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The Road Ahead for Education

A Conversation with Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten, head of the New York City teachers union United Federation of Teachers, took on the additional role of president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second-largest teachers union in the country, this past July. An endorser of Barack Obama, she traveled through 18 states to campaign on his behalf and was rumored to have been under consideration for education secretary. She has since praised the man Obama eventually nominated, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan. Weingarten recently spoke to DA about her priorities going forward. Of utmost importance to her is the AFT Innovation Fund, a $1 million initiative to support school reform efforts, as well as plans for community schools and a wholesale restructuring of the U.S. education system.

DA: How important is it for teachers to have a voice in the reform efforts from the ground up, compared to administrators?

RW: I don’t believe that teachers have ever had the voice that they want to have in schools, but in the last eight years, they’ve had no voice. You see business has had a voice, superintendents have had a voice, but the people doing the work, the people who are engaged in it ? If you give voice to the people who are actually doing the work, you’re going to have a far better product, because you’re listening to those who are closest to it.

DA: Makes sense.

RW: That voice has been largely absent. And instead there’s been a demonizing of the unions that represent that voice, and there’s been a scapegoating of teachers. It’s very convenient to blame the people who have spent their lives making a difference in the lives of children. It’s not the way to actually help kids.

DA: Because it creates more controversy?

RW: Well, it’s a distraction. It’s a holding pattern. In the last eight years you had this consensus around the country that education is very important, so Washington people were saying—and it was bipartisan, you had people on both sides of the aisle wanting to do this—“we need to have high standards, we need to help all our kids, we need to confront the achievement gap.” All of those things are important. But the issue is how. And basically the first step of it was to take the teachers right out of the equation. The very same people who are doing the work!

DA: What would happen if there were no teacher unions?

RW: I think what would happen is what you see happening in so much of the American economy right now. You end up with a race to the bottom. Look at the numbers of people who are unemployed. Look at what is happening in terms of the middle class. There’s an old RAND study that showed that even in the absence of standards, kids did better in the places that had the most teacher union organizations. There was higher achievement.

"Every time you spend a dollar on early childhood education you save seven dollars later."

I think that a contract is not an obstacle—it’s a help. Ultimately it creates a vehicle for teachers to have some collective clout to have decent wages and be an act against arbitrary capriciousness. But equally if not more important, it’s a way for teachers to express their aspirations for children and take risks to do what kids need.

DA: You have a vision of public schools as community centers that provide medical and other services. Is there work currently being done on this front?

RW: Yes. You see this in different places. And it’s not a new idea; it’s a pretty old idea. It’s actually rooted in what churches do, or what settlement houses do. They basically have under one roof a lot of different types of services. But the point is that you think about a school as the center of a community, and then you coordinate services that governments are doing. You make them more robust, you make them more effective, you make them more efficient. I would argue that you don’t have some health services for children—you have the whole panoply of services, including preventive services. If you coordinate them, or put them under one roof, you’re going to help children with their social and their developmental needs—which are absolutely imperative in terms of them being ready to learn—but you’re also going to help ensure that parents come in to a school and feel like it is a welcoming place instead of a negative place.

DA: How would such services be paid for?

RW: Some of it is done already now. We have Children Health Plus and we have other types of things, and so I’m saying let’s do it more efficiently. Some of it will cost more money, but some of it will be a redistribution—oh, we don’t use that word anymore [laughs]—some of it will be coordinated in a better way. And think about this: Every time you spend a dollar on early childhood education you save seven dollars later. So what if we did things in terms of early education, where we’re really helping to prepare kids? That’s going to help ensure that we get to a far better graduation rate. The evidence about this is huge. We just have to do it.

DA: Will you lobby lawmakers to create a new bill that promotes community schools?

RW: We’re going to lobby lawmakers to revamp the entire education law, and we hope that it’s not as narrowly drawn as it is right now. It should be focused on the whole child. Now, obviously we know that given what’s going on in terms of the economy, we’re in a different situation than we were six months ago.

DA: You’ve been quoted as saying that the last eight years have been “a threat to the middle class and public education.” What will you do to ensure that President Obama puts education on the forefront of issues for the country?

RW: We need to have a country that once again believes that hard work will lead you to opportunity, whether it’s about the economy, our broken health care system, or reforming our education system so that all kids have the opportunity to dream their dreams—and to once and for all deal with this unacceptable achievement gap. We want to be partners with the president and Congress in helping to solve these problems and sharing that kind of responsibility. Part of the reason why we launched the Innovation Fund is because we believe in bottom-up reform. We believe in shared responsibility, and we know if you actually trust the people who are in classrooms and you give them the support they need, you will see students achieve. The schools that are successful are schools that work together.

DA: So the Innovation Fund is one way you might work to put education on the forefront of issues in the country?

RW: The Innovation Fund is one of those things. But we have an overarching agenda that says we believe in high standards, assessments are important, and we know that we have to reform NCLB, because it’s now essentially two words: testing and sanctions.

What we’re saying in terms of the AFT Innovation Fund is, let’s build upon the experience and expertise of our members by giving them the financial and organizational resources so that they can create innovation, and then, whether it’s building on practices that others have done or doing something new, we distribute and disseminate those good practices.

DA: The Innovation Fund is a $1 million fund?

RW: Right now we put in $1 million. We’re working with other foundations to see if they will help us match this. We will start providing grants to local unions by the fall of 2009.

DA: How are the monies distributed? What criteria is the distribution based on?

RW: There are going to be three different types of grants. But first, they have to be brought to us by the local union or the state federation. And the reason is, we know reform doesn’t work unless there is buy-in. And so if the local actually brings it to you, that means that the local president or the union head has actually done the work to create that buy-in. They have a stake in it because they’re the ones on the ground.

The first area is capacity building. We have to grow our teaching force—meaning, we know you are a better teacher with some experience under your belt than if you don’t have experience under your belt. The research says qualified teachers are the most important criteria we give to kids. So the question becomes, how do you grow qualified teachers? Are you born it? There are some people who believe you’re just born into it. And all you need to do is find enough of those folks, recruit them, and if it doesn’t work out, fire them. That’s the Michelle Rhee approach. Or we try to deal with the disciplinary process in as humane a way as possible. So there is this issue of teacher quality and building that capacity.

The second area is collaboration. The best leaders are the ones that understand that they need their staffs to be working together with us. And so the best schools—when you look at what constitutes a good school—are collaborative in nature. And so ultimately there are different kinds of models of collaboration, and some of them work better than others. And certainly what NCLB has done is created a lot of stress and a lot of pressure in terms of trying to make the mark. And there are ways of doing it where you bring everyone together focused on the mission to educate kids, not to achieve the highest test scores imaginable. I’m not saying that test scores aren’t important and don’t play a role, but when test scores are the driving force for everything, rather than educating the whole child, we know we are missing the ball.

So the third issue is, what are the other types of things, other than direct instruction, that we know will help kids achieve? That’s where we pull out issues like community schools and other types of things that would help kids that the Innovation Fund can promote.

DA: Those three areas—are they different types of grants, or are they just guidelines for what you’re looking for?

RW: If that’s what we’re looking to promote, then those are the areas that we’re looking to give grants in. But the key is that it’s bottom-up reform for the people in the trenches saying, “You know, we have an idea, and we think it could work, but we don’t have a staff person that we could hire to really mold it.” What we’re talking about with the Innovation Fund is working smarter. I used to hear it all the time: “You can do that in New York City because you have staff.” So you think, “What does that mean? What are they trying to say?” They’re trying to say that they’re so engaged in the everyday survival that there is nobody to help them execute the good ideas. So that was part of the impetus for the Innovation Fund—listening to what people need to actually make education better for children.

DA: Has the fund—or will it—be used to support elected officials that agree with its aims?

RW: No. This is purely a fund for education innovation. We’ve done other things in terms of political funds, like a solidarity fund, but this is about the work. And we want it to be about the work, because we know our members have great ideas about what works and how to do it.

I recently participated in a panel discussion in Washington D.C., where I talked about things you can do in a factory-model way, where building the teaching profession is seen as a waste of time, and teachers are simply viewed as cogs in the wheel, and if they don’t measure up they’re cast aside. You can do things that way, or you can do what I support, and what the research supports, which is building the profession of teaching and fostering deep understanding of what skillful teaching looks like, and having a collaborative environment. And so when you look at the world that way, you see the Innovation Fund as something that could hugely help in that regard. We spoke about these things at the forum, and Superintendent John Deasy from Prince George’s County, Md., and a teacher from Montgomery County, Md., talked about two very different ways of putting that practice into place. So it’s not one size fits all. But there are lots of different ways of doing the capacity building and doing the collaboration molding that can really work in schools.

DA: You’ve described NCLB as being “too badly broken to be fixed.” In light of the new Obama administration and the AFT’s platform, what might its future hold?

RW: There’s a golden opportunity now, because fixing NCLB is probably not going to be the first item on President-elect Obama’s radar. So there is an opportunity for the people who have been involved in this work to work together to see if we could come up with consensus on how to fix it. This is a golden opportunity to roll up our sleeves and help try to do things, as the president-elect will have many other issues on his plate. I for one always want education to be a number one priority because I see the link between education and the economy. But the bigger question right now is to make sure there’s no disinvestment from education, no going backwards. That’s going to be the bigger issue now.

DA: Hopefully that won’t happen.

RW: Hopefully. But we have to fight to make sure it doesn’t happen.