Arne Duncan gets sent to the principal’s office

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US Education Secretary Arne Duncan is losing his allies fast. As the Huffington Post noted in early July,

At its annual meeting in Chicago, The National Education Association’s Representative Assembly passed Saturday New Business Item C., a strongly worded piece that comprehensively lists the NEA’s grievances with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

EdWeek’s Stephen Sawchuck summarized it this way:

With a few minor amendments, the NEA’s Representative Assembly today passed New Business Item C, a.k.a. “13 Things We Hate About Arne Duncan.”
One of its sponsors said that unions are tired of being attacked, and they are “especially upset that the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Duncan are part of the problems we face every single day.”

No one disagreed, and there wasn’t a whole lot of debate on the item, which is a pretty good indication of just how ticked off the union is right about now.

Let’s step back here and understand what this is. The pressure has been building among conservatives in Congress to oppose the Secretary of Education plans to effectively force states to adopt national standards and assessments. But the NEA is anything but a conservative organization. The NEA is the largest teachers organization in the country.

So, with the election campaign beginning to kick in, seeing the level of anger among the NEA’s membership toward the president’s education secretary is not only a policy problem. It is now a political problem. Under the New Business Items at the Chicago meeting of the Association was a resolution

ADOPTED AS AMENDED: The NEA Representative Assembly directs the NEA President to communicate aggressively, forcefully, and immediately to President Barack Obama and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that NEA is appalled with Secretary Duncan’s practice of…

Well, actually a lot of things. The resolution continues to list the NEA membership’s opposition to Duncan’s support for standardized tests attached to accountability, Race to the Top and other grant programs, support for charter schools, and disrespect for the professionalism of teachers. I am not so sure those criticisms have merit, but I do think that the NEA’s membership outlines four reasonable objections to Secretary Duncan’s efforts (items 1, 7, and 13):

  1. (1.) Weighing in on local hiring decisions of school and school district personnel.
  2. (7.) Forcing local school districts to choose from a pre-determined menu of school improvement models that are unproven and have been shown to be ineffective and bear little resemblance to the actual needs of the school that is struggling.
  3. (13.) Perpetuating the myth that there are proven, top-down prescribed ‘silver bullet’ solutions and models that actually will address the real problems that face public education today, rather than recognizing that what schools need is a visionary Secretary of Education that sets broad goals and tasks states, local schools districts, schools, educators, and communities with meeting those goals.

Now those who view progress in education as anything that is anti-union may feel like this just is a badge of honor for Duncan and his policies. I think that view of how to improve our schools misses the mark, by a wide margin. Not only because it suggests a reactionary mind-set, but also because it means you agree that the President’s education appointee should actually micro-manage districts and schools.

I’d also add to the NEA’s list that it is illegal for the US Department of Education to supervise, plan and organize national standards, curricula and tests. As Jay Greene has written, that is obviously what the Department is doing, and the Education Organization Act of 1979 clearly does not allow for that. The law states:

No provision of a program administered by the Secretary or by any other officer of the Department shall be construed to authorize the Secretary or any such officer to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, over any accrediting agency or association, or over the selection or content of library resources, textbooks, or other instructional materials by any educational institution or school system, except to the extent authorized by law.

The NEA, for its part, notes at the end of its list of grievances that:

Further, the NEA Representative Assembly directs the NEA Executive Committee to develop and implement an aggressive action plan in collaboration with state and local leaders that will address the issues above.

Starting November 2011, the NEA President will provide regular updates to the delegates on the progress of this plan throughout the year.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse. Follow me on twitter at @jimstergios, or visit Pioneer’s website.