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Posted at 1:58 PM ET, 06/17/2010

Randi Weingarten: Rhee is wrong

By Valerie Strauss

The teachers union president whom D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee highly praised in an op-ed article this week -- the column in which Rhee tells New York schools boss Joel Klein that he has a lot to learn from her -- is taking strong issue with Rhee.

Rhee wrote in a Sunday piece in the New York Daily News that Klein, once Rhee’s mentor, should follow the same steps she took in negotiating a newly approved contract with the D.C. teachers union.

The advice column, which displayed Rhee’s characteristic hubris, urged Klein and New York United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew to “lean on” Randi Weingarten, the former president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers who is now president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“Use Randi Weingarten. I don’t like to get in the middle of someone else’s negotiation and I know that there is a long and complicated history between Weingarten and Klein. However, based on my experiences negotiating with Weingarten, she is very much able to see the direction the nation is heading in and the fact that unions need to be a part of the solution. Both Klein and Mulgrew should lean on her.”

It turns out that Weingarten wasn’t so pleased with Rhee’s advice. In a Daily News article today in response to to Rhee, Weingarten wrote that, in fact, the D.C. contract negotiation experience has few if any lessons for New York and that Rhee is exaggerating the historic nature of the pact. Here’s the piece:

By Randi Weingarten

It’s all well and good that Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who just negotiated her first labor contract, has a first-time bargainer’s pride of ownership and - through a Daily News Op-Ed that appeared on Sunday - is offering unsolicited advice to New Yorkers about how to resolve the current teachers contract impasse.

But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and so is trying to apply simplistic lessons from the D.C. contract to New York. Doing so is akin to doing test prep instead of teaching and learning: It ignores context, only touches on the facts and provides a quick-and-easy fix instead of a real solution.

Having spent more than a few years in New York City and now some time in Washington as well, I know firsthand they are totally different places. It’s a big mistake to act as if they’re not. What’s more, much of what Rhee claims to be new actually predates her arrival in D.C., and the new contract sets new limits on her powers. In fact, to the extent that lessons can be drawn from D.C.’s contract and applied to New York, they are not the anti-union lessons Rhee lays out.

First, a bit of history.

In New York, after a rocky start when Mayor Bloomberg first took office, the United Federation of Teachers, the community, the mayor, principals and teachers worked together for a number of years to hone legislation governing the city’s schools. During that time, Bloomberg and the UFT negotiated three collective bargaining agreements to strengthen schools and improve student performance.

That’s a record to build on, not forget.

In Washington, the approach to education has been to flirt with fads and cure-alls.

Instead of tackling systemic problems head-on, the city often has relied on a kind of magical thinking.

Vouchers, charter schools, mayoral control, the power to "abolish" individual teaching positions and chancellor-controlled teacher evaluations - all of these have been part of the school landscape in Washington for years. Even the latest national fad, dismissing the value of teachers’ experience, is nothing new to Washington.
Yet despite these changes being in place for years, D.C. schools did not dramatically improve - because the changes weren’t sustained and systemic.

This is not to say there haven’t been improvements in Washington’s schools. There are islands of excellence. And, after decades of tinkering and fads, Superintendent Clifford Janey, who preceded Rhee, focused his attention on what was actually being taught in Washington’s classrooms. This was a breath of fresh air to the city’s teachers, who had suffered educational whiplash from a series of increasingly dramatic - and mostly unhelpful - changes to the school system.

In the single best decision she has made as chancellor, Rhee is continuing Janey’s good work in this area.

When it comes to learning lessons from D.C. and trying to apply them to New York, the critical thing to understand is that the new D.C. contract is not some revolutionary document that gives lots of brand-new powers to the chancellor.
What it does is take the reality - that the chancellor in Washington has long had extraordinary power to hire and fire employees - and codifies it in contract language that actually gives teachers some ability to push back on capricious actions.

The contract does change the landscape in two important ways.

First, it adds transparency, checks and balances, and some measure of rationality, to the chancellor’s previously unfettered power to hire and fire employees. It does all this while preserving teacher tenure, which has always been about due process and not about a job for life.

Anyone who thinks the D.C. contract is an example of how New York should abolish teacher tenure is just plain wrong.

Second, the new D.C. contract gives both teachers and school officials better tools and conditions to do their jobs. For management, that means a clearer, less convoluted delineation of its authority. For teachers, the contract includes real educational enhancements, not just additional salary. The contract features new initiatives to address student discipline and to create teacher centers, based on the long-established program in New York.

It’s not surprising that Chancellor Rhee is proud of the first labor contract she has ever negotiated. But it makes no sense to view that contract - designed for Washington, D.C., with a school culture defined by education fads and a complete lack of trust - as a template for New York City, where the collective bargaining process already is a well-established vehicle for sustained improvements in the schools.

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 17, 2010; 1:58 PM ET
Categories:  D.C. Schools, Teachers  | Tags:  aft president randi weingarten, d.c. schools chancellor michelle rhee, d.c. teachers contract, michelle rhee and joel klein, randi weingarten and michelle rhee, rhee and klein, rhee gives advice to klein, rhee op-ed, weingarten and rhee, weingarten op-ed  
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Great article.

Posted by: aby1 | June 17, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Wonderful response by Weingarten. I hope the WaPo editorial board reads it.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | June 17, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

"The chancellor in Washington has long had extraordinary power to hire and fire employees..."

I will give Rhee credit for one thing: she has disproven the long-held and deeply ingrained myth that a teacher has a job for life. What a teacher has is "due process," which basically means that an administrator has to show "cause" if a teacher is to be dismissed for a reason based on performance. If the teacher commits a crime, he or she can be placed on leave immediately. Showing "cause" means documenting the teacher's weaknesses over the course of time, usually between six and fifteen months. This is similar to almost all public service jobs (librarian, social worker, police officer etc.) I want to repeat that if the teacher does something egregious (hitting a child, stealing PTA money, drinking on the job) she can be placed on immediate administrative leave, just like any other worker.

So what is the problem? The problem has been supply and demand. Until this recession, places like DC have had a very difficult time recruiting and retaining teachers. Because 50% resign during the first five years, the goal of many principals has been to keep as many teachers as possible. As a result, about 90% of urban teachers receive "superior" ratings on their evaluations. This is fact and not opinion. Naturally, a teacher with "superior" ratings will not be easy to fire. A judge is likely to rule that the district has not shown "cause."

During my 42 years as a teacher in a low-income district, I can only think of five teachers who were given poor evaluations and asked to resign. Three of them did when threatened with dismissal. They were listed as "resignations" and not "terminations" so they would not be counted as "fired." UNIONS DO NOT HIRE OR FIRE TEACHERS. What a union will do is provide the teacher with an attorney if she requests one.

So what about "rubber rooms?" Some teachers do fight their dismissal for one reason or another. In an urban school it isn't that unusual for a teacher to be falsely accused of abuse. Until these teachers are acquitted, they can't be allowed in the classroom; nor should they be. They are usually assigned to a "desk job" until their situation can be investigated.

Yes, some of these rubber room teachers deserve to be fired, but I believe they are in the small minority and mostly in large districts. In my small district I only knew of two teachers who fought their dismissals. Both lost and were listed as "terminations."

Valerie, I hope you do a story that tells the real truth about firing teachers. It's strictly a job for administrators. That has always been their responsibility, but somewhere along the line, "the unions" were blamed for retaining ineffective educators.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | June 17, 2010 9:08 PM | Report abuse

"Rhee's characteristic hubris"
Like that publicity hound from Alaska.

C'est Moi!!

Posted by: edlharris | June 18, 2010 5:55 AM | Report abuse

What a perfect description of Rhee, naive, ignorant, childish, uninformed, fadish, simplistic, incurious, yet possessing such unlimited arrogance, that she mistakes her stupidity for wisdom and publishes the proof for all to see.

Posted by: mcstowy | June 18, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

It's nice to see someone with much more experience share my criticism of Chancellor Rhee: She is inexperienced in the day-to-day running of a school system. The New Teacher Project is admirable, but running that program is not the same as being a teacher. And she did that for over three times longer than she was an actual teacher (10 years of NTP to 3 years of teaching).

She means well and she's getting results, but I believe Ms. Rhee is very impressed with Ms. Rhee. Not all teachers who have stayed within the DC school system are good, but her blatant preference for young teachers (many of whom fled after a few years once they realized they were not in a movie about a plucky teacher succeeding against the odds) against older teachers who know more about the problems existing in DC public schools is shameful.

As someone who never became a highly experienced teacher - and is yet to be a highly experienced Chancellor - she needs to recognize that her opinions are not the end-all, be-all answers to education. For certain, listen to her opinions as she is a bright woman, but she needs to tone down the hubris immediately.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | June 19, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Randi may need a stool softener to find her voice on this subject. Randi fancies herself friendly to reform, but she is anything but. And she seems to be much reviled in Local Six. She needs to butt out of arguments she does not understand.

Posted by: axolotl | June 20, 2010 6:28 PM | Report abuse

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