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Duncan Weighs In on School Board Accountability, Other Policies

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Education Summit in DenverIn his speech kicking off the labor-management conference here in Denver, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for more accountability for school boards and also hinted that teacher-assignment policies should be carefully examined.

Those are just two of the more interesting parts of Duncan's kick-off speech, which you can read the full text of the Education Department's website.

In sum, Duncan called on attendees to make student learning the foremost element in all of their interactions—and not just at the bargaining table or in budgets, but also in the classroom, at school board meetings, and on school leadership teams.

Duncan dealt with the elephant in the room: The term "collaboration" itself is a mushy, gooey, nicey-nice term for relationships that even at their best are complex and messy.

"We [President Obama and I] reject the idea that 'collaboration' in education is a codeword for cowardice, as if collaborating was akin to collaborating with an enemy in wartime. Just to be clear, I am not here to celebrate all union-management collaboration. I am not commending labor and management collaboration that props up a status quo that fails to serve the interests of children. Collaboration is such a friendly-sounding word. But in practice, nothing is more demanding at the district level than collaborating on issues that take you far beyond your comfort zone."

Then he commented on each of the 10 areas for collaboration listed in a handbook for conference attendees.

One area of focus was school boards. Acknowledging that teachers "have a point" when they say all the pressure for academic outcomes is on their shoulders, he called on school boards to be evaluated as well.

"This is not an area where there are a lot of examples," Duncan said. "Most school boards have to face voters. On the other hand, many school board elections have a low turnout—so we need a system where school boards also get the meaningful feedback they need from their partners, not just voters."

He waded into the teacher assignment and layoff issues without being very specific about what revisiting them might look like.

"My view is that we need to look hard at the impact of staffing rules, seniority, and funding policies on students, especially in low-achieving schools. That means recruiting the best teachers and then making sure that our state laws, labor contracts and personnel practices support these teachers and keep them in their schools. Clearly, the status quo isn't working for children," Duncan said.

Hmm, reading between the lines, does that mean seniority-based layoffs, too? After all, the economic-stimulus funding is coming to an end.

Duncan also engaged in a bit of press-bashing for ignoring this "new narrative" of reform and focusing on areas of tension (so I guess all those stories EdWeek and other papers wrote on New Haven, Conn.; Pittsburgh; and Baltimore don't count.)

"Newspapers, television, and documentaries typically portray the struggle for school reform as a tale of ceaseless conflict between labor and management. They love the yelling, the finger-pointing, the controversy—and sadly we have been content to spoonfeed them exactly what they want. In district after district I've seen people retreat to their traditional roles and I know exactly how that movie ends," Duncan said.

Overall, the speech continues a trend of Duncan using the bully pulpit to try to sway policy, as he's done recently to criticize Wake County, North Carolina's overhauled integration criteria and to encourage the permanent appointment of interim D.C. Chancellor Kaya Henderson. With all the Race to the Top money on its way out the door, this makes a degree of sense, since publicity is probably the next most powerful lever for the agency outside of money and laws like the economic-stimulus bill and No Child Left Behind.

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivers the opening remarks at the Education Summit in Denver on Feb. 15. (Ed Andrieski/AP)

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