Teaching Profession

Feeling the Heat, AFT’s Reform Resolve Wavers

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 06, 2012 6 min read
AFT President Randi Weingarten urges delegates in Detroit to propose solutions that unite "those we represent and those we serve."

Can a teachers’ union successfully be both a hardball-playing defender of its rights and a collaborative force for the common good?

It is both a question of philosophy and, increasingly, one of policy direction for the American Federation of Teachers, whose biennial convention here showed delegates grappling with the tension between the two approaches to unionism.

Though the AFT has, in recent years, been viewed as the less militant of the two national teachers’ unions, its delegates spoke forcefully against attacks on unions that have been couched in the guise of education reform, took a stand against the high-stakes use of standardized testing, and passed a “solidarity pledge” on behalf of local affiliates it asserts have been subject to unjust bargaining situations.

At the same time, the union’s president, Randi Weingarten, continued to call for affiliates to adopt a “solution-driven unionism”—a phrase that appeared to be a further gloss on her long-standing call for unions to collaborate or reach compromises with management.

“I don’t know to what extent the full-scale onslaught in Wisconsin and Ohio is changing all of this,” Richard Kahlenberg, the author of a biography of the late AFT President Albert Shanker, said of where the union places its emphasis. “If the unions’ very existence is under attack, if they’re facing existential threats, then this may not be the time to worry about how your proposals are faring with the New York Times editorial pages.”

While the 1.5 million-member AFT hasn’t seen the slide in membership faced by the larger National Education Association, its members were no less worked up about political attacks on unions than were NEA delegates, who met in Washington a few weeks earlier.

During the AFT convention, held here July 27-30, the union passed unanimously a “special order of business”—a resolution expressing solidarity with affiliates under “hostile bargaining environments.”

The resolution, which asserts that “anti-labor policies promoted in the guise of education reform are now being replicated nationally in a viral experiment to destroy teachers’ unions,” directs the AFT to support locals’ strike actions and educate members about such “assaults.”

And its executive committee successfully sponsored a resolution that qualified the union’s position on the appropriate use of standardized testing. It states that testing should be used to inform instruction, rather than to punish schools or teachers. “We turn our wonderful children and their needs into data, and that data is not used to inform instruction, it’s used to feed into the accountability monster,” said Andrew Dewey, the executive vice president of the Houston Federation of Teachers.

Months before the resolution’s approval, AFT leaders had already signaled a willingness to take a harder line on testing, by refusing to endorse an accountability plan for teacher training by the U.S. Department of Education. The plan proposes the use of standardized-test scores, among other measures, to hold teachers’ colleges accountable for their graduates. (The NEA, typically the union more critical of standardized tests, publicly supported the federal plan.)

‘They Can’t Ignore Us’

The tenor of the convention contrasted with that of the AFT’s last such gathering, in 2010.

That previous convention, in Seattle, featured the philanthropist Bill Gates, whose positions on such policies as teacher evaluation have been hotly contested among rank-and-file members. By contrast, this year, the education historian Diane Ravitch, one of Mr. Gates’ most vocal critics, held a prime speaking spot at the convention.

“AFT is facing this triple threat—major layoffs in their districts, a right-wing assault, and then they’ve got a Democratic president who is a very tepid supporter of teachers’ unions,” Mr. Kahlenberg said. “When you’re under such attack, it may be a time when you want a Diane Ravitch to rally the troops and remind people of why teachers need unions.”

A shift in the union’s internal composition appears to have contributed to the more aggressive tone of this year’s convention.

Delegates from the union’s second-largest affiliate, the Chicago Teachers’ Union, hail from a different internal political party, or “caucus,” than most of the top brass at the AFT. The CTU caucus, known as the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, has generally taken a harder-line stance than the national AFT’s leaders on such matters as charter schools and mayoral control of school systems.

The caucus’ recent success in winning concessions from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel over a longer school day has emboldened those activists critical of Ms. Weingarten’s willingness to craft deals with self-styled education reformers.

CTU delegates, easily identified by their red T-shirts, were the only ones to hold up signs criticizing the federal Race to the Top grant program during an address to delegates by Vice President Joe Biden. And they said that their priorities, such as calling for minimal standardized testing, have influenced the national union’s positions.

“Things certainly look a lot different than two years ago in Seattle. I think it’s directly related to what we’ve been doing,” said Drew Heiserman, a CTU delegate.

Added Rivanna J. Jihan, also from the CTU: “If what we do works, they [the AFT] can’t ignore us. I can’t count the number of delegates who have come to us and said, ‘We’re looking up to you.’ ”

‘Solution Driven’ Reform

All that said, Ms. Weingarten encouraged her union’s affiliates to propose solutions, not merely to fight for their own survival.

“As we have seen, fighting in traditional ways alone isn’t always enough,” she said in her keynote address. “More than ever, we need to act in innovative, creative, and new ways—simultaneously refuting our critics, advancing our values, connecting with community, and proposing solutions.”

Over the past four years, the AFT itself has sought to model that practice. It has been a steadfast supporter of the Common Core State Standards and recently unveiled a free online repository where teachers can craft and share lessons aligned to the standards.

It has used an internal “innovation fund” to help state affiliates work through the tricky implications of new teacher-evaluation systems; state officials in Rhode Island recently approved the union’s proposed framework.

The AFT has also launched an ambitious public-private partnership to revitalize education in rural McDowell County, W.Va.

More controversially with delegates, it held up some compromises as an example of solution-driven unionism—most recently, an agreement by the Cleveland Federation of Teachers to weaken its teachers’ seniority prerogatives in order to stave off more aggressive policies.

Still, some of the AFT’s initiatives have not been a top priority for affiliates facing attacks on tenure and collective bargaining. The Wisconsin legislature last year passed a measure severely restricting public employees’ bargaining right; a similar piece of legislation in Ohio was later overturned in a referendum. Such measures have fueled a general anti-union sentiment in statehouses.

“They took their toll,” Rob Weil, the AFT’s director of field programs, said of such battles. “When we were working in Ohio, they weren’t talking about teacher evaluation, it was their existence per se. It was really difficult.”

Two of the union’s reform efforts have so far failed to materialize.

A plan to streamline due process for teachers accused of misconduct does not appear to have been adopted by any state. (An AFT official said that the union’s affiliates support the “basic premises” of the plan, but have focused their lobbying efforts on reforms to tenure and other aspects of due process.) And last year, the union announced that it had secured support from the American Association of School Administrators for a project to align due process and teacher evaluations in several states, but that initiative was contingent on a federal grant that the union did not win.

“AFT has raised a lot of valuable issues, but is a bigger discussion going to lead to bigger change? I don’t know,” said Timothy Daly, the president of the teacher-training group TNTP, formerly known as the New Teacher Project.

“If the union leaders cannot make that case, and convince members of that, the environment for teachers’ unions will continue to be difficult.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Tension Builds Over AFT Reform Agenda

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