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Teaching Profession Commentary

An Open Letter to Randi Weingarten

By Peter Cunningham — October 31, 2014 4 min read

In the interest of seeding progress, not scoring points, I offer the following feedback to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in response to her Oct. 22 speech to the West Coast Labor Management Institute in the wake of John Deasy’s recent resignation as the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. (I read the transcript published online in the LA School Report the same day she delivered the speech.)

Let’s begin by remembering the common motivations that prompt people to get into education.

John Deasy became an educator to make a difference for children. And whatever else you say about him, he got some meaningful results for students in Los Angeles: higher graduation rates and test scores and fewer suspensions. Under his leadership, thousands of kids in Los Angeles earned a better shot at a better life. I’m both confident and comforted that we have not seen the last of him.

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And that gets to your decision to go to Los Angeles a week after Mr. Deasy announced his resignation and give a speech where you cast your “longtime personal friend” as a “John Wayne” autocrat. The appearance felt more like a gloating dance in the end zone than a constructive appraisal of how to move forward.

Wrapped in aspirational language about “collaboration” was a clear signal to your members that organized resistance to reform is the real strategy, and that the AFT supports it. The equally clear signal to reform leaders across the country is that they could be targeted next if they are not sufficiently “collaborative.”

The public, on the other hand, is getting a different signal, and more and more of them are voting with their feet. Today, more than 9 million children have opted out of the traditional public education system, and another million are on charter school waiting lists. Support for vouchers is strong. Public school teachers, in fact, are more likely than the general public to send their kids to private schools.

This suggests that the real threat to teachers’ unions is not reform, but declining confidence in public education. Together, we need to rebuild public confidence in all of our public schools so we can make the case collectively for all the things you want and many reformers support: early learning, higher salaries, wraparound services, more time for planning, and smaller classes in understaffed schools.

Which gets to your call for collaboration. We are all proud of New Haven, Conn.; ABC Unified in California; and the small handful of other districts where labor-management relations are positive and productive, but they’re the exception, not the norm. We need to deliver on the promise of the labor-management collaboration conferences co-sponsored by teachers’ unions, management organizations, and the U.S. Department of Education, and take our ideas to scale.

Let’s also remember that collaboration for its own sake is not the goal. The goal is to get results. No one can defend or ignore today’s outcomes in underperforming schools and districts where as few as half the students graduate from high school and fewer than 1 in 10 earns a college degree. Nationwide, just 40 percent of high school graduates are college-ready.

It's time to rebuild trust in each other, and that begins with a commitment to change the conversation."

That said, your broader message about collaboration is on target: Real change is possible only when parents support it, and teachers buy into it and lead it. The good news is that many teachers do. Countless teachers have affirmed the value of meaningful feedback, the inadequacies of teacher training and professional development, the critical importance of school leadership, and the need for rebuilding the profession.

Many polls, including your own from last year, show broad teacher support for higher standards, even if the common-core brand has suffered. Every day offers compelling testimonials from teachers who have changed their practice to emphasize critical thinking and deeper learning. We all celebrate their hard work and progress.

Unfortunately, those celebrations are being drowned out by the venomous public debate over education, and we all have to take responsibility for this. I would note that TNTP, a reform group, recently condemned personal attacks aimed at you.

While you’ve also challenged some of your allies to keep the debate civil, barely a day goes by without some public reference to “test-obsessed corporate reformers.” Let’s remember that you welcomed philanthropic support in the past and embraced many reform ideas that they support, including the use of test scores in part to evaluate teachers.

You concede that Teach For America has elevated the teaching profession, yet the AFT also funds United Students Against Sweatshops, a student group protesting TFA. TFA, an organization with proven results—even according to the Institute of Education Sciences—that is actively recruiting smart people to join your union and teach poor children is not your enemy.

Similarly, we can have a protracted legal fight over tenure, or we can come together around common-sense reforms that preserve due process, streamline disciplinary proceedings, and factor in performance when making layoffs. Some unions have done this in some places. Let’s do it everywhere, instead of waiting for the courts to force it on us.

These fights distract us from our shared mission. It’s time to rebuild trust in each other, and that begins with a commitment to change the conversation. It’s also what parents want. A recent parent poll commissioned by my organization, Education Post, found that 90 percent of parents who favor unions also favor reform.

Reasonable people on all sides of the education debate understand that, even if we don’t always agree on the path forward, we mostly want the same thing: more young people with the education they need, more schools and teachers with the resources and respect they need and deserve, and greater public confidence in education. When we reach that end zone, we can all dance together.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as An Open Letter to Randi Weingarten

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