U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan makes his appeal for more teacher-district… (Ed Andrieski / Associated…)
Reporting from Denver — After a year of often using financial incentives to spur school reform, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan unveiled a different approach during a two-day conference in Denver: urging districts and teachers unions to develop trusting relationships and work together to improve student achievement.
The move comes as federal education stimulus money has dried up, although President Obama has asked for a nearly $2-billion increase in education funding in his proposed budget.
"I fundamentally believe that tough economic times are either going to paralyze folks or you're going to see opportunities through crisis," Duncan said. Collaboration "has been a desperately, desperately underutilized strategy."
Duncan did not back down from some of his more controversial reform proposals, including using student test score data to evaluate teachers and basing teacher layoffs on factors other than seniority.
During the conference, officials from 150 districts nationwide listened to 12 educational groups, including Green Dot Public Schools and ABC Unified School District in southeastern Los Angeles County, discuss ways in which they have improved student learning through closer relationships with labor unions.
"We really are moving forward all the time," said Gary Smuts, the superintendent of ABC Unified, during a panel with the presidents of the district and the union.
Teachers in the district, which serves about 21,000 students, went on strike in 1993 but formed a better relationship with district administrators afterward. Since then, the district's annual state Academic Performance Index, which measures student achievement on standardized tests, has increased every year.
Leaders of the country's two largest teacher unions largely echoed Duncan's message. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, pointed out that many new teacher contracts that include merit pay and the use of student data in evaluations were the result of closer collaboration.
"They really listened to each other," she said.
Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Assn., said there is more opportunity for teachers unions to work with districts without looming federal grant applications. The Department of Education sponsored a grant contest, known as Race to the Top, last year that awarded $4.35 billion to states that promised to make changes, including possibly using student data to evaluate teachers.
States had several months to complete their applications. California failed to qualify for those funds.
"The biggest problem was that the time pressure was unbelievable," said Van Roekel, who added that the contest was primarily a top-down program dictated by the Obama administration.
The next phase of Race to the Top, which has not been formally announced, should be open to local school districts, officials have said.
But there were also signs that not everyone was on the same page. Superintendents, school board presidents and teachers union leaders had to sign an agreement to try to work together before attending the conference, which was paid for by the Ford Foundation. Contingents from New York City and Washington, D.C., had planned to attend but canceled at the last minute due to disagreements. Los Angeles officials bowed out because they said the school board had to vote on a proposed budget on the first day of the conference.
Weingarten said she "understood full well" why New York and Washington, D.C., officials didn't attend, but Duncan expressed disappointment, saying that it was a "sad reflection of the dysfunction" in the relationship between labor and management in some districts.
And during a question-and-answer period, Duncan was asked several pointed questions.
One attendee said he was troubled that the federal government mandated that some low-performing schools be closed or reconstituted, which would require staff to reapply for their jobs. "When is the Department of Education going to trust us?" he said to applause from many in the audience.
Duncan acknowledged that many teachers are wary of federal intervention. He and other leaders acknowledged that not all districts and unions were willing to work together now but would have to in the future.
"I don't think it's a movement yet, but it's got to be," Van Roekel said.