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Secretary of Education: 'We Are Not Going to Impose Reform'

by Mary Ellen Flannery

About 7,000 NEA delegates heard U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan call for reform to teacher compensation and evaluation systems during a special town hall meeting in the Representative Assembly hall yesterday, saying we should not let seniority and tenure rules put adults ahead of children, and that teacher performance should be measured-in part-by student scores.

Then it was the delegates' turn.

Teacher pay tied to test scores? Bad idea, they said.

NCLB? Needs help!

But listening to each other? All right!

Duncan promised a new collaborative spirit to working with the NEA and its members, saying, "We haven't talked to each other, we haven't listened to each other. Adult dysfunction has stood in the way of children learning and we can't afford that anymore."  At the same time, with tens of thousands of students dropping out of school each year and thousands more failing to meet basic standards, it's also time to do more than talk, he suggested.

Teacher pay - and teacher tenure - needs changing, Duncan said. He and President Obama hope to collaborate with NEA and its members on new systems of compensation that depart from traditional seniority-based salary scales.

"Excellence matters and we must honor it - fairly, transparently, and on terms teachers can embrace," Duncan said. "The President and I have both said repeatedly that we are not going to impose reform but rather work with teachers, principals, and unions to find what works."

Student test scores are likely to be part of a pay-for-performance system that Duncan would prefer - although pay shouldn't be based solely on scores, he said. "Test scores alone should never drive evaluation, compensation or tenure decisions. That would never make sense," Duncan said, to rousing applause. "But to remove student achievement entirely from evaluation is illogical and indefensible."

Speaking of illogical and indefensible, when it was the delegates turn to speak to Duncan, many pointed to senseless, punitive measures in No Child Left Behind. It's important that teachers have a voice in its reauthorization, said Virginia science teacher Frank Cardella. On this point, the delegates and Duncan found common ground.

The law does need fixing, Duncan said - especially around fair assessments for students with disabilities and English Language Learners. And another problem: the narrowing of the curriculum that NCLB has forced. One of Anita Vanegas' students recently asked the Fremont, California, teacher: "Why do we keep going to school in May and June? Testing is over!"

"I think it's so important for all children, but especially children from backgrounds where they're not getting their own piano lessons, to have exposure to art and p.e. and a rich array of activities," Duncan agreed.  "I don't have all the answers," he told Vanegas and her colleagues. "I hope we can come up with them collectively."