Just a little over two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend an hour listening to Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. I eagerly anticipated that session at the Teach For America 20th Anniversary Summit because, in my opinion, unions have been one of the biggest obstacles to improving educational outcomes for poor kids, and Randi Weingarten – thanks both to her casting as the villain in “Waiting For Superman” and her role in prolonging negotiations for the latest D.C. teaching contract – stands as that obstacle personified.
I have to say – I left that session very impressed.
First of all, despite the fact that Richard Whitmire devotes an entire chapter of his new book The Bee Eater (about Michelle Rhee) to the antagonistic relationship between these two powerful women, I think they have a lot more in common than they realize. Essentially, I think they are the same person – just on different sides of the fence. Like Michelle Rhee (and I say this as someone who used to work in the Office of the Chancellor and got to spend quite a lot of time in the Chancellor’s presence), Randi Weingarten has been rather pigeonholed by the media into representing one view without willingness to yield or apologize for playing rough. If you asked a random person on the streets who knew just enough about education to know who each woman is, that person would likely tell you that Michelle Rhee is the one who likes to fire teachers and Randi Weingarten is the one who likes to keep the bad ones in the classroom. I know that Michelle Rhee is about much more than just firing teachers, and I’m giving Randi Weingarten the benefit of the doubt too, especially because of what she had to say during this session.
Randi showed up in gray slacks and a violet sweater – not her “Darth Vader outfit”, as she pointed out to us almost immediately. Wise choice – she looked like she was truly there for a conversation (the title of the session was “A Conversation with Randi Weingarten”) rather than a war. The message she reiterated throughout was: unions have to change, and we need you to be part of it.
Fair enough. I’ll admit that during my years in the classroom I couldn’t possibly have had less to do with our union. I joined it (since dues would come out of my salary regardless) and heard about how it managed to get us one or two more days of professional development during my second year, but that’s about it. Do I really have a right to bitch about what it did? No.
A good chunk of the “conversation” dealt with the issue of evaluation. Randi advocated 360° accountability, saying that teachers should be able to evaluate principals – “they want a voice”. I can certainly get behind that. The company I work for now (ranked in the top 100 places to work in the US) does 360 evaluations, and (if the feedback is actually noted) this makes a ton of sense. Equally logically, Randi suggested that unions should be involved in designing teacher evaluation tools – “let us police our own profession”. I remain skeptical about the effectiveness of this (I worry unions would allow low expectations to set the bar), but it’s true. Union leaders were once teachers themselves; while they can leverage their perspective to advocate for things that make teachers’ lives easier (like more professional development days), they should also be able to draw on their experiences with different teachers to come up with a framework for what effective teaching actually looks like. I wouldn’t trust an evaluation system designed entirely by the unions, but a tool resulting from collaboration between unions and districts might actually be worth something – as long as negotiations haven’t drawn out so long that the end result is a super-diluted version of an originally valuable plan.
I left the session with a little more hope for the future. I recalled a scene from the movie “Thirteen Days” about the Cuban missile crisis when the Russian ambassador, after his last meeting with Bobby Kennedy at the climax of the crisis, says to him, “You are a good man. Your brother is a good man. I assure you, there are other good men. Let us hope the strength of good men is enough to counter this horrible thing that has been set in motion.” I feel more faith in the AFT now that I’ve seen its leader. And sure… she’s a smart woman who knew exactly what to expect from our audience; no doubt she gave careful thought to her words ahead of time, but she spoke with such real conviction that I can’t believe it was only playing to the crowd.
Adding further strength to that hope is a piece in Friday’s New York Times: “Leader of Teachers’ Union Urges Dismissal Overhaul”. Apparently, Randi Weingarten announced a new plan to revamp the evaluation and dismissal of teachers. This plan:
“would give tenured teachers who are rated unsatisfactory by their principals a maximum of one school year to improve. If they did not, they could be fired within 100 days…. Teachers would be evaluated using multiple yardsticks, including classroom visits, appraisal of lesson plans and student improvement on tests. Teachers rated unsatisfactory would be given a detailed ‘improvement plan’ jointly devised by school administrators and experienced master teachers. School improvement plans – like maintaining better classroom order – could last a month. Others would take a full school year. The results would be considered separately by administrators and the peer experts, whose judgments would be sent to a neutral arbitrator. The arbitrator would be required to decide within 100 days whether to keep or fire the teacher.”
Now… do I see some red flags in the above? Sure. What are the requirements to be one of these “peer experts”? Who would be a “neutral arbitrator”? Do principals realistically have time to sit down with master teachers to devise improvement plans that would actually make an impact? These are all questions I would want to see answered.
But that being said… this is a HUGE step forward. I wish Randi would have said something about this two weeks ago; I can say pretty confidently that she would have received thunderous applause from her audience of TFA alumni. It’s a sign of major progress when the president of one of the national teachers’ unions says that she’s got a plan to get rid of bad teachers. I can’t wait to see more details on this. I’m taking it as proof that Randi meant what she said at the very end:
If there’s “any union fighting for due process for mediocre teachers rather than helping good teachers shoulder the burden created by that mediocrity – shame on them. Shame on them.”