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Education Secretary Arne Duncan lavishly praises Twin Cities cooperative efforts

Partnerships among several Twin Cities school districts, teachers unions and board members are producing innovations, he said.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
REUTERS/Jonathan ErnstSecretary of Education Arne Duncan

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan today lavished praise on several Twin Cities school districts, teachers unions and board members for the progressive nature of their relationships.

Their partnerships, he said, are producing the types of innovations he hopes to reward with two new grant competitions worth nearly $800 million.

“I just think you have not just collaboration for collaboration’s sake, but tough-minded collaboration,” he said in a Thursday interview with MinnPost. “The children in the cities there are very well served.”

Duncan Wednesday met briefly with leaders from Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools at the second annual Labor-Management Collaboration Conference in Cincinnati. Brooklyn Center and Pine River-Backus schools also sent teams to the meeting, intended to create support for districts and unions that are working together to accelerate student achievement.

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“What I heard consistently was a real sense of urgency and a willingness to challenge the status quo, to do things differently when necessary,” said Duncan. “Complacency, a resistance to change, I didn’t feel that at all, so that was a very positive sign.”

He used the occasion, he said, to talk to Twin Cities leaders about the next round of the Department of Education’s competitive Race to the Top (RTTT) grants. The $390 million will be awarded to individual districts where labor and management are partnering to deliver individualized learning strategies to reach every child. Districts can receive up to $25 million.

“We will invest only in districts where union and management and boards are working together in very, very creative ways to personalize, individualize learning,” Duncan said. “I’ve said the idea of one teacher teaching 25 or 30 children all the same thing at the same time in the same way, that’s a 19th-century model. We want to empower every teacher to get to every single child and figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are and help them.”

The second of its kind, the conference drew three-member teams that included a representative from the unions, district administrations and boards of 100 districts in 40 states. St. Paul sent Superintendent Valeria Silva, teachers federation President Mary Cathryn Ricker and board Chair Jean O’Connell.

St. Paul is one of several Minnesota communities that have received national attention for innovative reforms produced by the kind of collaboration being discussed at the conference. Last year, at the inaugural conference in Denver, a team from St. Francis was held up as a model partnership.

Board chair Jean O'Connell
Courtesy of Mary Cathryn RickerBoard chair Jean O’Connell describing our full-spectrum peer assistance and review program.

Minneapolis’ delegation included Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Recording Secretary Jim Barnhill, Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and board Chair Alberto Monserrate. Brooklyn Center Superintendent Keith Lester also headed a delegation, while Pine River-Backus sent union local President Dawn Bergerson, Superintendent Catherine Bettino and a board member.

Duncan also briefed the Twin Cities teams on a second set of grants, to be announced next week. Districts will be invited to compete for a slice of a $300 million Teacher Incentive Fund; the awards will fund something called the Respect Project.

“This is our effort to significantly elevate and strengthen the teaching profession,” he said. “We want to fund districts that are thinking creatively about how to attract and retain great teachers, and how to compensate them.

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“This is really tough work, and we want to fund places where adults are working together,” Duncan added.

Like the other districts invited to participate, Wednesday’s Minnesota delegations set up booths in the convention’s great hall and spent several hours exchanging ideas about one another’s efforts. “Picture a science fair for adults with collaboration, rather than baking soda/vinegar lava, as the experiment,” said Ricker.

The “cross-pollination” was great, said Minneapolis’ Barnhill, but even better is the opportunity to brainstorm with the MPS superintendent and board chair. “There’s a freedom here for us to talk about very substantive things,” he said. “When we’re back in the district, that’s much more difficult and complicated because we are having to pay attention to all of these different groups.”

Minneapolis administrators, board members and union leaders are emerging from a bruising couple of years during which two rounds of contract talks threatened to deadlock, and critical headlines dogged players on all sides.

If there is tension surrounding the Cincinnati conference, however, it’s of a different kind. Going into the gathering, there were fears among some attendees that Duncan, whose education reform policies have challenged traditional union members’ protections, has not created a sustainable framework for nurturing collaboration.  

Making the conference an annual event is terrific, Twin Cities educators have said privately, but the work unions and districts are being asked to do together — designing teacher and principal evaluation systems, finding ways to strengthen teacher training and peer review processes and professional development — are hugely complicated, full-time ventures.

“What’s significant to me is that the teacher evaluation process is something the average person has no idea just how much collaboration has taken place and how deep it is,” said Barnhill.

Just establishing the qualifications and level of rigor of the people who will be certified to observe teachers during the evaluation process is fraught, he said. “We want to ensure that the people who do it are all doing it in the same way so that we don’t have wild variation in evaluations.”

Districts that hope to win the funding, which will be sent to winners by the end of the year, will need to work fast, Duncan said. Applications will be available for RTTT at the end of next week and are due back in September. Respect Project applications will be released June 8 and also are due back in September.

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He has high hopes for the proposals he expects Minnesota’s districts to submit, Duncan said. “I have a 10-year-old and an 8-year-old in public school,” Duncan said. “I am looking for what every parent is looking for.”