Randi and I Argue, Earth Rumbles

If memory serves, the old TV show Hart to Hart used to begin with the narrator intoning, “And when they met, it was murder.” Well, earlier this week AFT honcho Randi Weingarten and I engaged in a hard-hitting but genial debate at the Fordham Institute. Within a couple hours, we experienced the most severe East Coast earthquake in sixty-plus years. A coincidence? You decide. The Oprah-style affair, titled “When Reform Touches Teachers,” was adeptly hosted by Fordham’s Mike Petrilli. You can catch the video online here or when it shows on C-SPAN.

In my experience, these kinds of “union leader v. ‘reformer’” conversations tend to go in three unfortunate directions. The first is that everyone engages in vague “it’s for the kids” banalities, agree that the kids must come first, and pledge vague, meaningless collaboration going forward (e.g. see the Denver labor summit that the U.S. Department of Education hosted in February). The second is that the self-styled reformers beat on the union leader to concede on this or that, or the unionists squeeze the reformers to utter reassuring things about how much they love and respect teachers. And the third is when everybody just screams that those on the other side are “seal-clubbing, crypto-fascist child-haters.” Each of these does a poor job of illuminating serious disputes or identifying places of real agreement.

You can judge for yourself, but I’d like to think that Randi and I managed to have a serious but civil debate about whether teachers are under attack, teacher pensions and health care, the new unionism, teacher evaluation, teacher pay, and the rest. We agreed on the failure of principals to do their job when it comes to teacher evaluation, the need to overhaul today’s industrial era model of schooling, the limits of trying to drive evaluation primarily off of today’s crude value-added scores on state reading and math assessments, and the value of engaging teachers in decisions regarding instruction and content (though Randi thinks it’d be a good idea to do that via collective bargaining and I couldn’t disagree more).

Randi argued teachers feel like they’re under attack. As I argued in the New York Times this spring, I said that it’s perfectly reasonable for teachers to feel angry that policymakers are looking to dial back their pensions and health care entitlements. But that doesn’t amount to disrespect or an “attack.” Truth is, Americans are much more positive about teachers today (according to Gallup) than they were 20 or 25 years ago. Indeed, I think the Republican leaders who have pushed to dial back benefits and collective bargaining have generally employed pretty respectful language. They have been answered by union advocates who have compared them to Nazis, and Republican governors like Scott Walker to Hitler and Mubarak. If anyone is under attack, seems to me it’s those political leaders who have finally shown themselves willing to start addressing the irresponsible promises and giveaways of their predecessors.

Randi made one factual assertion that I need to see fact-checked, because I don’t believe it but can’t quickly disprove it. She claimed that Cliff Janey, when superintendent of DC, fired more teachers than the DC IMPACT system did in its first year. Now, there may be definitional wiggles here–after all, Janey was supe for several years and I’m not sure if IMPACT was operationally live in its first year for purposes of teacher removal–so I’d love it if someone out there can give the straight scoop on this.

I agreed with Randi that teacher unions have been scapegoated for the appalling data regarding teacher evaluation that we’ve seen in The Widget Effect and elsewhere. Unions deserve their share of the blame for making it tough to remove lousy teachers, but the fact that 99% of teachers are routinely rated as satisfactory can be chalked up almost entirely to school and district leaders failing to do their job when it comes to evaluating personnel (unless you happen to believe we have 3.4 million phenomenal teachers). Same holds for failure to remove ineffective educators before they earn tenure.

Now, it strikes me as ludicrous for the unions to sit quietly by and share the blame for timid, tepid leadership, or when unions passively take the blame for weak teachers when teacher preparation programs produce graduates of dubious merit. In doing so, teachers and unions become complicit. The problem, I think, is a variation on Ted Sizer’s famed “Horace’s Compromise.” Teacher unions, superintendent and principal associations, schools of education, and school boards avoid calling each other out on such things, while focusing their energies on presenting a united front demanding more money and deference from taxpayers and policymakers. By the way, this phenomenon is part of what drives “reformers” to distraction. They can’t understand why so many supes and school boards seem to placidly accept onerous collective bargaining requirements, or why quality-conscious teachers don’t do more to call out feckless leadership.

Anyway, there’s plenty more. Like I said, if you’re interested, you can check the footage out here.

– Frederick Hess

(This post also appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

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