Duncan Faces Skeptical Teachers’ Union Crowd


Yesterday in Washington, D.C., a week after taking his pro-merit pay message to the National Education Association, Arne Duncan conducted a Q&A with members of the American Federation of Teachers. While the AFT is known as the more "reformist" union — in large part because of the careful political positioning of its president, Randi Weingarten — the education secretary was greeted with real skepticism by the AFT rank-and-file.

Members of the Chicago local laughed, almost theatrically, when Duncan claimed to have supported broad, community-based anti-poverty efforts while working as that city's superintendent. A series of questioners pressed Duncan to reevaluate his positions. One teacher from West Virginia told him that after merit pay was instituted at her school, "The result of this has been a crash in morale. … We are looking upon it as a very elaborate process of favoritism." Duncan was conciliatory. "That system…has a lot of work to do," he said to the West Virginia woman, "I appreciate your frustration." To a questioner concerned about charter schools weeding out special-education students, he replied, "To be clear, I'm not a fan of charters. I'm a fan of good charters." For that, he was gifted with disbelieving boos.

Indeed, while Weingarten and Duncan presented a united front — both have said merit pay plans must have teacher buy-in — their professed mutual admiration covered up some significant differences within the Democratic Party coalition. Just last week, Duncan appointee Joanne Weiss, the administrator for the education department's $5 billion Race to the Top fund, said states that do not allow student test scores to be considered in teacher tenure decisions, such as New York, should be ineligible for the coveted grants, intended to foster innovation. Duncan has also made clear that states should lift caps on the number of charter schools allowed to open in a year. Weingarten, on the other hand, has lobbied Albany in opposition to test score-based tenure and in support of charter caps. She did so even as she managed two union-run charter schools in New York City and actively worked to unionize charter school teachers across the country.

That's not to say there were no genuine points of comity at the event. Duncan's take on No Child Left Behind won him plaudits. He praised NCLB's success at dis-aggregating achievement numbers by race and class, while criticizing the legislation for being underfunded and stigmatizing "failing" schools. Most significantly, he used NCLB's existing state-by-state standards system to make a plug for common national standards, a concept that seemed popular with the crowd. Under the Bush administration, NCLB was "very, very loose on the goals…and they were very, very tight on how you get there. I want to fundamentally flip that," Duncan said. "I think it's backwards."

cross-posted at TAPPED

Photo of Arne Duncan courtesy House Committee on Education and Labor

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