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Ed Sec.: 'New Teachers Come from Bottom Third of Their College Class'

Sean Long
By Sean Long | January 16, 2014 | 1:56 PM EST

You have to give the Secretary of Education some credit. It takes an unusual amount of courage to criticize public school teachers, and promote major reform, in the face of the staggering power wielded by their unions.

The Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, criticized teachers on Jan. 13, suggesting that underprepared and poorly educated teachers are responsible for an underperforming public education system. He emphasized various South Korean strategies, including merit pay, as solutions to this problem. These remarks were particularly controversial given how heavily unionized and politically powerful American public school teachers are.

Duncan claimed that "a significant proportion of new teachers come from the bottom third of their college class," continuing to say that many kids get "far more than their share of ineffective teachers."

According to Duncan, American teachers "say their training didn't prepare them for the realities of the classroom," as opposed to South Korea which "get six months of training after they start their jobs. They are paid well, and the best receive bonus pay."

Duncan made these remarks at Jan. 13's National Assessment Governing Board Education Summit for Parent Leaders, contrasting the American education system with the South Korean system. He said that both nations put a great value on teacher performance, but argued "the difference is: they act on their belief. We don't."

Apparently, the South Korean system has a very different structure of teacher incentives and benefits, including financial incentives for teachers to work with low-income families and bonus pay based on merit. The suggestion that America's public school system ought to emulate South Korea's is particularly controversial given the entrenched power of teachers unions, and their resistance to structural change.

Most public school teachers belong to either the American Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the powerful AFL-CIO, or the National Education Association. Between 2007 and 2012, these two unions donated more than $330 million to political activities or advocacy, according to the Wall Street Journal. Based on Open Secrets figures, 95 percent of these donations support Democrat candidates and causes.

These same teachers unions have repeatedly opposed merit-based reforms, such as bonus pay and teacher evaluations. Just recently, in Sept. 2013, the American Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit against the New Mexico Education Department attacking teacher evaluations. Their national president, Randi Weingarten has called teacher evaluations "drive-by evaluations," and has repeatedly criticized "merit pay schemes."

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