The action was taken Sunday by the American Federation of Teachers, which is meeting in Los Angeles. It represents another marker in the long-running erosion of relations between organizations that represent instructors and the Democratic president they helped to elect twice.
The union stopped short of calling for Duncan’s immediate departure — as had the National Education Assn., at its meeting in Denver earlier this month. But the lesser step was no indication of greater regard.
Nate Goldbaum, a Chicago delegate, called Duncan “the man who is taking away all that we hold dear.”
He proposed calling for Duncan’s outright resignation, an idea that garnered strong support until an alternate proposal emerged from Dennis Kelly, president of United Educators of San Francisco.
Kelly offered the improvement-plan language to echo the union’s insistence on protecting due process for teachers who face discipline or dismissal. Union leaders said these rights are under assault.
More broadly, union activists and their allies have accused Duncan of allying with anti-union forces seeking to “privatize” public schools and pave the way for corporate interests to profit from public funding devoted to education.
The resolution said Duncan “has aligned with those who have undermined public education, with those who have attacked educators who dedicate their lives to working with children, and with those who have worked to divide parent and teachers … and he has promoted misguided and ineffective policies on deprofessionalization, privatization and test obsession.”
Duncan’s department has pressured states and school districts to limit teacher job protections and to use student standardized test scores as a substantial portion of a teacher’s evaluation. The goal, Duncan has said, is to develop a higher-quality workforce by helping teachers improve while also making it easier to remove those who don’t.
"The transformation that educators and policymakers are leading to prepare all students for college and careers is incredibly difficult, and too often the adults fight about how to best help the kids,” said Dorie Nolt, speaking for the Department of Education. “Secretary Duncan is hopeful that after AFT wraps up their meeting, he and the organization can continue to work together.”
Duncan has consistently defended himself as a friend of teachers, noting that he supports some form of tenure, while also wanting to make these job protections more difficult to achieve. Duncan applauded a June court ruling that struck down California’s current tenure rules as well as some other teacher job protections.
Some critics of unions and the public education system oppose any form of tenure.
For delegates, targeting Duncan was a message to the president by proxy.
“This amendment calls for us to put the onus on Obama,” said Kelly, the San Francisco union president. “He made the choice. He must make the change.”
Detroit teachers union President Keith R. Johnson said the resolution’s language gave Duncan “enough rope to hang himself,” and for the president to say: “It’s been real, but you gotta go.”
The anger of the rank-and-file had the potential to put AFT President Randi Weingarten in an awkward position. She met with Duncan last week and has stressed keeping open channels of communication.
She called putting Duncan on an improvement plan a “constructive approach” with the appropriate symbolism. At the same time, the passion of delegates demonstrated the “sense of betrayal” many felt about Duncan and the administration, she said.
The major unions have stopped short of breaking with Obama, who during the recent recession successfully pushed for economic stimulus dollars that preserved teaching jobs across the country.
In other actions, the union stood behind new learning standards adopted by most states after a sometimes contentious debate about them. Several states have backed away from these learning goals, although support has remained strong so far among California policymakers.