Arne Duncan tries to smooth relations with teachers

YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS - U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks next to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about providing states flexibility under No Child Left Behind in exchange for reform at the White House in Washington February 9, 2012.

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Education Secretary Arne Duncan made a careful effort Tuesday to smooth relations with teachers, saying the Obama administration understands that many educators feel besieged by the national push for new evaluations and faster improvements in student achievement.

“I know some educators feel overwhelmed by all of this change,” Duncan said during a wide-ranging speech at the National Press Club in Washington. “Teachers always, always support accountability and a fair system of evaluation. They want the feedback so they can get better. But some of them say it’s happening too quickly and not always in a way that is respectful and fair.”

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Teacher evaluations, which were a central issue in a recent seven-day strike by the Chicago Teachers Union, are being implemented across the country as a result of President Obama’s Race to the Top grant program and his decision to issue waivers to 33 states to exempt them from No Child Left Behind, the 2011 federal education law that, many say, is overdue for a rewrite.

The Obama administration wants good teachers to be rewarded with merit pay, promising teachers to get support to improve and weak teachers to leave the classroom. But figuring out how to measure the quality of a teacher is difficult, and many states are struggling to determine the best methods. Some teachers worry that they are being blamed for the weak academic performance of students struggling with poverty, homelessness and other social ills beyond the control of a classroom teacher.

“They want an evaluation system that recognizes out-of-school factors and distinguishes among students with special needs, gifts and backgrounds,” Duncan said. “They certainly don’t want to be evaluated based on one test score — and I absolutely agree with them.”

During his speech, Duncan nodded to a seat occupied by Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, and referred to him as “my good friend.” The nation’s largest labor union, the NEA is a major Democratic donor.

Duncan said the country needed to “rise above the partisan politics — we have to set aside the tired debates pitting reformers against unions — we have to discard the ugly and divisive rhetoric of blame.”

He talked repeatedly about the need for cooperation between the parties. But he also slipped in a campaign message dinging Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

“They fundamentally see education as an expense and the president sees education as an investment,” Duncan said, referring to the GOP ticket. “Congressman Ryan’s budget would mean 200,000 less kids in Head Start, potential massive cuts to Pell grants. None of that leads us in the right direction.”

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