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Teachers Getting Soft Sell On Pay Changes

DENVER (AP) - Over skits and snacks, hundreds of teachers from around the country on Wednesday got a soft sell from the U.S. Department of Education to become more open-minded about new pay and evaluation systems.

At the second and final day of the first national summit among teachers' unions, school administrators and school board members representing some 150 districts from 40 states heard glowing reports from districts that have already shifted how they evaluate and train teachers.

The summit is billed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan as a groundbreaking effort to build trust between unions and the leaders who sometimes are their adversaries. Participants spent most of the short summit hearing how great things are in the dozen school districts presenting how they achieved pay-for-performance teacher compensation and other changes that align with what federal education officials say are needed reforms.

It's a whirlwind pitch covering 10 sweeping points federal educators want schools to consider, from evaluating teachers in new ways to handling layoffs demanded by budget cuts in many areas.

"There's so little time - they couldn't really go in depth, so they act like this is the easiest thing in the world, and we know that that's not so," said Earl Rickman, school board president in Mt. Clemens, Mich., which recently agreed to a merit-pay system with its teachers' union.

A sixth-grade teacher from Rickman's school district, Kevin Marvin, leads the teachers' union there and agreed the selling pitch for merit pay and other changes was a bit one-dimensional. But he gave high marks to the effort to remind school leaders that teachers are willing to make changes but need to be persuaded the reforms will help kids.

"Something we've never looked at is how our labor agreements affect student achievement," Marvin said.

Federal officers made clear schools have little choice but to make changes to how teachers are evaluated and trained. They tried to sell teachers and administrators on the idea that change is needed even when it's scary and painful. All sides agree that kids come first, but the unions and administrators were told they need to work harder to iron out what all sides don't agree on.

"Honestly accept the burden of the entire conversation, from aspirations to problem-solving to the tough conversations," said Brad Jupp, a senior program adviser for the U.S. Department of Education.

Jupp was moderating a panel in which a Denver teacher shared her anxieties when moving into the school district with a pay-for-performance system.

The teacher, Lori Nazareno of Denver's Math and Science Leadership Academy, explained that she came around to the idea after learning that teachers would be rewarded for working at traditionally low-performing schools and that student tests weren't the only standard used to measure teachers' performance.

"The opportunities for teacher leadership, teacher empowerment, teachers taking control of the system, that's significant," Nazareno said.

The rah-rah talk about education reforms was mixed in with skits from Chicago's famed Second City comedy troupe in which actors pretended to be a bickering union leader, superintendent and school board member.

It all seemed a bit hokey to some, but participants said the underlying theme is that changes are inevitable and don't have to be as painful as some fear.

"All the districts here are in the same boat. We're learning how to do this, how to work together," said Ralph Hernandez, school board president in Buffalo, N.Y.