Arne Duncan attacks teachers as NEA convention cheers... The Day of Duncan

Maybe it really is George W. Bush’s fault. Eight years of Cowboy George make his successors look right smart.

Although National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel (above right) tried to cheer on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (above left) on July 2, 2009, at the NEA convention, Duncan's speech and the policies being promoted by the Obama Administration left many of the delegates puzzled or downright angry. Substance photo by Amber Goslee. Take U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He looks like a precocious middle-school boy who knows he is caught dead to rights, but who is going to turn on his brightest smile and see if sheer audacity can get him through just one more lie.

Such was Duncan’s performance at the National Education Association's representative assembly today, July 2, 2009, at the San Diego Convention Center.

And, like a bad middle school teacher, NEA let Duncan get away with it.

Duncan had no security. The entire speech and question/answer session is here: I’ll only touch on that as the truly curious can go to the Duncan’s mouth. I begin with what was missing: social context.

The core idea Duncan peddled was, “we are all in this together for the nation, the economy, and the children.” NEA’s elected leaders accepted that idea without question, forgetting altogether the fact that the reason 3.5 million educators pay dues to a $350 million a year union operation is because employees and their bosses have contradictory interests. More, given thousands of teacher layoffs, massive cuts in social programs, IOU’s issued in California today because of the budget collapse, connected to Obama’s expanded wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and likely the coup in Honduras), multiplied by the $12.9 Trillion printed for the banks while 6 million people lost jobs since September 2008 and GM and Chrysler are bankrupt — forget about foreclosures — and you get a sum of a social context that is summed up as class war, the rich vs poor and working people — and nothing else.

Not a peep about that from NEA. Nor what is now the old education saw, coined by Jean Anyon, “doing school reform without doing social and economic reform is like washing the air on one side of a screen door. It won’t work.”

Rahm Emanuel, top President Obama's Chief of Staff, speaking on Cspan was much clearer about one core question that Duncan sought to avoid: Why have school? Emanuel said, “’s a conveyor belt for the US economy...Arne is promoting charters, national standards, pay for performance, assessments...the states will compete for (stimulus) money on the basis of lining up with those reforms.”

Arne Duncan delivering his speech promoting charter schools, merit pay, and the firing of teachers at "failing schools" on July 2, 2009, at the convention of the National Education Association (NEA) in San Diego. Substance photo by Amber Goslee.NEA’s top leaders were not going to be able to sell such a clearly stated program (Emanuel forgot militarization).

Instead, NEA’s $350,000 a year President Dennis Van Roekel, the 5,000 assembled delegates (4,000–5,000 more are expected Friday) offered a fawning introduction that reminded delegates that Barack Obama chose Duncan and they elected Barack Obama (they surely helped with millions of dollars and untold thousands of volunteer hours, only to be quickly betrayed — but the convention’s harmonious theme, picking up where they left off, is “Hope Starts Here!” ).

Dennis Van Roekel — DVR, as he’s fondly known — said, “His values are ours. He is passionate about quality education for all children. I feel good about how they want to direct education.”

"The press loves to talk about differences," DVR continued, "... but they miss the engagement. It is NEWS that he is accessible. We haven’t had this for eight years. I enjoy the discussions.... besides, when he went to Chicago, one of the first things he did was restore the bargaining rights of the local union. And, he’s a pretty good basketball player...”

Duncan mis-stepped twice.

He nearly fell off the platform and DVR responded, clunkily, “We don’t want to lose you — yet.” Duncan reacted by mispronouncing DVR’s name, then began with a shopworn huckster’s ruse: “Give yourself a round of applause for your hard work.”

Part of the crowd at the NEA RA. Substance photo by Amber Goslee.They did, but without a lot of enthusiasm. Then, “You want to be part of the process, to have your voices heard...This is a moving train and we all need to be on board....We are creating better data systems, adopting higher standards (through you, Dennis).”

I could hear the old slogan from 1968 France howling in my mind: I participate. You participate. He/she participates. We all participate. THEY profit.

Duncan went on to what is now his Old Mom’s tale about growing up in a caring school, not exactly being a teacher, but birthed by one, and then on to urgency — we must hurry, not wait, get more schools open for longer hours, being centers of communities, offering health care, art, play, music — but those who are not up to the job must find somewhere else to be.

“Today, our country has 5,000 failing schools and 2,000 of them produce half the dropouts,” Duncan said, and nobody objected. Duncan promoted Green Dot charter schools schools as a good example, to a few boos. Mostly, though, the reception was polite.

“NEA, too, has a dedicated honest leader in Dennis Van Roekel.” Duncan also praised Joe Anderson of the Illinois Education Association as "a fine NEA leader, a collaborator..." Duncan then attacked seniority and tenure — for putting people in schools where they cannot succeed. “The tenure system can protect jobs, not children.”

“Today, I ask you to join Obama and me in rewarding success for children. The Recovery Act puts $100 billion into education...” in order to beat other nations, for long term economic growth. “This is our moonshot.’

The demagoguery grew a bit thick, “When have you ever seen the stars so aligned? Enlightened leaders. A bipartisan legislature (sic). An enlightened president!”

I hoped to hear, "but wait, there's more!"

The 1,000-plus California delegation alone took modest collective action to let Duncan know their thoughts. They wore white t-shirts emblazoned with: Learning is more than a test score.

So is teaching.”

The 2009 convention logo. Substance photo by Amber Goslee.There were no other signs of protest. Duncan headed that off with, “you can boo but don’t throw a shoe.”

Nobody did.

One California delegate who I have known for nine years approached me: “This is madness, you know. Just madness. He says he respects us and most of us seem to believe him. He told them he is using carrots and sticks, and he is. When do we meet the Bad Arne? Soon, I bet.”

Another California delegate, Theresa Montaro, raised a comment and a question from a microphone: “There is no test that measures students overcoming adversity. There is no research showing charters are better, indeed a recent Stanford study indicates they may be worse. There is no research saying merit pay improves the quality of teaching. When ESEA is re-authorized, how much of our input will be in it?” Standing ovation. Duncan responded:...We need a common high bar and common assessments. The pursuit of federal standards involves many, many players. “Dennis is a great help.”

So it went. Following the session, I met with a Kentucky delegate.

“Duncan didn’t answer or really address the questions. He said he was listening, but he just let them throw out the ropes and he ducked—and they didn’t notice it. They still lined up to get their pictures with Dennis and Arne. What is it about teachers?” The local San Diego Education Association has worked without a contract for a year, submitted a petition signed by 5,000 teachers denouncing the cruel, adversarial, nature of their working environment two weeks ago. That, it appears, is not going to be on the NEA-RA agenda. Wither Macbeth? 

Final edited version of this article posted at July 3, 2009, 1:00 p.m. CDT. If you choose to reproduce this article in whole or in part, or any of the graphical material included with it, please give full credit to SubstanceNews as follows: Copyright © 2009 Substance, Inc., Please provide Substance with a copy of any reproductions of this material and we will let you know our terms. We are asking all of our readers to either subscribe to the print edition of Substance (a bargain at $16 per year) or make a donation. Both options are available on the right side of our Home Page. For further information, feel free to call us at our office at 773-725-7502.