DENVER — The nation's education chief chastised teachers and their bosses in equal measure Tuesday as he launched what the Obama administration is touting as the first-ever national summit between union leaders and administrators.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan told thousands of educators from more than 150 districts in 40 states that the nation's schools are in deep trouble and that bickering among teachers, politicians and administrators is sinking efforts to improve education.
Duncan reminded several hundred educators gathered for the two-day Denver summit that one of four American students fail to complete high school, and that the U.S. is falling behind on college graduation rates.
"Collectively, you have the power to stop our nation's educational demise," Duncan said.
The Obama administration hailed the summit as a fresh start to kick off education overhaul efforts looming in Washington, especially delicate negotiations over how teachers should be paid and evaluated. Participating school districts agreed to send a teacher, an administrator and a school board member to hear presentations from a dozen school districts that have accomplished school overhauls agreed to by all three groups.
"People think everyone here is about to take a guitar out, put on sandals and sing Kumbaya, and that's not what this is about. This is about the hard work," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents about 1.5 million members.
But from the plates of chocolate-chip cookies greeting participants, to a welcoming skit and a group walk to dinner together, the summit did have a bit of summer-camp flavor as representatives from all three groups promised to work together.
"We respect each other equally," said one presenter, Rebecca Newman of Montgomery County, Md., who represents a union group made up of school principals and administrators. Teachers in the audience chuckled when Newman said, "The problem with educators, I think, is we always get along with children better than we get along with other adults."
Duncan asked participants to mingle and keep one thing in mind – that compromise is a good thing.
"Progress more often requires tough-minded collaboration, rather than tough-minded confrontation," he said.
Duncan warned them it wouldn't be easy.
"Collaboration is such a friendly-sounding word, but in practice, nothing is more demanding at a district level," he said.
Duncan's remarks met with applause, but not all school districts are on board.
The nation's largest school district – New York City – and the Washington D.C. district pulled out of the summit after teachers accused school administrators of going back on their word. Other large districts, including Los Angeles, are also missing from the all-expenses-paid trip funded by the nonprofit Ford Foundation.
In New York, teachers last month withdrew from an agreement to attend after some officials talked about seeking layoffs. In Washington, the teachers' union withdrew after union officials said they would feel "hypocritical" presenting to other school districts how to work together with management.
"We're not in a good space right now, and I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that we are," said Nathan Saunders, head of the Washington Teachers' Union.
There was skepticism on the other side, too. The Education Action Group Foundation, a Michigan-based school choice advocacy group critical of teachers' unions, blasted the summit's promise of collaboration Tuesday.
"Such happy talk makes for a good press release, but it does not match reality," EAG spokesman Ben Velderman said in a statement.
Participants, though, seemed in high spirits as they poured into Denver on a rare mild winter day.
"It's about collaboration, about a belief that if you want to make changes for students, you need to find a way to talk to each other," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, a teachers' union with 3 million members.