Teaching Profession

UPDATED: Is Weingarten Ahead of Some Members?

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 09, 2010 3 min read
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It was always said of former American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker that he was a step or two out in front of some of his membership when calling for the union to change. (Think back to things like peer-assistance and review programs when they first came out.)

Now, some members are asking the same question of AFT President Randi Weingarten, in what is becoming one of the subtexts of this year’s convention. After all, Randi’s balancing act is a tough one. Her desire to push the union’s thinking on things like tenure and evaluation leaves her open to criticism from her own members that she’s willing to compromise too much, or too easily, on these most sensitive of issues.

Like any other union, the AFT is a democratic, political organization. The largest political “caucus” in the organization—groups that endorse candidates for executive office—is called the Progressive Caucus. It is supported by many of the AFT’s big names, like Jerry Jordan in Philadelphia, Michael Mulgrew and Maria Neira in New York, Marcia Reback in Rhode Island, and John Tarka in Pittsburgh. Several (though not all) of those leaders have agreed to consider or implement systems that take student achievement into account in teacher evaluations.

But there’s also a group called the AFT Peace and Justice Caucus. Though admittedly much smaller than the Progressive Caucus, it is not at all happy with the idea of teacher evaluation scores based even partly on student test scores.

“Evaluation & Pay Based on Test Scores? ARE YOU ANGRY? Many AFT locals have agreed to teacher evaluation plans based on unreliable student test scores,” a flier some of its caucus members have been handing out reads.

It is also, apparently, unhappy that the union is welcoming Bill Gates this Saturday to the convention, deeming it “A Trojan Horse in the AFT House.” (Weingarten defended this choice yesterday to reporters, saying that the AFT has always invited controversial speakers to its convention and is willing to work with anyone who displays an open mind.)

The Peace and Justice Caucus is encouraging members to vote against an upcoming resolution—to be introduced sometime today—which would essentially codify the AFT’s teacher-evaluation framework.

You might think this is all Sturm und Drang for nothing, but the Peace and Justice Caucus got a boost recently with the election of Karen Lewis in Chicago. She emerged out of a group there that shares philosophical similarities with the Peace and Justice Caucus, and is critical of reforms like merit pay, changes to due process, and the use of competitive grant programs like the Race to the Top. Those are things that Weingarten has supported, albeit cautiously and only in certain circumstances.

It’s anyone’s guess as to how this will play out. A lot of members are wary about tying test scores, even coupled with other measures, to evaluation, and the discussion will be interesting. If delegates vote down the teacher-evaluation measure, or amend out the language on test scores, Weingarten will have some thinking to do.

UPDATE: (7/9/10 6:38 pm) Karen Lewis has very recently joined the Progressive Caucus, I am told. Interesting goings-on in the AFT!
UPDATE 2: (7/9/10 6:50 pm) Lewis joined the caucus shortly after her election, the AFT press staff tells me.

CLARIFICATION: I should have stated earlier that the Peace and Justice Caucus, unlike the Progressive one, is not actually a political caucus. It is, however, closely aligned to a new political caucus called “By Any Means Necessary” that is going to try to run a different slate of candidates in tomorrow’s elections.

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