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Teachers urged to accept reforms

By Kristen Wyatt
Associated Press / February 17, 2011

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DENVER — Over skits and snacks yesterday, hundreds of teachers from around the country got a soft sell from the Department of Education on becoming more open-minded about new pay and evaluation systems.

Wrapping up the first national summit of teachers unions, school administrators, and board members representing some 150 districts from 40 states heard glowing reports from districts that have already shifted how they evaluate and train teachers.

The summit was billed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan as a groundbreaking effort to build trust between unions and the leaders who are sometimes their adversaries.

Participants heard from the dozen school districts how they achieved pay-for-performance teacher compensation and other changes that align with what federal education officials say are needed reforms.

Those changes are even more necessary now as states continue to grapple with massive budget shortfalls and scores of teachers face layoffs again this year, Duncan said. Duncan told reporters in a conference call that schools should ban “last hired, first fired’’ policies backed by unions, just as districts should not lay off only older teachers because they are paid more.

“If you have to make tough calls, you have to figure out for the most disadvantaged communities how you keep your best talent,’’ he said.

Later, Duncan told union members that he would support them in states where governors have vowed to shut down teachers’ collective bargaining rights. Duncan mentioned Wisconsin, where some 10,000 protesters descended on the state Capitol yesterday to protest Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to all but eliminate the bargaining process for most public employees.

Duncan vowed to call Walker, a Republican, personally, though he didn’t elaborate on what he would say.

The summit was a whirlwind pitch covering 10 points federal educators want schools to consider, from evaluating teachers in new ways to handling layoffs demanded by budget cuts.

“There’s so little time — they couldn’t really go in depth, so they act like this is the easiest thing in the world, and we know that that’s not so,’’ said Earl Rickman, school board president in Mt. Clemens, Mich., which recently agreed to a merit-pay system with its teachers union.

A sixth-grade teacher from Rickman’s district, Kevin Marvin, leads the teachers’ union there and said the pitch for merit pay and other changes was a bit one-dimensional.

But he gave high marks to the effort to remind school leaders that teachers are willing to make changes but need to be persuaded the reforms will help students.

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