Teaching Profession

An Interview With Randi Weingarten

By Stephen Sawchuk — June 19, 2009 3 min read
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Five EdWeek reporters sat down with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten earlier this week over coffee for a wide-ranging conversation.

I can’t say there’s any groundbreaking news to report as a result, but it was, nevertheless, a substantive conversation that yielded glimpses into Weingarten’s thinking, especially on the Obama administration’s recent moves. Overall, she said that she’s optimistic that this administration will seek to work with teachers rather than imposing policy on them, a big break from the union’s perception of things under George W. Bush.

But, as always, these things come down to details, and there are a few key areas on which AFT isn’t totally on board with the new administration’s plans. That shouldn’t be a big surprise, given that Duncan is pushing on issues that are complicated for the union—such as performance pay, charters, and data systems that link teachers to student scores—arguably harder than the Bush administration ever did.

Take charters, for instance: She appears to be a bit hesitant about the Obama administration’s argument that states need to eliminate charter school caps, but be more aggressive on quality by closing down poor-performing charters. Weingarten said she feels that caps and accountability go hand in hand. “We don’t believe you can decouple caps from accountability,” she told us.

And she said she thinks there’s more than one way to approach school turnarounds. The Obama administration has focused on closing troubled schools, a strategy Education Secretary Arne Duncan employed while in Chicago. Although Weingarten was careful to point out that she doesn’t oppose such closings per se, she said it makes sense to investigate several different school-turnaround models. One idea she’s been advocating is something like New York City’s now-defunct Chancellor’s District, in which a coterie of troubled schools got extra funding, wraparound services, and specialized curricula.

Read Alyson Klein’s post on Weingarten’s take on national assessments over at Politics K-12.

On another issue, Duncan has excoriated some states for outlawing the linking of student-teacher data, and has intimated that those laws could downgrade states’ applications for the Race to the Top funding in the stimulus package. Weingarten conceded that “some of the [administration’s] rhetoric sometimes gives me pause, but you have to look at the totality of it in six months to a year. ... Would I prefer [Duncan] didn’t use the word ‘firewall’ [when describing data systems]? Yes, I would prefer it.”

On teacher evaluation, Weingarten noted that she’s now heading up a teacher-evaluation task force with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, presumably part of that nonprofit’s “deep dives” into teacher quality. (Read Alexander Russo here for more dirt on possible locations.) The task force, she said, had some “great discussions,” and she thinks we’ll all be “surprised” by its results.

Now to the good stuff you’ve all been waiting for—the gossip! First off, let me just say that Weingarten has a SWEET office, with a seriously fab view of the Capitol. I imagine that’s a good reminder to have when you’re trying to push a tough bill through Congress. Second, one of my female co-workers reports (admiringly) that Weingarten has sculpted “yoga arms.” Which, in addition to making her fierce, also makes her superhuman, since who has time for yoga when you’re running a national and a local union?

Third, in demeanor, Randi is charming and engaging and likes to tell humorous anecdotes. She isn’t above teasing Serious Education Journalists (ahem). She clearly likes working with the media much more than did her predecessor, Edward McElroy, whom I only managed to interview in person once over the course of three years. (Strangely enough, I used to see him in the supermarket all the time, thus raising fraught questions about whether it’s ethical to do an interview when someone’s preoccupied by broccoli. But I digress.)

On the other hand, Weingarten is much more verbose than McElroy, and has a tendency, like Henry James in his late novels, to insert multiple parenthetical thoughts into sentences. Her answers tend to be fairly philosophical—an effective tactic with the media since it’s much harder to pin her down.

I imagine it’s also an effective strategy at the bargaining table.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.