School & District Management

AFT President Signals Openness to Reforms

By Vaishali Honawar — November 17, 2008 5 min read
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Randi Weingarten positioned herself as an education reformer during her first speech in the nation’s capital since taking over as president of the American Federation of Teachers. She signaled her union was wide open to discussing once-taboo issues ranging from merit pay to charter schools to tenure changes.

“With the exception of vouchers, which siphon resources from public schools, no issue should be off the table, provided it is good for children and fair to teachers,” said Ms. Weingarten, who took over the reins of the 1.4 million-member union in July.

As president of the United Federation of Teachers, Ms. Weingarten pioneered change in New York City, including a performance-pay plan for teachers, and many expect her to follow the path of the late Albert Shanker, the AFT leader who deftly balanced the once-contrary roles of unionist and education reformer.

In a Nov. 17 speech designed to drive home the importance of investing in education in a faltering economy, Ms. Weingarten ticked off a list of 10 investments she wants both lawmakers and education stakeholders to consider, including universal pre-K beginning with low-income children, a “laser-like” focus on turning around low-performing schools, a national teacher-induction network to support and help new teachers stay in the profession, and community schools that serve the neediest children by providing all the services they and their families need.

She also hammered home the importance of collaborating with teachers and their unions for any school improvements to be truly successful. “Without the buy-in of teachers, student success is unlikely. With teachers’ buy-in, student success is unstoppable,” she said.

The event’s attendee list indicated Ms. Weingarten’s eagerness to work with the powers-that-be. Among those present at the National Press Club were Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House education committee; former governor of North Carolina James B. Hunt Jr., who has been flagged as a possible U.S. secretary of education for the Obama administration; and the president of the National Education Association, Dennis Van Roekel.

The AFT president was introduced by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, with whose administration, and that of Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein’s, she has often clashed but also collaborated over the years.

No Job Guarantees

Mr. Bloomberg jokingly alluded to their differences in his speech, but also hailed Ms. Weingarten for her collaborative spirit. New York’s performance-pay plan, he said, “set a precedent for rewarding teachers and is an example of labor and management collaboration.”

In her speech, Ms. Weingarten raised the New York performance-pay plan as an example of how union-backed reform can work. Student achievement has already risen in 128 of the schools where the plan was implemented, she said, and all but two of the schools that opted into the program in the first year have decided to continue in it for a second year.

“These results reveal, if an innovation is collaborative and fair, teachers will embrace it—and it will succeed,” Ms. Weingarten said.

She also made a push for peer assistance and review—an initiative the AFT has long advocated but that has not spread widely—when she called for a tenure process that “promotes excellence and ensures fairness.”

“Some people think that tenure is a guarantee of a job for life. It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. ... Teachers are the first to say, ‘Let’s get incompetent teachers out of the classroom,’ ” she said. “Through peer assistance and review, master teachers can help new colleagues learn their jobs, help struggling colleagues do better, and counsel unsuccessful colleagues out of the profession.”

Ms. Weingarten’s speech was welcomed by progressive unionists, some of whom have worried in recent years that the union had strayed from the reform-friendly path it was set on by Mr. Shanker and his successor, Sandra Feldman.

“In the past, both the AFT and the NEA have hung back, and she’s saying that the union needs to be the champion” of reform, said Mark Simon, a national coordinator of the Washington-based Tom Mooney Institute for Teacher and Union Leadership, which trains union leaders to participate in education improvements.

“She’s stepping in to fill a vacuum, and that’s exactly where the union needs to be,” he added.

Working With the NEA

As she moves ahead, all eyes are on Ms. Weingarten to see if and how she will build bridges and work together with the larger teachers’ union, the 3.2 million-member NEA. Over the past few years, the two national teachers’ unions, which almost merged in 1998, have drawn far apart and usually work separately, even when they support the same issues.

Today, Ms. Weingarten said she was willing to change that.

“Dennis is here, we’ve had great conversations, and we want to work together,” she said.

Later, in an interview, Mr. Van Roekel said his union, too, is willing to engage on the issues raised by Ms. Weingarten in her speech, including conversations on differentiated pay and charter schools.

Although the NEA is not supportive of performance-pay based on test scores, he said, its leaders have supported plans bargained by their locals even when they base some part of teachers salaries on test scores.

Pointing to the New York City model as an example, Mr. Van Roekel said, “When you talk about collaboration, you have a probability of success.”

Observers say that it remains to be seen, however, to what extent the unions will support change.

“Anyone who wants to see progress...has to be supportive of what [Randi] is talking about.” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-director of the Washington-based Education Sector.

However, he added, the track record on reform unionism so far is pretty disappointing. Pointing to Washington, where schools chancellor Michelle Rhee has proposed radical changes to teacher pay and tenure, Mr. Rotherham said how the union handles these proposals would show “exactly how open to reform they’re going to be.”

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