School & District Management

Duncan, AFT Underscore Need to Partner on Reforms

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 14, 2009 3 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proudly held up the button, a gift from the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten. Thousands of educators applauded.

The button read, “With you, not to you.”

That phrase echoes promises both Mr. Duncan and President Barack Obama have made to consult teachers as they promote their ambitious teacher-quality agenda.

And by calling attention to that theme repeatedly over the course of a session, held July 13, to kick off AFT’s biennial professional-issues conference here, Ms. Weingarten sent a clear signal to administration officials: She intends to hold them to that promise.

“Obama said he wants to work with us, not work us over,” Ms. Weingarten said in her keynote address before more than 2,000 educators. “We’re taking President Obama and Secretary Duncan at their word.”

Local administrators must follow suit, she added.

“When education reform is done to teachers and their unions, it is doomed to fail. But when education reform is done with teachers, it is destined to succeed,” she said.

National Response

Ms. Weingarten’s speech appeared to be a response to some of the issues Mr. Duncan raised earlier this month in an address before the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly in San Diego, Calif. The education secretary told the NEA that teachers need to be “full partners in reform” and to consider changes to long-standing systems for compensating teachers, evaluating them, and awarding them tenure. (“NEA Representatives Air Their Differences With Obama Agenda,” July 15, 2009.)

During a town-hall-style question-and-answer session with educators at the AFT event, Mr. Duncan reiterated that he views such partnerships seriously.

“This button and this topic cannot be more important,” he responded to a question from the audience about teacher evaluation. “You cannot do this [reform work] unilaterally as management.”

But so far, the Obama administration has taken few concrete steps to assuage teachers’ concerns.

It has not, for instance, unveiled its plan for disbursing the $500 million in performance-pay discretionary grants created by the economic-stimulus legislation. Ms. Weingarten has said that such grants must be bargained collectively to ensure the appropriate inclusion of teachers in the design of the pay programs.

Educators participating in the question-and-answer session pressed Mr. Duncan to elaborate on his plans for improved teacher evaluation, as well as for details about proposals on charter schools and the renewal of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

A member of the Boston Teachers Union queried Mr. Duncan on whether he would ensure that charters would serve English-language learners and students with disabilities.

“The support for charter schools in this country is growing by leaps and bounds with your support,” she said. “They are siphoning off an unfair portion of public funding.”

In response, Mr. Duncan said, “I’m not a fan of charters. I’m a fan of good charters,” a remark that met with some skepticism from the audience, but not outright booing. Charter school authorizers, Mr. Duncan added, should require such schools to hit performance benchmarks or face closure.

In reply to a question about the renewal of the NCLB law, Mr. Duncan gave perhaps the strongest clues yet about the administration’s plans. The federal law, he said, has focused too much on labeling and stigmatizing schools and must be changed to reflect more differentiation in school performance.

“It is unbelievably demoralizing to the faculty and confusing to parents, and in far too many places, it’s flat-out wrong,” he said. “ I think you have to be much more finely gradated.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as Duncan, AFT Underscore Need to Partner on Reforms

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