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Different Audiences, Reactions, For Education Secretary

The nation’s top education official made two public appearances in Oregon Wednesday.

Rob Manning / OPB
Education Secretary Arne Duncan speaks Wednesday at a Gresham middle school.

At each event, Education Secretary Arne Duncan highlighted his approach to student achievement — and the standardized tests used to measure it. His ideas got a different reception — from very different audiences.

Oregon’s largest teachers’ union and the Oregon Business Association were often at odds during the last legislative session over education reform. So, it may not be surprising that they reacted differently to Secretary Duncan’s plug for the state’s recent policy changes.

For instance, Duncan seems impressed with the CLASS project. That’s an Oregon initiative begun by the foundation-backed Chalkboard Project. It rewards teachers if they take on added responsibilities to improve student achievement.

When Duncan mentioned Chalkboard to the Oregon Education Association at a middle school gym in Gresham, he was met with hisses and boos.

“OK. I hear you?,” he laughed.

A few hours later, as Duncan was preparing to appear on stage at the business association’s “Statesman Dinner,” Nike executive Julia Brim-Edwards gave an award to the Chalkboard Project.

Duncan’s half-hour of remarks to the Oregon Business Association, alternated between praise for the state’s legislative accomplishments and pressure to improve lagging student achievement.

Rob Manning / OPB
Arne Duncan with Steve Novick at an appearance at a Gresham middle school.

“Oregon is helping to lead the nation where it needs to go, and with your example of collaboration, courage, and commitment, more children will get their chance at a world-class education. Oregon has taken an important first step. Working together, let us make that success the norm in this state, and across the nation. Thank you,” Duncan said.

Oregon business leaders gave Duncan a standing ovation.

When Duncan was finished speaking at the teachers’ union town hall event, some teachers followed him into Portland to protest his business association appearance. Susan Barrett is a Portland-area parent. She joined other protesters who disagree with the emphasis at the state and federal levels on high-stakes tests.

“I know we’re here about Arne Duncan, but Arne Duncan is here to champion this plan that right now is going to create more and more standardized tests for kids,” Barrett said.

When Duncan mentioned Chalkboard to the Oregon Education Association at a middle school gym in Gresham, he was met with hisses and boos.

Rob Manning / OPB

In Duncan’s remarks he mentioned there are two visions of education. But he wasn’t talking about divisions here in Oregon. He focused on the split between the Obama administration – and conservative forces on Capitol Hill.

“An alternative theory of education and economic growth is taking hold in some quarters of Congress. The proponents of this theory have a self-described, three-word prescription for job creation and economic growth. And that’s ‘cut, cut, cut.’”

Duncan concluded comments to both the business group and teachers’ union by urging them to find ways to collaborate on solutions.

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