When I talk about education with folks who aren't experts, but who are politically engaged, the person they ask me about most often is Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. They usually want to know if Weingarten is a "real" reformer who actually cares about the quality of schools, or if she is more of a traditional labor unionist; a political operator who has cagily moved to to the center–accepting new limitations on tenure protections, for example, and embracing more stringent teacher-evaluation protocols–only because the national education debate has shifted to become more critical of career teachers and their unions.
I think the "real" Randi Weingarten is both of those things: a proud unionist who will fight to the death for her members' pocketbook benefits (including the old-fashioned benefits, like pensions, that are politically unpopular) and someone who thinks seriously about how to improve schools. I've interviewed her many times and written about her at length, and while I don't agree with all her issue positions, I always learn a lot when I speak with her.
This week Weingarten was in New York for the second annual International Summit on the Teaching Profession, hosted by the OECD. Over at The Nation, I interviewed her about what the United States can learn about teaching from other nations–from Japanese "lesson study" to Singapore math–and why she believes the Obama administration needs to pay closer attention to international best practices in education reform. Here's a sample:
What do you hope Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his staff will take away from the summit, having heard that very few other nations are pursuing teacher reform strategies that are as test-driven as the kinds of reforms the Obama administration incentivized through Race to the Top?
I just hope they listen. I never doubt—and I know this will be controversial—but I never doubt their wish and hope and aspiration for transforming America’s educational system to ensure that there is both excellence and equity for all children. I don’t doubt them for a second. But it’s about the hows. The president is a very smart guy and he focuses on evidence. Here you have a lot of evidence about what works in other places.
America always pivots between collective responsibility and the idea that the individual can pull himself up by his bootstraps. What you see is that in education, you have to understand this notion of systems rather than individuals. Creating teacher capacity, teacher efficacy, and climates of trust are what enable all kids, rather than just some kids, to learn. If you want equity, you have to have a system that focuses on it.
There was a real consensus at the summit. When nations were reporting their plans, you heard the buzzwords of collaboration and trust, of retain, recruit, support. You didn’t hear market solutions, competition, things like that.