Duncan addressed the group at a time when teachers are returning to classrooms to carry out difficult changes that have filtered down from Washington. His stop at a teachers meeting at Perry Hall High School was an attempt to boost morale and signal that he is sympathetic to their problems.
"You didn't go into teaching to get rich, but you shouldn't have to take a vow of poverty either," Duncan said.
Harry Cook, English department chair at Eastern Technical High School, asked Duncan where he expected school systems to find the money to pay teachers more when district budgets are tight.
Duncan said he understands fiscal realities but believes school leaders have to begin to look at items that can be cut. Too often, school systems don't eliminate programs that don't work or are no longer a priority, he said. "We desperately underpay educators in this country," he said. Young people are leaving the profession when they want to raise a family or don't enter it to begin with because they want better pay.
"We are losing so much talent, and I think the consequences of that are devastating," Duncan said. He asked the audience how often lawyers and doctors have to wait tables to add to their incomes, a line that was welcomed by the teachers.
"We believe teachers are the heart and soul of our education system," he said.
As he has done before, he acknowledged that the federal No Child Left Behind Law has narrowed the focus of the curriculum to reading and math, but he said he believes all students should be exposed to art, music and other subjects. "Whenever we narrow, I think we take away from our children," he said.
His remarks played well among the teachers, many of whom believe the national effort to get students to pass tests has placed too much emphasis on certain subjects and does not take into account the socioeconomic background of the students who come with fewer skills.
"I love him," said Cecily Anderson, chair of the English department at Catonsville Middle School. Anderson and Fran Palmer, a sixth-grade teacher at Catonsville, said Duncan had given the teachers a positive feeling while still managing not to sugarcoat his message. "He didn't promise a miracle for tomorrow, but a conversation for today," she said.
Duncan talked about his Respect Project, which is intended to be a conversation with teachers around the country about the future of the profession. He asked the county teachers to engage in small group discussions Wednesday to talk about the controversial topics of teacher evaluations, tenure and professional development.
Across the nation, many teachers have said they feel under attack because of new evaluation systems and curriculum encouraged by the federal government. This year, every school system in Maryland must try an evaluation system in which at least 50 percent of a teacher's rating is based on the test scores or progress of students. In addition, teachers must start using a curriculum that is designed to be more challenging to students.