, for example, when we think about our best teachers, we don’t think about studying a bunch of tests to see how we’re going to score on a standardized test.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
Some people think President Obama gets so much support from the teachers unions, he can’t possibly have an honest conversation about what they’re doing right or wrong. Can you really say that teachers unions aren’t slowing the pace of reform?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:
You know, I– I– I just really get frustrated when I hear teacher-bashing as evidence of reform. My sister is a former teacher. She now works at the university, working with teachers. And I can tell you that they work so hard. They’re– they’re putting money out of their own pockets in the classroom every single day. They’re not doing it for the pay.
And in some of the toughest school districts, they’re not just teachers, they’re counselors, they’re disciplinarians, they’re parents. Because these kids are coming into these schools with so many different problems. And you know, what is absolutely true is, if we’ve got a bad teacher, we should be able to train them to get better. And if they can’t get better they should be able to get fired. I do think that– you know, reform has to be a part of every agenda in the country– school district in the country, because there’s some schools that are just under-performing.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
And I want to ask you about that. And I’m sure you could recite these statistics by heart. American students: 25th in math.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:
Yeah.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
17th in science, 14th in reading. And yet, the U.S. spends just about as much as any other country per pupil.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:
Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
Why aren’t we getting our money’s worth? People are probably wondering, “What are we spending our money on, then?”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:
Well you know, part of the problem we’ve got is we’ve got a very diverse country. Compared to some– these smaller countries, where all the kids are coming to school pretty well prepared, they’re not hungry, they’re not poor– in our country, we– you know, we’ve got poor kids and we’ve– some kids who have deep troubles at home. And– and that affects performance.

But there’s no doubt that we can step up our game. So what I’ve proposed, moving forward, building off of Race To the Top, is let’s hire 100,000 new math and science teachers who are actually trained and math and science, as opposed to just being thrown into the classroom without the kind of preparation they need.
Let’s continue to focus on early childhood education, makes a big difference– particularly for kids who are low income. Part of our Race To the Top is let’s figure out what are the drop out factories out there, the– the– couple of thousand schools where we know they’re really under-performing. And let’s transform those schools.
And– and in all these situations, what we have to do is combine creativity and evidence-based approaches. So let’s not use ideology, let’s figure out what works, and figure out how we scale it up. And let’s combine that with resources. And– and this is big argument, and big difference, that I’ve got with Governor Romney in this election.
Because they talk a good game about reform. But when you actually look at their budgets– they’re talking about slashing our investment in education by 20-25%. We’ve already seen 300,000 teachers that have been fired across the country. And as a consequence, class sizes have gone up by 5%.

And, you know, when you talk to a teacher– I was meeting with a couple of teachers in Las Vegas– where they said, in the first week of school, they’ve got 42 kids in a class, some of ’em sitting on the floor, it takes a couple of weeks before they try to redistribute to maybe get it down to 35 or 36 or 38. That has an impact on kids learning. So reform is important. And resources are important. And you can’t be for one but not be for the other.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE:
Let me ask you about No Child Left Behind. This– the amendment has granted waivers to states because Congress hasn’t amended the law. Allows them to not have as rigorous of standards. Something caught my eye, absolutely, and I bet it caught yours, too. Because of those waivers, in some states, states are permitted to have different proficiency standards by race. So in other words, in the state of Maryland, African-American students are only expected to reach a certain level of proficiency, but white students are expect to– to reach a higher level of proficiency.

They’re expected to improve at a faster rate. But the bottom line is we have a situation in America, in 2012, where you have African-Americans expected not to reach the same level of proficiency as white in certain subjects. And I just wonder, on a gut level, does that bother you?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:
Of course it bothers me. And– and one of the good things about No Child Left Behind was to say all kids can learn. Black, white, Hispanic, doesn’t matter. That everybody should be able to achieve at a certain level. But the problem that you had was, because it was under-resourced, and because some kids were coming in to school, a lot of minority kids were coming into school, already behind, the schools were not going to be meeting these standards, weren’t even coming close to meeting these standards.
And so what we’ve said to schools is “You’ve gotta continue to keep those high standards. But we are going to measure growth. By age– we’re– we’re still going to keep track of what you’re doing with each group. And you’re not going to have an excuse to do really well with white kids, let’s say, and the black and Hispanic kids aren’t doing as well, but you average it out and you meet something. We’re still going to disaggregate the information about black, white and Hispanic kids, to make sure that everybody’s moving.” But moving towards this growth model of how you measure the job that a school’s doing gives every school an opportunity to continually improve without labeling them as failures, and then not giving them the resources that they need to actually step up.

Next: President Obama talks and Savannah Guthrie talk about college affordability