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Teaching Profession Opinion

Five Thoughts on Randi Weingarten’s AEI Remarks

By Rick Hess — June 20, 2014 3 min read
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On Wednesday, AFT president Randi Weingarten joined me over at AEI to share some thoughts about teacher evaluation, tenure, the Common Core, testing, and more. Here, I offer five thoughts sparked by Randi’s remarks and our conversation. If you want more, you can watch the event or check out an event summary here.

One, when discussing Vergara v. California, Randi said good and smart things about tenure. She said tenure shouldn’t be a shield for incompetence or an excuse for managers not to manage. She flatly said that, if teachers can’t teach after they’ve been helped, unions need to say that they can’t be in the profession. The problem, of course, is that plenty of us are skeptical of the nice words--because we feel like unions have generally not stepped up on this score and because union leaders like Mike Mulgrew in New York and Karen Lewis in Chicago are declaring “war” on reformers and giving no indication they’ve gotten Randi’s memo. This helps explain why unions feel like they don’t get any credit for their good efforts, while reformers distrust the AFT’s commitment.

Two, in arguing that the distrust is misplaced, Randi pointed to developments in places like New Haven and Baltimore, where AFT locals have partnered with districts to police the profession and to reward excellence. Union advocates are frustrated that they don’t get credit for such developments, while critics say, “Sure, a handful of districts are inching forward, but those are outliers.” This is, as Randi noted, very much a glass half-full or a glass half-empty kind of exercise. Neither side is necessarily “wrong” or malicious, but we all bring experiences, expectations, and world views to this debate--and those on both sides of the divide feel like they’ve got plenty of cause for suspicion and bad faith.

Three, those feelings tend to deepen, ripen, and congeal because most individuals in each camp spend their time conferring with the like-minded. While education isn’t partisan per se, it features something that looks like a partisan-style divide. This is a particular problem for schooling because, as John Chubb and Terry Moe so powerfully argued a quarter century ago, and as most people in both camps believe, the defining characteristic of good schools is autonomy: the ability of responsible educators to make informed decisions about students, instruction, and practice. The problem is that today’s stand-off means reformers--once you strip away all the happy talk--distrust teachers, unions, and school systems. They thus wind up writing laws intended to force change. This is a formula for micro-management, resistance, and more rule-writing ... kind of the opposite of autonomy.

Four, understanding this tension helps make sense of some of today’s crucial fractures. On the Common Core, Randi reiterated her earlier claim that the standards “are essential building blocks for a better education system” and also her criticism that the implementation has been badly botched and that tests should, therefore, not be used for high-stakes decisions. The AFT wants more money, more time, and no consequences until things get sorted out. Reformers are skeptical, thinking that schools will pocket the money and never deliver on the unpleasant stuff, so they insist on change, tests, and consequences sooner rather than later. Both sides make reasonable points. Given a reality of pervasive distrust, however, reformers wrote Race to the Top regulations, ESEA waiver conditions, and state statutes to force compliance. If you believe autonomy, cooperation, and some degree of commitment are necessary to make things like the Common Core, School Improvement Grants, or teacher evaluation deliver (and I do), then this is a strategy that ensures lots of troubled implementation and disappointing outcomes.

Five, this all explains why I’m puzzled that unions haven’t moved to embrace school choice and oppose federal education spending. School choice allows educators to shape a school that reflects their vision and values, so long as parents think the result is good for their child (and, for charters, so long as authorizers are okay with the outcomes). Meanwhile, in every walk of life, federal funds inevitably come with strings, mandates, and bureaucracy. Given the predictable effects of pervasive distrust, I find it surprising that unions seek more federal funds for politically governed systems and then act bewildered at the regulations and accountability that follow.

In any event, I want to thank Randi for taking the time and for contributing to the kind of civil discourse that has the potential to gradually narrow that yawning chasm of distrust.

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