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Unions as Leaders for Better Schools: An Exclusive Interview With Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation Teachers, testifies at a hearing about supporting America’s educators on May 4, 2010. (Photo: House Committee on Education and the Workforce Dem / Flickr)

Part of the Series

Parents, teachers and students across the country are busy preparing for the return to school in the fall. For teachers, anticipating the needs their students will have in the new school year goes beyond the text books and the syllabus. They are preparing to meet a new wave of attacks on public education and on themselves personally.

Using the pretext of balancing budgets, conservative governors in many parts of the country have launched initiatives to undermine the collective bargaining rights of educators and to privatize public education. Teachers' unions, in particular, have been targeted, with films like “Waiting for Superman” scapegoating them for problems in the schools.

Little would you know, from this assault, that some of the states with the best public schools in the country are those with the strongest teachers' unions.

I had a conversation with the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Randi Weingarten, in which we discussed how teachers can be proactive in engaging political debates about public-sector employees, and how teachers are showing leadership in strengthening our schools.

You Can't Fire Your Way to Good Teaching

I asked Weingarten if there were one or two things she wanted people to know about the AFT and the role that teachers play in the economy.

“First, teachers care,” she said. “Teachers and their union care about kids and want kids to achieve their dreams.

“Number two: teachers and kids are totally and completely interconnected. Teachers advocate for things that they need that are in the interest of kids and vice versa. Trying to divide teachers from kids is only a way of hurting what parents and students need to create opportunity in this country.”

I pointed out that this view was very distinct from the attitude toward teachers shown by the “free market” education reformers.

Weingarten agreed: “You have a bunch of other people thinking you could just fire your way to good teaching. The view is, 'just shake them up and scare them into doing a good job.' That totally misunderstands what the motivational factor is for teachers. Teachers want to do a good job. The real issue is how do you create the knowledge, skills and conditions so that we can meet the needs of all kids and so that we can help kids learn what they need to know to be prepared for the knowledge economy and for life.”

Can the Union Take the Lead on Accountability?

I wanted to float a potentially controversial contention. With questions of teacher accountability dominating public debate about education reform, my feeling was that this is something that must be addressed head on: Either teachers will embrace accountability, or accountability will be something done “to them.”

“I think that we are smack dab in the middle of that debate,” Weingarten said in response. “But, first off, let me take a step back on the question of accountability.

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“Our collective challenge should be: how do we help prepare all kids – not some kids – for productive lives in the knowledge economy at a time when our nation's economy has been so battered and our schools have the scars to show for it? That should be our collective challenge.

“What is so ironic is that if you really believe that teachers are – as many of the market reformers say – the most important in-school factor to helping students achieve, you would be jumping through hoops to ensure that when teachers speak about what they need, that their voices would be heeded. Common sense says that if you actually believe this, you would use collective bargaining to really make sure that teachers had the tools and conditions they needed to do their job.”

Even as opponents have, instead, sought to undermine collective bargaining rights, the union has used its voice in the schools to improve teacher quality. The AFT, Weingarten argues, has worked to introduce a system of evaluation and professional development that goes beyond superficial “snapshot” evaluations of teachers and that also allows them to engage curriculum more substantive than mere rote teaching for a standardized test.

“We know teacher quality is important,” she says. “We know professional development is important. We know continuous improvement is important. So let's see if we can develop evaluations that work.

“So we spent a bunch of time with rank-and-file teachers, local leaders and experts around the country. And we developed – and unveiled in January 2010 – a framework for a comprehensive and meaningful evaluation system that was in part developmental and in part assessment. It measured teachers' performance in multiple ways that included teacher practice as well as student learning.

“Fast-forward a year and a half, over 150 districts throughout the country are now using this framework in whole or in part.

“And what we've been trying to do is exactly what Singapore – one of the countries that out competes us – does. We had an international summit in March with education ministers and their union counterparts. Singapore talked about how they use evaluations first and foremost for continuous improvement. They embed 20 hours per week of teachers working with each other on their craft into the school week – in order to ensure that it can be the best that it can be. And they embed teacher development within the evaluation system. Because the evaluation system is about continuous improvement and not simply about assessment.”

Community Engagement for Better Public Schools

I wondered if publicizing such efforts would be a means for the AFT to get in front of the attacks to which it has been subjected lately.

“This is certainly one of our signature issues,” Weingarten said. “But I think this initiative would be a failure if it is viewed as just getting ahead of attacks. I think it is about teachers and teacher unions owning the quality agenda and contouring it in a way that is real.”

Throughout our conversation, Weingarten articulated a vital insight for the labor movement: Collective bargaining must be seen not only as a means of securing fair wages and benefits, but also of improving the industries in which we work. Demonstrating that unions bring added value on several levels – creating better services as well as employees who are part of a healthy American middle class – is essential to labor's future.

Weingarten elaborated on this point. “As [former AFT President Al Shanker] used to say, we have to be as much about the quality of our work as we are about fighting for economic and professional respect. There has been an evolution within the labor movement on this issue and several other unions would talk about things in the same way. We have to be about quality.”

Without this focus, labor will be seen as an isolated special interest, not as a critical, integrated part of our communities. And, if it is seen as a special interest, it will be vulnerable to attack, unable to draw on the deep wells of community support needed for any social movement to win.

“I think about community engagement as part and parcel of what we have to do,” says Weingarten. “At the end of the day, public education and the public schools belong to the community. It is one of the few public services that we do in the United States of America for every person that is five years old to 18 years old. So it is very important for the community to have confidence in the public education system. And it is very important for our union to be about ensuring, to the extent that we can, that kids get as great an education as they can.

“There is an interaction that is essential here,” Weingarten says. “We are a part of the community, schools are part of the community and that community has a responsibility to its kids and its schools.

“The labor movement is a movement that has been about free and quality public education for a very long time.”

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