Randi Weingarten on Teachers, Tests, and What Obama and Duncan Can Learn from Other Nations

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 retainrecruitsupport. You didn’t hear market solutionscompetition, things like that.

Read the whole interview.

4 thoughts on “Randi Weingarten on Teachers, Tests, and What Obama and Duncan Can Learn from Other Nations

  1. Michael Fiorillo

    That you report what Randi Weingarten has to say with a straight face and accept it uncritically, without even a passing reference to the catastrophic results her leadership has had for teachers and the public schools, demonstrates A) how uninformed you are, or B) that your blog exists to give a liberal gloss to the master discourse on education. Or both.

    As a result of Weingarten’s misleadership, NYC schools have been forced to endure a decade of the anti-democratic effects of mayoral control, which has been used aggressiveley to destroy neighborhood public schools, subsidize privatization and implement policies that are rapidly turning teaching into temporary, increasingly de-skilled labor. Weingarten has been an enabler for all of it: high-stakes tests and their use a weapon against teachers and neighborhood schools, merit pay, loss of seniority and weakened due process, rapidly degrading working conditions and decreased professional autonomy.

    Yet all you see fit to do is publish fluff about whether she’s a “real reformer.” The simple fact that you framed your post in such a way demonstrates its function as a vector for the transmission of neoliberal assumptions about education. Congratulations: you can be confident about getting that column gig for Time or Newsweek, for with every blog post or Nation article, you prove your fealty to received opinion.

    You clearly have not spoken or listened to public school teachers lately if you can take seriously Weingarten’s uttering words like “trust,” “collaboration” (unless it’s intended to have its unpleasant WWII connotations) and “support” in regard to what’s happening in the public schools. To use Lenin’s simile and putting the shoe on the other ideological foot, the people Weingarten collaborates with support teachers the way a rope supports a hanged man. After all, this is a union leader who invited Bill Gates to address the AFT convention, and remained discreetly silent when he promptly returned the favor by attacking our pensions. Which is of course the least of what he’s doing to teachers and the schools.

    Do you see “trust” being exhibited by the release of grossly invalid teacher data reports, followed by ritual public shaming and humiliation? Do you see “collaboration” and “support” occurring with the accelerated closing of schools and targeting ofexperienced teachers? How can you possibly not challenge her use of the word “retain” in regard to keeping people in the profession, when corporate proxies such as TFA explicitly exist to bring in temporary, untrained missionaries (with all the condescension and patronization that entails) as cheap replacement labor for displaced teachers, as is happening at this very moment in NYC for schools targeted for “turnaround” (another Orwellian misnomer)?

    By the way, you’re also wrong about Weingarten’s purported resoluteness in defense of bread-and-butter trade union issues: NYC teachers have been working without a contract since 2009 because of Weingarten’s support for reauthorizing mayoral control – which she did unilaterally and against the recommendations of her own governance committee – her passive support for Bloomberg’s overturning of term limits and re-election, and the union’s inability to fight off attacks on pensions. The lost of losses we’ve suffered under her leadership go on and on.

    Sorry, but your faux objectivity – for example, as in your writing, “the education debate has shifted to become more critical of senior teachers and their unions,” without a peep about the big money, some of it emanating from your patrons at the New Amercia Foundation, that has brought about that shift, as if it were an act of nature – like Ms. Weingarten’s teaching and trade union bona fides, is transparently obvious to this teacher.

    Finally, a question: before you reached the Triple A Pundit Leagues, did you ever teach in an urban public school classroom, like, even long enough to have a cup of coffee? Outside of some occasional subbing, Weingarten taught full time for six months and to those of us in the trenches, it was glaringly obvious. Likewise, your cluelessness, which spreads false assumptions and provides deflection for socially destructive policies.

  2. Michael Fiorillo

    Dear Ms. Goldstein,

    My comment yesterday, while harsh – but based on facts that I’d be happy to supply in open debate – had neither bad language nor name calling. There were no sexually motivated comments or comments on your appearance or that of others. It was neither racist, anti-semitic nor homophobic. Yet you chose not to publish it.


    For what it’s worth, your refusal to do so confirms in my mind your status as part of the media echo chamber on school reform, combined with an unwillingness to risk soiling yourself in debate outside the rarefied precincts you customarily report from.

    Care to respond?

    Michael Fiorillo


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