Duncan’s Take on Teacher Prep and ‘Union Jobs’

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 26, 2009 2 min read
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During our interview with Education Secretary Arne Duncan the other day, my colleagues Michele and Alyson pressed him on the assurances states need to fulfill in order to receive their second chunk of money from the economic-stimulus package. In his answer about state data systems, he said that states should ensure that those systems can link student and teacher data. If you could track this down to the schools of education, you could determine whether some programs typically produced teachers of higher or lower quality, he said.

This isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. Louisiana is already using such data to evaluate its programs; other states such as Ohio, aren’t far behind. Also, the head of the national accrediting body for colleges of education recently agreed that states need to step up their oversight of preparation routes.

Building on that, I asked Duncan if he’d press the states to do more to close poor programs. The new Higher Education Act has more reporting requirements that, supposedly, will make it easier to distinguish program quality:

Duncan was pretty unequivocal that weak preparation programs should be closed down, and he said that alternative routes should be held to similar standards.

Again, though, as with removing ineffective teachers, I suspect this will be a challenging thing for him to follow through on. Presumably, he could withhold higher-ed funds from states that don’t take this seriously (such dollars are the collateral for teacher-college accountability, much as Title I dollars are for K-12 accountability under No Child Left Behind). But given that a lot of higher-ed funds come in the form of student loans, that would be politically tricky.

I also asked Duncan what he thought the role of the teachers’ unions should be as the Obama administration pressed forward. His answer was rather interesting.

On the one hand, he clearly cast teachers’ unions as equally concerned about kids as they are about their members. On the other hand, he made it clear that unions will not be spared from rethinking long-standing structures.

But this was my favorite quote:

What the unions have that maybe they haven't felt in the past is that this is a historic, unprecedented amount of resources coming into schools, and are literally saving hundreds and thousands of teaching jobs, great union jobs, that’s really important. And unions are going to have a seat at the table, and I'm talking to the union leaders virtually on a weekly basis."

The syntax is a bit hard to parse. What do you think it means that Duncan brought up “union jobs”? Do they owe him one now? Or is this really an olive branch after eight years of less congenial relationships (and presumably fewer phone calls) between the Education Department and the unions?

As always, Duncan is a tad hard to read. We’ll just have to be patient and wait to see what the administration has in store.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.