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Making the Grade

Randi Weingarten, the notoriously feisty president of the second-largest national teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), received a hero’s welcome at the National Press Club last November. In her speech, she vowed to give ear to almost any tough-minded school reform, and, in a line that thrilled many reformers, promised that the AFT will not protect incompetent teachers: "Teachers are the first to say, 'Let's get incompetent teachers out of the classroom.'”

Weingarten would seem to be donning the reformist mantle of a previous AFT president, Al Shanker, a highly regarded reformer who shook up pro-union liberals by reminding everyone that tough school discipline and achievement standards were civil rights fundamentals. But an approach that worked during Shanker’s tenure is more difficult now, with the reformers and unionists pitched in a bare-knuckled fight that is not about lofty, system-changing goals as much as about the thorny specifics of state and local education policy. Caught up in a contentious situation with the Washington, D.C. school system that has challenged her reformist credentials, Weingarten’s attempt to satisfy both sides of the debate is being put to the test--the result of which could dictate the future of education reform across the country.

Fairly or unfairly, Washington, D.C. has become ground zero for the national school reform debate. D.C. spends more money on education than most other cities but still sees only nine percent of its freshman students graduating from college within five years of leaving high school. Michelle Rhee, a hard-charging and high-profile reformer now serving as the chancellor of the city’s schools, has taken on the system with a strong hand, vowing to ramp up teacher-training and shuffle low-performing teachers out of the system. Her offer to teachers, buttressed by pledged funding from several foundations, is this: Give up tenure, and you will receive dramatic salary boosts measured in tens of thousands of dollars--or keep tenure protections, your salary increases will be far smaller, and you will still be subject to dismissal if you fail to reach performance standards.

The Washington Teachers Union (WTU) at first seemed willing to work with Rhee to craft a deal on her two-track system. But, in the end, the WTU rejected the offer without even putting it to a vote of teachers. Rhee certainly made some mistakes in the process, most notably failing to produce a detailed plan for how teachers would be evaluated, but that’s not what scotched the deal. Rather, compromise with Rhee, who has become such a touchstone that both candidates mentioned her in the last presidential debate of the 2008 campaign, became toxic in teachers’ union circles.

When exactly Weingarten got directly involved in the Washington negotiations remains a matter of some debate, but there is no doubt that she has been deeply involved and that a counter-offer submitted to Rhee in late January by the WTU comes with her approval. As her Press Club speech would suggest, Weingarten is open to firing bad teachers. But the counter-offer, which hasn’t been made public, would complicate rather than streamline that process in D.C. Among those who have seen the details, there are two views about what it means for the negotiations. Some say it is what it appears to be--at odds with the spirit of what Weingarten promised in her Press Club speech, wrapping teachers even more tightly in tenure protections and extending the termination process. Others say that in the coded language of labor negotiations it’s actually a signal from Weingarten that she’s open to negotiating and moving in Rhee’s direction if Rhee can give her the necessary political cover. If adopted as currently proposed, however, Rhee’s hurry-up reforms would be throttled back to a glacial pace and students would suffer.

Weingarten’s supporters say that, because of the politics and Rhee’s take-no-prisoners style, D.C. is not a fair test of her reform commitment. But her actions in New York, where she formerly served as president of the local AFT affiliate, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), may suggest a pattern. While New York school reformers praise her political skills and acumen and admit they were often beaten fair and square, many note that, while Weingarten was emerging as a national reform leader, she was vigorously fighting a variety of reforms in the state. She worked against the state's original charter-school law and also against efforts to lift the cap on the number of charter schools unless that move could be tied to union-friendly concessions. And she resisted efforts to significantly address the pool of teachers who could not find jobs in the city schools but were nonetheless still on the payroll, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars annually.

Critics also point to some of her actions in New York that are seemingly at odds with school improvement efforts. In 2006, the district’s convoluted dismissal process, negotiated by the UFT, allowed only eight teacher firings for incompetence (out of 55,000 tenured teachers). And she lobbied the New York legislature to pass a law prohibiting, at least for two years, the use of student testing data in making decisions about whether public school teachers should be granted tenure.

It's not that Weingarten is duplicitous. On the contrary, by all accounts she is sincere in her desire to improve American public education, as well as to restore her union to the position of national respect it held when Shanker was at the helm. The reality, however, is that Weingarten represents a teaching force fearful of reform. As a result, she juggles public reformist speeches and pitches to the increasingly powerful school reform movement with behind-the-scenes jabs like the protectionist counter-offer made to Rhee and the various policy fights in New York.

There’s still a way for Weingarten to square the circle in D.C. If she’s wise, Weingarten will see what Shanker likely would have concluded: Rhee is not the enemy. Rhee faces an array of independent charter schools that now educate more than a third of the District’s public school students. If Rhee can't compete with charter operators who can fire incompetent teachers, the local teachers’ union will become irrelevant, because there will be few unionized public schools left in the district. Giving Rhee the tools she needs may strike fear into the WTU, but in the long run it helps them maintain the one thing that the union can’t live without: members. The Al Shanker move in this situation would be to save the WTU from itself, helping put in place the kind of bold reforms it will take to turn cities like Washington around. It won’t be a popular move among her union colleagues, but, if Weingarten fails in D.C., she could lose any national cachet she’s won as a mediator between the unions and the reformers.

And that would be bad news for reformers, too. Weingarten’s balancing act should not obscure the fact that she is among the most reformist union leaders on the national scene today and certainly the most influential; her success or failure will have a broader impact on school reform and education politics nationally. Nor would the biggest national union, the National Education Association (NEA), fill the gap Weingarten would leave. It’s hard to find an elected official or policy analyst in Washington who won’t privately acknowledge that the NEA is bereft of real ideas about how to improve schools, whereas Weingarten is at least full of ideology-bucking plans.

But, as the D.C. example shows, even a politician and tactician as good as Weingarten won’t be able to forever serve the dual masters of a change-averse union and the national imperative to fix our urban public schools and improve public schools overall. A lot more than Weingarten’s reputation rides on how she manages her way through the tension.

Andrew J. Rotherham, co-founder and publisher of Education Sector, blogs at Richard Whitmire, president of the National Education Writers Association, blogs at

By Andrew J. Rotherham and Richard Whitmire