AFT Misses a Chance to Demand that Teachers Get Support They Need

I used to give a talk about teaching reading comprehension to struggling students, mocking some of the dumb and deleterious techniques I was taught in my teacher training and professional development, and arguing that none of it works as well as ensuring kids have a knowledge-rich core curriculum. When I would give this speech to education reform groups, I’d end with a deliberately puckish twist, pointing out that the overreliance on reading comprehension skill and strategies I’d just called out was the default mode of instruction in many of the high-flying charter schools so beloved by reformers. And how bright, shiny Teach For America corps members were no less likely to use these ineffective techniques as the tired and tenured unionized teachers reformers seemed so eager to blame and replace.

I surely didn’t endear myself to my fellow reformers by noting that, while our movement seemed oddly indifferent to how kids were being taught to read, there was at least one organization that understood the value of a strong, knowledge-rich curriculum: the American Federation of Teachers. Going back to Al Shanker’s time, the AFT has been stalwart in its support of E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge approach to literacy, through the high-profile advocacy of its excellent quarterly, The American Educator, which reaches nearly a million teachers, and has regularly published work by Hirsch, Dan Willingham, Jeanne Chall, Marilyn Jager Adams, and many other leading experts.

Unlike most of my ed reform brethren, I’m not a union basher. I’ve never fully bought into the common complaints that unions are the sum and substance of all that ails education. Mind you, I wouldn’t suggest they’re on the side of the angels (all my chapter leader ever did for me when I was teaching in the Bronx was try to get me fired). But I’m more open than most to seeing unions as possible partners rather than purely a problem.

I offer this all as a preamble before expressing my disappointment with AFT President Randi Weingarten’s speech on “The Freedom to Teach” delivered last week at the National Press Club, in which she lamented the nation’s “disinvestment” in education and the “deprofessionalization” of teaching.

Weingarten delivered her speech from a position of considerable strength. Over the past sixteen months, striking teachers have met with surprisingly consistent sympathy in their states and communities. Ed reform, meanwhile, is rocking back on its heels. So much so that progressives seem determined to make past support for charter schools a dealbreaker for the Democrats’ 2020 presidential candidates, no less a mark of shame than groping underlings or being photographed in blackface. But rather than leverage the moment to lead, Weingarten’s remarks seemed ripped from union boilerplate circa 2002, the standard litany of complaints about funding and working conditions, too much of it playing fast and loose with the facts. While it may be true, for example, that teachers are leaving their classrooms “at the highest rate on record,” teacher churn is a standard feature of tight labor markets, and at current levels still only about one-third of the rate for American workers overall. Comparatively speaking, teaching is still a pretty good gig.

In surveying the diminished state of American education, Weingarten had nothing to say about charter schools or choice, which is unsurprising from a labor leader. But she asked why we aren’t making neighborhood schools “centers of their communities” just weeks after New York City’s ended just such a program after four years, $800 million spent, and nearly nothing to show for it. Weingarten noted that parents don’t want their kids to become teachers anymore and lamented how enrollment in teacher preparation programs is plummeting. “More than 100,000 classrooms across the country have an instructor who is not credentialed,” she complained. “How many operating rooms do you think are staffed by people without the necessary qualifications? Or airplane cockpits? We should be strengthening teacher preparation programs, not weakening teacher licensure requirements, leaving new teachers less and less prepared.” That was all she had to say about teacher preparation. That’s disappointing and misses the mark badly. Teacher preparation programs have simply not done their part to produce the skilled teacher workforce worthy of the respect and autonomy Weingarten thinks should be their due.

Comparing teachers to surgeons and airline pilots elides the obvious and enormous differences in selectivity and training for those jobs. There are about 3.6 million teachers in America. The closest occupations in raw numbers to teachers are food service workers, including fast food, and cashiers. The only larger occupation is retail salespersons. If America employed 3.6 million surgeons and airline pilots and trained them as casually as teachers, we would have a very different relationship to the healthcare and airline industries. No other workforce of a comparable size is regarded as a profession; no other unionized workforce of a comparable size enjoys the level of professional autonomy that Weingarten thinks teachers deserve. In citing only teacher “credentials” and “qualifications,” she missed an opportunity to demand that teacher preparation programs do a better job preparing and elevating her future members.

The past year has seen an unusual spike in interest in how teachers are trained (or not) to teach reading, and a strong outpouring of teacher anger at their lack of preparation. Many of these teachers (probably most) are union members. For a significant subset of them, the frustration and demoralization that Weingarten cited is only worsened by their lack of preparation. Among her prescriptions to “change the culture” of education is “ensuring teachers have real voice and agency befitting their profession.” One of the loudest and clearest messages emerging from that real voice is that teachers are being set up to fail by those charged with preparing them. Weingarten missed an opportunity to lead and be vocal about this.

Make no mistake, teachers are more sinned against than sinners in the state of teacher prep. The AFT could do a world of good for its members—and for children—by throwing its considerable weight behind an effort to demand ed schools be held accountable for graduating teachers prepared for success, armed with the knowledge and expertise to be granted full professional status and esteem. Instead, Weingarten harped predictably on “prepackaged corporate curriculum” and attempts to “standardize teaching to conform with the standardized assessments.” Such efforts are not only “denying teachers’ creativity and expertise, but assuming their incompetence.” But the teachers who are raising their voice in anger don’t seem upset at the assumption they are incompetent. They are angry they have been rendered incompetent by inadequate training and poor curriculum and support. No organization is better positioned to address this than America’s teachers unions, and particularly—with its longstanding advocacy for effective curriculum and pedagogy—the AFT.

The “freedom to teach” Weingarten is demanding presupposes that left to their own devices, teachers would perform capably, and better than under the thumb of regulators and busybodies. This is a winning argument for those of us prone to see overregulation as a drag on performance in any sector. Weingarten’s freedom to teach assumes, contrary to all available evidence, that teachers know what to do and need only to be freed to do it. Yet this is precisely the same mistake made by a generation of ed reform accountability hawks, who assumed that the right incentives would drive schools and teachers to better practices. It has proven disappointing as a reform theory of change. Nothing in Weingarten’s stemwinder of a speech offers any reason to think outcomes will be any different if we do it her way instead.

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College