Throwing down gauntlet to teachers

The country’s top education official challenged teachers unions Thursday to embrace historically controversial ways of promoting teacher effectiveness, including offering merit pay and evaluating instructors based on student test scores.

“You must become full partners and leaders in education reform. You must be willing to change,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the National Education Assn. at its annual meeting in San Diego.

The proposals are particularly charged in California, where such suggestions typically are met with fierce union resistance. In fact, a state law prevents districts from using California student performance data to evaluate or compensate teachers.


Duncan’s audience was slightly more welcoming than in the past. Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3.2-million member NEA, agreed that reform was needed, especially in teacher evaluations. And many rank-and-file union members at least politely nodded during Duncan’s speech, a change from last year when President Obama -- then a candidate -- was roundly booed by the same convention when he discussed merit pay.

Not that the crowd was won over Thursday. “Quite frankly, merit pay is union-busting,” said one educator to loud applause during the question-and-answer period.

Audience members cheered when one teacher questioned the merits of linking student test scores to teacher evaluation or pay.

When one NEA member shouted angrily at the mention of merit pay, Duncan said, “You can boo [but] don’t throw any shoes, please.”

Duncan has mentioned many of these ideas while traveling the country addressing educators, but Thursday was his first speech focused on teacher quality. And he made it before a potentially antagonistic audience.

Still, he said the Obama administration wants to work in partnership with the unions to ensure that students have the best teachers. “We are not going to impose reform but rather work with teachers, principals and unions to find what works,” Duncan said.

He also advocated changing tenure rules, saying protecting poor teachers hurts students and effective instructors.

He also made it a point to say that charter schools -- independent, public schools that are free of many school district regulations and restrictions and often are not bound by union contracts -- should be treated the same as regular campuses.

“Charter schools are public schools, and they should be held to the same standards as everyone else,” he said.

A group in the California section of the audience booed loudly when Duncan praised Green Dot Public Schools, which independently operates more than a dozen schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District with union contracts. David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Assn., called the anti-Green Dot contingent a “vocal minority.”

Duncan pointedly advocated using student test score data to assess teacher effectiveness. “It’s time we all admit that just as our testing system is deeply flawed, so is our teacher evaluation system.”

Test scores should not be the sole measurement of teacher quality, Duncan said, and any merit pay needs to be shared on a campus-wide basis. When he headed the Chicago public schools, Duncan oversaw the creation of a program that rewarded some schools for increasing student achievement, which was measured partially by test scores, by giving extra pay to all employees.

Unions agreed to the program, said Duncan, who added that rewarding only individual teachers was wrong.

“You cannot pit teachers against each other. Such programs will always fail,” he said.

He also said that administrators need to be given more support and training, but if they are ineffective they “need to find something else to do.”

Van Roekel said he was willing to work with Duncan and the Obama administration because they appear to understand the complexities of reform and of using testing data to evaluate teachers. But Sanchez said he did not favor using that data.

“It shouldn’t be on the table,” he said.

Sanchez said that local unions need to negotiate their own contracts, but that he doesn’t believe merit pay should be a bargaining point. Still, he said he was pleased that Duncan was reaching out to unions.

When reform “comes from the top down, it never works,” Sanchez said. “We need to be inclusive.”