If Sincerity Were Only Enough

At the two previous National Education Association Representative Assemblies, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama spoke of the need to change, the need to collaborate, and the need to move out of our comfort zones. As President of the United States, he sent his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, to deliver the same message.

Before introducing Duncan, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel declared, “What a difference a year makes.” If Van Roekel thought so, at least some of the delegates weren’t quite so sure. Van Roekel admonished the press, not for the first time, because reporters “love to talk about differences.” He was referring to journalists noticing that NEA and the candidate it supported don’t see eye to eye on certain issues, primarily performance pay and charter schools. To Van Roekel, the real story is that NEA now has regular access to the executive branch through the Department of Education. “THAT is news,” he said.

Secretary Duncan then delivered about 30 minutes of prepared remarks, some of which I have already posted as video; the rest I’m sure will be available on NEA’s web site. He said enough things to please and anger everyone, such as:

* “Charter schools are public schools and have to be as accountable as anyone else.”

* “It’s not enough to focus only on issues like job security, tenure, compensation, and evaluation.”

* “If they [principals] are not up to the job, they need to find something else to do.” This was a big applause line, though, as usual, no one spared a thought about where all these horrible principals are coming from.

* Duncan singled out Green Dot for praise, which received scattered boos, and his anecdote about telling school boards they may need to accept mayoral control brought a much louder negative response.

* “I believe teachers’ unions are at a crossroads.” He added that they were formed from an industrial model that treated teachers as “interchangeable widgets.” This got no reaction from the crowd at all. If the teachers’ unions are at a crossroads, they’ve been parked there since about 1983. Maybe they’re out of gas.

* “When have you ever seen the stars so aligned? Let’s seize this opportunity.” The Obama administration is fully aware that the latitude to spend huge wads of unrealized cash on public education will not last very long. There is a lot of emphasis on producing academic gains that can be attributed to the increased spending so that the well doesn’t dry up.

After completing his remarks, Duncan was peppered with questions from eight pre-selected delegates, one of which touched on performance pay, but far and away the greatest response came after a question from a California delegate, who asked, “When ESEA gets reauthorized, how much of our input will be in that document?” The delegates gave a standing ovation.

For his part, Duncan held an even keel throughout, explaining that he thought “teacher voice is hugely important” and how “education has been desperately under-resourced,” but adding that “adult dysfunction has stood in the way of children learning.” He then took 12 questions directly from the audience. The California delegation had evidently staked out the microphones nicely, so he had to listen to diatribes about social justice and a call from one delegate to have the federal government “close the chapter on charter schools.”

Duncan looked a bit bewildered by that one, emphasizing that charters had to be held accountable, but that he would not support closing any type of school that was doing excellent work educating students.

All told, it went about as well as anyone could have expected. Duncan was comforting but didn’t back down on the administration’s more controversial positions. The delegates got their say about those positions – even the delegates whose views didn’t coincide with official NEA policy – so I’m sure virtually everyone left the room contented.

It’s hard not to root for Obama and Duncan, who continue to pitch the “let’s collaborate and come up with something that works” message. The problem, it hardly needs repeating, is that we don’t all agree about “what works.” And some people don’t care if it works or not, as long as the checks keep coming.

Obama and Duncan have given education reformers hope because they sincerely believe they have found a third way. But you worry about their confidence that sincerity will overcome all obstacles. Duncan actually said at one point, “We need to have carrots and sticks,” as if he were the first one to think of it.

That’s all well and good. The real test will come when there aren’t enough carrots and NEA files suit against the sticks. Being Democrats buys Obama and Duncan time and the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t buy them invulnerability.


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  1. Pingback: Arne Duncan Speaks. Will the NEA Listen? | TakePart Social Action Network™

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