Teaching Profession

Weingarten: Reformer and Firebrand

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 08, 2010 3 min read
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In her keynote address today, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten sought to present two sides of herself and her work for the union, as both reformer and firebrand.

The union, she said, has been willing to engage in uncomfortable conversations about reforms to teacher evaluation and due process. But it won’t hesitate to speak out against politicians and pundits who are using the mantle of reform to attack teachers.

Weingarten had a lot of tough ground to cover in this speech, and it’s a delicate balancing act to advance some reform ideas and fight against others. No doubt some folks will accuse her of playing both sides of the fence. But she’s also getting credit for her work, as in this recent op-ed.

As always, I recommend that you read the whole speech yourself, but here are the key quotes whose themes were woven throughout her keynote address:

I stand before you today sure in the knowledge that we have examined our policies, looked at our practices, and made changes when we've needed to change. That has sometimes been hard, but it gives us needed credibility to hold a mirror up to others. But frankly, I am shaken to the core —in fact I am horrified—by the immense threats to public services, particularly public education, that exist in the corridors of power in this country."

In the speech, Weingarten set her brand of reform—which is largely being carried out in the form of new contracts, such as those in Pittsburgh and New Haven, Conn.—against those pushed by what she termed the “blame the teacher” crowd. That crowd, she said, focuses on top-down reforms, expects teachers to overcome children’s learning barriers by themselves, fails to engage in supports teachers need, like well-designed curricula, and is focused on teacher firing and the weakening of job security.

Weingarten and other officials took pains to point out that they’ve been willing to take on Democratic lawmakers, not just Republican ones, over certain policy prescriptions.

“I never thought I’d see a Democratic president, whom we helped elect, and his education secretary applaud the mass firing of 89 teachers and other staff in Central Falls, R.I., when not a single one of the teachers ever received an unsatisfactory evaluation,” she said to much applause.

While introducing Weingarten, AFT Secretary Treasurer Antonia Cortese noted that the union called out the Education Department for seeking to isolate “pet programs” from cuts. And apparently, Weingarten also confronted Vice President Joe Biden at a recent AFL-CIO meeting for voicing his support of the Central Falls firing. “I don’t think he’ll make that mistake again,” Cortese quipped.

A few other items of note.

• Weingarten again underscored the importance of out-of-school factors in student learning. “It is simply wrong to suggest that there is an epidemic of bad teachers, and at the same time to ignore poverty, budget cuts, the absence of curriculum, the huge attrition of good teachers—all the things we know truly hamper student success,” she said.

• While calling some charter networks “lovely schools,” she said many are essentially “boutiques” that selectively enroll (KIPP would beg to differ), tap resources not necessarily available to public schools, and aren’t scalable solutions to the problems of public education.

• Curriculum continues to be an important focus for the union. It is one of the key supports teachers need, Weingarten said. That helps to explain why the AFT has been so engaged in the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

• In keeping in touch with her idea of “360 degree” accountability, an old theme from her United Federation of Teachers days, Weingarten said that school leaders and administrators must be held accountable for providing educators with the supports they need to succeed.

• She also said that the AFT is beginning a “full-on campaign” in support of public education “as it ought to be.” Few details were immediately available; I’ll bring them to you as I get them.

More later with some policy details on teacher evaluation from a press session Weingarten just hosted with reporters. Stay tuned.

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