DENVER — Over skits and snacks Wednesday, hundreds of teachers from around the country got a soft sell from the U.S. Department of Education to become more open-minded about new pay and evaluation systems.
Wrapping up the first national summit among 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 sometimes are their adversaries. Participants spent most of the short summit hearing how great things are in the dozen school districts presenting how they achieved pay-for-performance teacher compensation and other changes that align with what federal education officials say are needed reforms.
Those reforms 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 touted by unions as a way to protect seniority, just as districts should not lay off only older teachers simply 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 boosted union members' spirits by promising he'd stick up for them in states where governors have vowed to shut down teachers' collective bargaining rights. Duncan specifically mentioned Wisconsin, where some 10,000 protesters descended on the state Capitol Wednesday to protest Republican Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to all but eliminate the bargaining process for most public employees.
Duncan vowed to call Walker personally, though he didn't elaborate on what he'd say.
"We're going to do everything we can to bring governors to the table," Duncan said to applause from the educators.
The summit was a whirlwind pitch covering 10 sweeping points federal educators want schools to consider, from evaluating teachers in new ways to handling layoffs demanded by budget cuts in many areas.
"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 school district, Kevin Marvin, leads the teachers' union there and agreed the selling 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 kids.
"Something we've never looked at is how our labor agreements affect student achievement," Marvin said.
Federal officers made clear schools have little choice but to make changes to how teachers are evaluated and trained. They tried to sell teachers and administrators on the idea that change is needed even when it's scary and painful. All sides agree that kids come first, but the unions and administrators were told they need to work harder to iron out what all sides don't agree on.
"Honestly accept the burden of the entire conversation, from aspirations to problem-solving to the tough conversations," said Brad Jupp, a senior program adviser for the U.S. Department of Education.
Jupp was moderating a panel in which a Denver teacher shared her anxieties when moving into the school district with a pay-for-performance system.
The teacher, Lori Nazareno of Denver's Math and Science Leadership Academy, explained that she warmed to the idea after learning that teachers would be rewarded for working at traditionally low-performing schools and that student tests weren't the only standard used to measure teachers' performance.
"The opportunities for teacher leadership, teacher empowerment, teachers taking control of the system, that's significant," Nazareno said.
The rah-rah talk about education reforms was mixed in with skits from Chicago's famed Second City comedy troupe in which actors pretended to be a bickering union leader, superintendent and school board member.
It all seemed a bit hokey to some, but participants said the underlying theme is that changes are inevitable and don't have to be as painful as some fear.
"All the districts here are in the same boat. We're learning how to do this, how to work together," said Ralph Hernandez, school board president in Buffalo, N.Y.
Two big districts – New York City schools and Washington, D.C., schools – pulled out of the conference at the last minute because of ongoing disagreements between teachers' unions and district management. But Duncan and others stressed that the summit had a waiting list of 100 districts in addition to the 150 that attended.
"We had districts literally calling us in tears saying they wanted to come," Duncan said.
He dismissed complaints that the summit wasn't broad enough.
"It was a minor miracle to get all of us on the same page," he joked, motioning to union leaders and school board representatives on the stage.
Associated Press writer Dorie Turner in Atlanta contributed to this report.