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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Randi Weingarten, President of the AFT, Says Education Reform Must Come From Teachers

July 11, 2011

Union Chief Faults School Reform From ‘On High’

WASHINGTON — Amid one of the most contentious periods in recent memory for teachers’ unions, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, on Monday called for education reform that emanates from teachers and their communities, rather than from “those who blame teachers for everything.”

Let’s refuse to be defined by people who are happy to lecture us about the state of public education — but wouldn’t last 10 minutes in a classroom,” Ms. Weingarten told a crowd of about 2,000 here in kicking off the national conference held every two years by the union, which has 1.5 million members.

In the past year, particularly in Wisconsin and New Jersey, governors and some state lawmakers have castigated teachers’ unions and schools’ performance while slashing budgets and pushing newer education strategies like charter schools and more rigorous teacher evaluation.

Ms. Weingarten, who has long opposed the cuts — both budgetary and rhetorical — made to teachers, told her audience that the current debate on education “has been hijacked by a group of self-styled reformers” from “on high” who want to blame educators’ benefits and job security for states’ notorious budget problems. Calling the union gathering “an affirmation,” she countered that change to the education system should instead come through greater community support for teachers themselves and recognition for the commitment to children they already demonstrate.

The speech, preceded by a youth chorus singing “Money (That’s What I Want)” and ending with Dionne Warwick’s “Say a Little Prayer,” was a formalization of the points Ms. Weingarten has made in editorials and on television as states’ budget crises have landed at the schoolhouse door. It played well with union members like Dan Fray, an eighth-grade social studies teacher in Toledo, Ohio, where State Senate Bill 5 limited the collective-bargaining rights of 350,000 public workers earlier this year.

“We didn’t become teachers for the pay or the benefits or the schedule, and no one’s looking for a pat on the back for staying late to help kids,” Mr. Fray said. “But what’s happened in Ohio and Indiana and Wisconsin and elsewhere is the vilification of the schoolteacher.”

Ms. Weingarten’s speech followed impassioned comments from Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, Democrat of the District of Columbia, who said, “There is no way to be for our children and against teachers.”

Ms. Weingarten did offer conciliatory remarks, acknowledging the success of some charter schools while still expressing fear that they siphon talent and money from established school systems. She implored her members to avoid a “circle the wagons” approach to public skepticism of their value, saying that could cut teachers off from the communities with which they should connect more intimately.

The area in which teachers’ economic and ideological concerns appeared to converge was longevity in the classroom. Ms. Weingarten criticized an environment that discourages people from making education a life’s calling, noting that one-third of teachers leave after three years, and one-half leave after five. That is before they have a chance to reach their potential, she said — and, some detractors would counter, the comfort of tenure that can breed complacency and underperformance.

“I’m not saying that teaching needs to be the only job someone holds in a society where people have multiple careers,” Ms. Weingarten said. “But unless we move teaching from a service project to a sustainable profession, it will exact a huge cost on our schools, our children’s achievement and our progress as a nation.”

Ms. Weingarten did not address two notable subjects: the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers, and recent revelations of cheating among teachers in Atlanta and elsewhere to improve students’ test scores, which are often tied to funding.

In an interview afterward, Ms. Weingarten condemned the Atlanta situation but pointed to the role of the local teachers’ unions in helping uncover it. The cheating itself, she said, was a byproduct of when “targets become more important than learning” and of a teaching climate that in many areas has become “intimidating, fearful and retaliatory.”

"A new reality is what we’re fighting for,” she had told her audience an hour earlier. “One in which we improve the profession of teaching for teachers and outcomes for students.”