NEA Calls For Education Secretary’s Resignation, Citing ‘Failed Agenda’

Jeff Bryant

Meeting at their annual convention in Denver, members of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, have passed a resolution calling for the resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

As first reported by the Associated Press, the resolution cited the teachers’ objections to the “department’s failed education agenda focused on more high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores, and for continuing to promote policies and decisions that undermine public schools and colleges, the teaching education professionals, and education unions.”

The AP report also noted that many NEA members were angered by Duncan’s statement last month in support of a California judge’s ruling that struck down tenure and other job protections for the state’s public school teachers. “Duncan seemed to support the decision,” noted bloggers for Education Week who also covered the story. They noted that the resolution was proposed by the union’s powerful California affiliate, whose president is quoted as saying the Secretary’s response to the court ruling “was just shameful. And it underscored his lack of understanding.”

But other speeches made and actions taken at the event point to teachers’ mounting frustrations with a political leadership that enforces nationwide testing policies with little to no regard to their effects on teachers and the teaching and learning process.

In a fiery speech to some 9,000 delegates, outgoing NEA president Dennis Van Roekel declared that “politicians and their policies have created a difficult environment for students and educators.”

Citing the failed track record of federal mandates such as the No Child Left Behind legislation that became law in 2002, Van Roekel described an “intense dissatisfaction with the conditions of learning and teaching” and “feelings of anger, frustration, disappointment, and unrealized expectation of the Department of Education.” Van Roekel was particularly critical of “the overwhelming amount and the offensive misuse of scores from high-stakes standardized tests.”

In a similarly themed address, NEA executive director John Stocks complained about “policies that prioritize testing over teaching … that label and punish … and that completely disregard the important role that experience plays in effective teaching and learning. These policies harm students … and they undermine the public’s confidence in educators and public education.

Reinforcing this bitter resentment over high-stakes testing that pervaded the conference, NEA delegates also approved “a national campaign to reduce the amount of student and instructional time consumed by standardized tests and to implement more effective forms of assessment and accountability,” according to the Association’s newsletter.

The campaign against “toxic testing” calls for a “’testing ombudsman’ to serve as a watchdog over the testing industry and its market power in education.” The educators also want to end testing mandates imposed by No Child Left Behind and want to see policy leaders change the focus of their efforts to “developing a real accountability system that prioritizes learning over labels.”

In an interview with a reporter for Politico, incoming NEA president Lilly Eskelsen García declared her “job one is to recapture what it means to teach and what it is to learn because it has been corrupted by this absolutely idiotic obsession with standardized, multiple-choice, mass-produced, commercialized, tests.”

Eskelsen García was particularly pointed in her criticism of the Obama’s administrations enforcement of using student test scores to make unfounded conjectures on what “value-add” individual teachers have on the rise or fall in the scores. As the Politico reporter explained, “The idea has gained traction under the Obama administration through waivers from No Child Left Behind and the administration’s signature Race to the Top program. But studies, including some funded by the Education Department, have cast doubt on the validity of the measures.”

Calling this form of test score-driven measurement “the mark of the devil,” Eskelsen García maintained that scores “can’t capture the complete picture” of the degree student learning has been influenced by individual teachers.

That Secretary Duncan is bearing the brunt of NEA’ criticism of the Obama administration’s policies is not a new development. As writers for Politico noted in the outlet’s weekly newsletter, “Similar resolutions have been on the agenda at past NEA conventions.” And Education Week’s blogger observed, “For years, as Education Week has reported, the NEA has vented its frustration with President Obama by essentially redirecting it towards Duncan.”

As public school teacher Peter Greene wrote on his personal blog, “Duncan as a spokesperson makes a fine target at which to direct displeasure with the product. But don’t confuse the man with the policies.”

Nevertheless, the NEA’s actions signal a new combativeness from an organization of 3 million-plus educators who have, to a very great extent, been compliant with many federal policies, including new Common Core Standards. Their resolve to make an acting secretary of education, in a Democratic administration no less, the focal point of the growing resentment to education policies that is building across the nation adds yet more energy to what many are calling a rising Education Spring.

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