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Teachers have been having a tough time lately. Their unions are under pressure to accept pay cuts and fewer benefits. States are threatening massive teacher layoffs in response to budget deficits. There’s a major push to make teachers more effective, with how teachers are trained, evaluated, tenured and compensated all on the table. In addition, rewards to states in U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top contest have been contingent on teacher union support; there’s still $3 billion available in the next round that could rely on union buy-in. Randi Weingarten, who became president of the 1.4-million-member American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, in July 2008, spoke with Liz Willen of The Hechinger Report about some of the issues currently facing teachers.

Here are excerpts from their conversation.

Hechinger Report: With the next round of Race to the Top applications due in under six weeks, emotions are high about the role teachers’ unions will play in helping states secure grant money. Should union support be make-or-break for these grants?

Weingarten: There is no way that schools can change for the better for kids unless there is buy-in at the local level to make things happen. The enterprise we are in requires a theory of action, collaboration and working together, so that’s why it’s an imbedded principle in Race to the Top.

There are some state officials who are collaborative and some who are not. I am talking about people in leadership positions who believe that ‘my way or the highway’ is the way to change schools, and that has never been a successful strategy. Even though we [unions] may not have agreed fully with every aspect of the Race to the Top program, one of the things we embraced was collaboration and a willingness to work together with state officials on these applications. So look at Ohio and Pennsylvania and Delaware and Tennessee. They are all working together. In places where they [teachers unions] are not part of it [Race to the Top], it’s because the administration refuses to give them a voice.

I’m most concerned about the reformers who tout charter schools [as a reason for states to get Race to the Top money]. Some [charters] are great, but most are either the same or worse than public schools. Some have touted data, but they don’t tout giving teachers the resources and time to wrap themselves around the data and use it to inform instruction. These same reformers at the drop of a hat will blame teachers and unions instead of making all schools the knowledge institutions they should be.

Hechinger Report: Teachers’ unions appear to be under attack across the U.S. because of a public perception that they’ve put job security ahead of children; in many cases, teachers’ unions are being portrayed as impediments to change and reform. Why?  And how much truth is there in such portrayals?

Weingarten: They [teachers’ unions] are being blamed wrongly….it [the blame] is strongly connected to economic conditions. It’s a pattern – let’s blame the people who are in the center of making a difference in the lives of the kids – and by that I mean teachers and their unions. Everyone knows that schools need to change. Schools need to change from an industrial model to a knowledge-based model, and I think there is a good clear consensus that we are grappling with how to do that in a time of intense, terrible budget pressure. Are superintendents going to blame themselves? Parents? They are going to blame teachers and their unions.

We know schools need to change, and we are out there trying to do that. We believe we have a reform agenda that does that. We are trying to make sure school systems don’t go to four-day weeks and cut summer school. There is no good way to lay off teachers, and the conversation ignores the basic issue – that kids will lose huge services. And teachers are always skeptical of the reform of the day. It leads to questioning and sometimes that is construed as being obstructionist.

Should we be doing more in terms of ensuring that every teacher is effective? Of course; that is what the union is trying to do, but we can’t do it alone. It’s also about what the curriculum looks like. In Finland and Japan, teachers can really work on their lessons and differentiate instruction for all children. We don’t have time for that here, so teachers ask for the tools they know they need, but instead of giving them the tools, [teachers] get vilified. Teachers want the conditions to do their jobs. Teachers’ unions tend to be the only voice fighting for the budgets that kids need so schools can be salvaged. You see them fighting for budgetary resources. Good teachers need protections and unions to fight to make sure we lower class sizes and differentiate instruction. We need to fight to make sure climates are safe. We are trying to fight for the conditions that kids need to learn and that teachers need to teach. We want to be agents of change.

Hechinger Report: Do you see a coming seismic shift in union protections with the efforts underway in California, New York and Washington, D.C. to change seniority rules in layoffs, and to change how and when teachers earn tenure?  Do you agree with them?

Weingarten: The real issue these things are trying to address – and in the wrong way – is how do you effectively train and evaluate teachers? The real issue in the evaluation of teachers is [developing] a meaningful, comprehensive and fair process, which is what we tried to address and what we are pushing to see in Race to the Top applications. The issue about “excessing” or laying teachers off and using criteria broader than seniority has been in [Washington] D.C. for eight years, and it did not make the schools better. It created tremendous chaos. There is no good way to lay teachers off. The worst thing to do in a situation of intense budgetary constraints is to let a principal or administrator pick and choose. In the absence of good evaluation systems, that’s what happened in D.C.; they picked and chose who they didn’t like or those teachers who cost too much. The real issue is developing new systems and trying to push locals and districts [to use them]. This is the key. You have to align due process with good meaningful evaluation systems.

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Letters to the Editor

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  1. How the teachers union ‘helped’ California’s application for Race to the Top was to lobby to limit it to failing schools only. This derailed Federal money needed for our California schools. The unions position on programs for students is well documented. “When school children start paying union dues, that ‘s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” Albert Shanker, President of the Teachers Union (United Federation of Teachers) from 1964 to 1984 as well as President of the Teachers Union (American Federation of Teachers) from 1974 to 1997.

  2. Isn’t it ironic that the mag beating up on teachers is being sold by its owner?

    Over in Indiana, Republican education secretary Tony Bennett wanted the teachers to sign onto his RTTT application without having read it.
    He refused to share it with them.

  3. Hechinger Report, it would be great if you could ask some prominent members of the press why they are so happily joining in the mass teacher-bashing.

    The press is supposed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, or at least that’s the idea. Yet instead, journalists gleefully pile on as underpaid, overworked teachers are bashed, blamed, shamed, vilified and threatened with mass loss of their livelihood. Meanwhile, the teaching-bashing press voices align themselves with our unelected, unofficial national education policy-setters, billionaires like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family (as in Wal-Mart), and the rest — who could safely be called “comfortable.”

    The remaining shreds of my local metro daily paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, just keep on teacher-bashing (in the editorial pages and op-ed selections, not the news coverage) — even as many of the bashers’ laid-off ex-newsroom colleagues career-change into teaching.

    I don’t get it. My husband, a displaced 33-year Chronicle reporter who is now a substitute teacher in urban public schools, doesn’t get it. Can you explain?

  4. R. Bagnell: That’s an interesting quote attributed to Albert Shanker. I’ve seen it cited several times, but have never found an original source for it. Is it real?

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