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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 10/ 5/2010

The nutty demonization of Randi Weingarten

By Valerie Strauss

It's not easy being Randi Weingarten these days.

First, the film “Waiting for Superman” by Davis Guggenheim wrongly portrayed the president of the American Federation of Teachers as the face of the dastardly opposition to school reform.

Then NBC turned her into a punching bag during last week’s “Education Nation,” when she was put in the position of being chief defender of traditional public schools against an army of aggressive attackers who blame unions for the ills of urban districts and see charter schools as public education's salvation.

Then an anonymous column on Huffington Post equated Weingarten with Osama bin Laden. Yes, bin Laden, the terrorist. And a number of readers posted comments agreeing with the sentiments.

THEN, Joe Williams, director of the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER, felt a strange need to dignify the idiotic column with a defense of Weingarten.

DFER promotes public charter schools (which has become the favorite cause of some founders of wealthy hedge funds); the two major teachers unions, Weingarten’s AFT and the larger National Education Association, oppose the expansion of charters as they are today. (The biggest research study on charters to date showed that students at most charters do no better or worse on standardized tests than their counterparts in traditional schools.)

“It struck me,” Williams told me, “that if things are going to get this kooky as a result of ‘Waiting for Superman,’ it makes a discussion impossible.” (In fact there hasn't been a real reform discussion in years because today's school reformers denigrate anybody who disagrees with them, calling them defenders of the miserable status quo.)

So Williams wrote an email and sent it to supporters. Here is it is, in part:

“Dear friend:
The other day, I emailed you about how exciting it is to watch the public discussions about education reform unfold in the wake of all the highly publicized hoopla of late.

But we here at DFER felt a need to call a foul with some of the admittedly isolated stuff that is starting to bubble up as part of that conversation. We’re all for rigorous debate, but a recent rogue column on Huffington Post (and that is making the rounds elsewhere in the blogosphere) that compares AFT President Randi Weingarten to Osama bin Laden is so far over the top it begs for a quick beat-down.

The movie Waiting for ‘SUPERMAN’ clearly evokes a lot of strong emotions, but this kind of irresponsible comparison is totally uncalled for in public discourse.

I have known Randi Weingarten for many years, and I consider her a friend. But even if I didn’t, we’d be emailing you with this plea right now.

Randi Weingarten is the last person you could possibly describe as hiding in a cave, plotting to destroy America. She has appeared on so many panels and television programs as part of the WFS roll-out – and she’s taken quite a public beating in many of them – that ‘cowardly terrorist’ is the last phrase you’d use to describe her. (You’ll notice that the NEA, which unlike the AFT has been totally absent from just about any real reform discussion in the last few years, hardly even appears in WFS. Surely because Randi granted access and the NEA didn’t.)

Heck, when Manhattan’s Ground Zero was still smoldering after bin Laden’s attack on America, Randi moved her union headquarters a few blocks away, to help show that the neighborhood could be revived. She represented teachers who calmly led their children out of Lower Manhattan to safety on that awful September morning, etc., etc.

The comparison that is out there is beyond obnoxious.”

In case you glossed over it, Williams explained, quite seriously, that Weingarten couldn’t be hiding in a cave because she has been seen on so many panels and television programs.

He must have figured that people warped enough to accept a comparison between the union president and the terrorist boss could still, nevertheless, be won over by reason. But apparently, some of them weren't. Williams told me that he had had some “pushback” from some of his “friends.”

“They thought I was giving the union too much," he said.

The whole public discourse about school reform has become “beyond obnoxious,” and, frankly, some of the school reform messages have played right into the hands of the kooks.

Constant, unfair attacks on traditional public school teacherss, and the expensive promotion of charter schools -- hallmarks of DFER and other pro-charter groups -- have contributed to the sorry state of school reform discussion. It is unfortunate that it took a comparison with bin Laden to get Williams to try to dampen the idiocy of some of his “friends.”

Films that unfairly demonize unions and promote charter schools as if they were the answer to failing urban schools (they aren’t) don’t help either. It is interesting to note that after reviews of “Superman” noted the unfair attack on unions, Guggenheim said publicly that he hadn’t intended to demonize them.

Movements need heroes and villains, and Weingarten has become an easy target for school reformers who seek to blame public school teachers for the ills of urban education and attack their unions.

She puts herself in the lion’s den time and time again, arguing and debating with opponents in a way that Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, does not.

It is true that she has not been her own best friend in some of these appearances, trying to make subtle points when sharp ones were necessary, and allowing opponents to say things that were patently untrue without challenge.

She tries to walk a line between seeming not to give an inch in her rhetorical defense of public school teachers, but compromising on controversial aspects of reform in contract negotiations and other areas.

While talking tough, she's made concessions repeatedly: A teachers contract in Washington, D.C., that gives teachers the option of being part of a program that links their pay to student test scores couldn’t have happened without Weingarten. Nor could Colorado have passed a law that makes at least half of teacher evaluations dependent on student standardized test scores.

And Weingarten backed a landmark teachers contract that was tentatively reached last week in the Baltimore City public school system -- without the traditional acrimony between management and labor.

Taking a new approach to teacher evaluation, it rewards teachers for great work by using multiple measures and creates steps that teachers can climb that will allow them to earn more. Teachers themselves had a great deal of input into the contract, and will help design the contract’s specifics.

Any regular reader of this blog will know that I do not support using student test scores to evaluate or pay teachers, including as part of some of the arrangements supported by Weingarten. Indeed, new research studies concluded that linking scores to teacher assessment doesn't improve student achievement (as measured by increased test scores).

But Weingarten has done more to bring the two sides together than any other labor leader in education. One doesn't have to agree with every single thing she does or says and still recognize the important role she plays or her commitment to educating kids.

For taking the positions that she does she has been unfairly demonized by tough union backers, who hate any compromise, and by union haters, whose mission it is to bring down unions and traditional public schools.

What does she have to say about it?

"My life’s work is promoting public education, and while I have no problem with whatever people say about me, the demonization becomes a convenient way to evade the hard work necessary to help all kids succeed," she said in an e-mail. "We all need to change, and build on what works, but I make no apologies for believing we need to support and listen to teachers ( and to parents) to get there."

Characterizing Weingarten as a villain is nutty. Just like today’s world of school reform.

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By Valerie Strauss  | October 5, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Teacher assessment, Teachers  | Tags:  aft, american federation of teachers, bin laden, charter schools urban schools, davis guggenheim, democrats for education reform, dfer, education nation, hedge fund, huffington post, joe williams, national education association, nea, osama bin laden, public school reform, public schools, randi weingarten, school reform, teachers, teachers unions, terrorism, unions, waiting for superman  
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Nutty is the right word.

Thank you Valerie - your perspective is a light that brightens the day for us teachers in the trenches!

Posted by: lizwisniewski | October 5, 2010 7:12 AM | Report abuse

Idiocracy is how I would describe the reform movement. The teachers promote improvements and support concepts that have shown to work. The teachers proposed charters as a way to provide a laboratory for ideas. Capitalists have taken that idea and run with it. For all Gate's money there had to be enormous losses somewhere else. That kind of dynamic neither belongs or has been proven to work with the young minds of our children. Keep pushing back on the Broads and Gates and other misguided dilettantes here in DC.

Posted by: zebra22 | October 5, 2010 7:48 AM | Report abuse

a concerned DCPS parent :

re: Michelle Rhee’s “mom friendly” comment, prepared specifically for the Oprah show, about moms not tolerating mediocre teachers being given time to grow and develop professionally. “Well. The unqualified, needing-to-grow-professionally, TFA principal that Rhee PUSHED on our school, despite protests from a panel of engaged, informed, truly progressive, professional educators and parents with advanced degrees in education . . . . . (this TFA principal) hired and protected even more inexperienced, unqualified teachers who will take YEARS to develop into true professionals. But the principal and those teachers all know how to say “yes” to their boss. Too bad they don’t know the basics of how children learn, or the nuances of curriculum and instruction. It is hard, hard work indeed to have to reprogram my kids every day after school, to get them to embrace and understand learning again.

Rhee’s influential, BAD decisions and practices, more than
ANY OTHER failure of the DC Public School system, has me
on the verge of pulling my kids out of school.

Rhee embarrassed herself mightily at the DC screening of this film (”Waiting for Wall Street Super-scammers”) -- with her comment insulting DC voters.

My kids, and the 350 others in their school,
will not be devastated at all
when she leaves.
We assume she will head to the business world for which
she may have more appropriate skills.”


Posted by: newmanagement2 | October 5, 2010 7:55 AM | Report abuse

Great article, Valerie and I agree 100%. I cringed everytime I tuned in last week to yet another panel discussion because that is precisely what occurred! Randi Weingarten was used as a punching bag so often that even the news anchors seemed to think it was ok. (Andrea Mitchell, for instance) I gave Randi credit for just appearing after that third one-sided panel attack. I thought that I would tune in and hear, "sitting in for Ms. Weingarten on this panel discussion today is Mr. Jackhammer."

Great article and great letter from Mr. Williams! You lifted my spirits and my heart today-both of you! Thank you.

By the way, there is an excellent 2 minute clip from a Sunday CBS morning show in which Randi Weingarten does an excellent job of articulating the Union's position very succintly.

Posted by: rsolnet | October 5, 2010 8:04 AM | Report abuse

Ha! You fell for one of Williams' favorite ploys. He's the leader of the attacks on unions and teacher collectively bargaining rights. Suddenly, someone plants a "rogue letter" on Huffington comparing Randi to a Bin laden. Williams jumps out and says she's not exactly a terrorist, since she isn't living in a cave in Pakistan. Now he's the reasonable union basher. Clever. He got himself some ink. That's his job.

Posted by: MickeyK | October 5, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

The poor reputation of teacher unions did not come about by accident. As a DCPS parent, I have seen very gifted teachers and those who should not be anywhere near children. My problem with teacher unions is that they have historically placed the interests of their least qualified members above that of the children they claim to want to help. In doing so, they also harm the morale and effectiveness of the otherwise motivated, effective teachers in our system. It’s one thing to be good at your job and see the next person slacking off or totally incompetent. It’s quite another to see the students that you have nurtured and taught well for a year now in the hands of this incompetent where you know your former students are going to suffer – and there’s nothing you can do about it. I have seen this frustration first hand and it is devastating to the morale of everyone – students, parents, teachers.

I applaud Ms. Weingarten for at least acknowledging that this side of the equation exists – the new DCPS contract is a step in the right direction. I’m not a big fan of standardized tests either but as a rough indicator of a student’s progress during a school year, it will have to do. Making student’s progress a part of a teacher’s evaluation seems fair and apparently it did so to a majority of DCPS teachers, who approved the new contract. And while many teachers can and will improve with mentors, continuous professional training, etc., some will not -- and the sooner those are gone, the better for our children and for the majority of our teachers.

Posted by: tyty1 | October 5, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for this piece Valerie. And so it goes...
One of the craziest aspects of all of this attacking and defending is that it is what one great educator, Joseph Schwab, years ago called a "flight from the problem."
In all of this so little time is spent rationally analyzing what the problems are and then carefully examining alternative solutions. So we waste time and energy on individuals, venerating or demonizing them, championing solutions disconnected from any problem analysis, and/or attacking the solutions of others without doing the homework ourselves.

The fact is that unions haven't done the homework carefully either and haven't provided enough leadership in improving the profession itself. Some of the union opposition to charter schools has been based on a rational look at the mixed results. But some has also been based on opposition to charter schools often not being unionized.The fact is that there are some great farsighted teacher union leaders and some real hacks. And the fact is that Randi has lots of integrity and smarts and also has the impossible job of representing all the different union factions. But focusing all this attention on attacking and defending her is a waste of time and energy and a "flight from the problem."

An anonymous attack that a major publication actually has the stupidity or lack of integrity (take your pick!) to publish. Then a well-meaning but basically dumb defense. No wonder our young people are cynical about our major institutions and leaders!

And so it goes, while the real heroes and heroines work quietly beneath the radar to really identify and grapple with the problems.

I wonder how it would be if all the pseudo-reformers made a pledge not to mention Rhee, Weingartner, Duncan, Guggenheim, Canada, Gates (you can add to the list), teacher unions and charter schools for a few months. Would they then be unable to string together a sentence explaining the problems and possible solutions? Would there be any there there?


Posted by: markpsf | October 5, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Just an observation, Valerie that you are free to ignore . . . I am with you 100% in failing to understand why charters are viewed as such saviors of public education when the data shows otherwise, but using the argument that their test scores are no better that traditional public schools when most of your articles decry the use of test scores to measure success seems a little self-defeating.

Posted by: horacemann | October 5, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

It isn't surprising that this anonymous column ran on the Huffington Post. Arianna Huffington has listed Michelle Rhee as a "gamechanger", and the new education section of HuffPo is filled with dewy-eyed posts by Guggenheim and his ilk.

Posted by: sanderling5 | October 5, 2010 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Does a "dewy-eyed post" have anything to do with a weeping willow?

Posted by: gardyloo | October 5, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Valerie -

It is a well-known (although sleazy) tactic to take the most extreme comments of the opposition and characterize them as representing the mainstream opposition. In order to balance the discussion, I will quote from Albert Shanker, 22 year president of the United Federation of Teachers, 24 year president of the American Federation of Teachers, 12 year simultaneous president of both:

"When school children start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of school children."

That being said, Mr. Shanker had 100 times the integrity of Randi Weingarten. Mr. Shanker was in favour of charter schools, and accountability for results and consequences for underperformance. He said "It is as much your duty to preserve public education as it is to negotiate a good contract." The AFT and Randi Weingarten have lost sight of their responsibility to preserve quality public education. Now, they only know how to negotiate fat labour contracts.

Posted by: cypherp | October 5, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Good column, Valerie. Twice in the past couple of weeks I've agreed with you on something. One of us must be morphing toward rationality or one of us has simply gone soft.

I'd take Randi Weingarten in my foxhole any day, certainly before the self-serving folks from the NEA. At least with Randi, you'd know she was interested in more than her AFT members like the NEA's Dennis Van Roekel. Somewhere in her rubric of considerations, she'd find room to place her fellow (wo)man, and especially students, over the interests of her members.

And BTW, the reason folks like Joe Williams (who I generally agree with) is so threatening in the ed reform dialogue is because he's a Democrat spouting what used to be strictly Republican dominated mindsets; advocating issues such as lifting the cap on charters, linking students test scores to teacher evaluations, and shuttering chronically under performing drop out factories. If that were some Republican like Jeb Bush, most teachers/Democrats would simply write it off as far right gobbledygook. But when a Democrat runs it up the flag pole suddenly the educational establishment gets very nervous. How could this be?

Posted by: phoss1 | October 5, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for standing up for Randi W.!

Posted by: educationlover54 | October 5, 2010 7:13 PM | Report abuse


Nobody in business is going to put up with someone like Rhee. All she would have to do is mouth off once at someone in power and she will be out the door.

Posted by: educationlover54 | October 5, 2010 7:51 PM | Report abuse

I am happy Joe Williams is defending Randi Weingarten. That means that someday these 2 will be able to work together on education issues. That's a plus.

Posted by: educationlover54 | October 5, 2010 7:57 PM | Report abuse


Your comments are making me think differently. I hadn't thought of things that way.

Posted by: educationlover54 | October 5, 2010 8:01 PM | Report abuse

Those who blame unions for protecting "bad teachers" don't understand collective bargaining law or unions. Unions don't protect people, they protect due process. Just like the due process in the Constitution. If a teacher is truly "bad," and administration does its job, the teacher can be removed.

If the teacher is convicted of an illegal act a state agency pulls their credential. End of teaching career. Note: "convicted," not charged.

All too often, administrators think they don't have to follow the law or the legal contract and issues get balled up. Unions have a legal obligation to protect the contract and member rights. Not that it happens all that often.

If parents are aware of teachers acting unprofessionally all districts have a formal complaint procedure.

Then you hear about the "rubber room" in NY. That involves two tenths of one percent of NY teachers. Bloomberg bragged that he was responsible for huge(and fraudulent) improvements in the schools. Yet he waited seven years to do something about the "rubber room." Like hiring a few extra layers or adminsitrative law judges. Any yet the "rubber room" was totally the "shame" of the union.


Posted by: pftpres | October 5, 2010 8:28 PM | Report abuse

We need a movie out that tells the public the truth about Michelle Rhee. We can invite Davis Guggenheim to a pre-screening in which he can tell how Rhee is the anti-hero.

Posted by: educationlover54 | October 5, 2010 8:56 PM | Report abuse

We need a movie about the extra hours teachers put in to help kids learn everyday.

Valerie, I am heartened to read this. I often felt this Randi Weingarten seemed to be one who cares about the kids and she was being demonized by just about everyone.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 5, 2010 9:33 PM | Report abuse

Charter schools are fine with me as long as they are held "accountable" in the same ways that public schools are, if they accept taxpayer money.

Also, charter schools should not be "for profit".

Thirdly, charter schools should have to take all students, or the fact that they leave "difficult" students in public schools should be factored into the teacher evaluations.

Posted by: celestun100 | October 5, 2010 9:37 PM | Report abuse

Please don't forget this "demonization" of teachers and their unions started many years ago.
A more recent example was the successful fraud Roderick Paige who called teachers and their unions "terrorists."

Posted by: edlharris | October 5, 2010 9:47 PM | Report abuse

Mark, your point is well-taken. I am probably guilty of harboring rage towards Ms. Weingarten that is ultimately useless. That having been said, I will take up your challenge to state problems and solutions without demonization.

I posit that the one problem most responsible for the failure of the public education system in the US is that it is impossible to guarantee that a student entering this system will wind up behind the desk with a teacher who is both qualified to teach and fully engaged in that student's learning process.

The requirement then is to develop a process that comes as close to this guarantee as we can. Like many supporters of reform, I don't claim to know the exact makeup of such a process - but it would likely be a blend of carrots and sticks.

The "carrots" here would come in the form of incentives for teachers who excel (by practical consensus measures based on student performance). While some teachers are simply good people who would do their job at any pay grade, it would be naive to think that monetary rewards would not incentivize development of current teachers, as well as draw more talent into the pool.

Of course the more contentious issue is the "stick" - how to prevent unqualified or unmotivated teachers from teaching. Here is where the demonization generally reaches fever-pitch. So to avoid naming names, let me simply state that this act of prevention is key to fixing education. If that could be agreed upon, then the matter would reduce to the details of process and accountability.

One olive branch (to continue with the plant metaphors) worth considering: provide a mechanism for teacher oversight handled by teachers but under an agreed-upon and mandated system, but subject to robust (maybe collective) arbitration from outside. This could help avert the usual accusations and recriminations, strengthening teachers overall while still rendering the needed accountability.

In any case, this is obviously going to be a long dialogue, with many more hurt feelings before we find anything that even remotely resembles consensus.


Posted by: course8min | October 6, 2010 4:26 AM | Report abuse

"So to avoid naming names, let me simply state that this act of prevention is key to fixing education. If that could be agreed upon, then the matter would reduce to the details of process and accountability."

I disagree. The key to fixing education lies in dealing with the social and emotional problems of children.

Posted by: educationlover54 | October 6, 2010 7:53 AM | Report abuse

Those who have worked in education know that the true way to improve it is through dealing with the children's social and emotional problems.

Scott - I can tell you haven't worked in k-12 education. Why don't you work in a school in an inner city as a substitute teacher? Then you will understand that teachers need more help working with the social and emotional needs of children. You will understand that is the true issue.

Posted by: educationlover54 | October 6, 2010 8:01 AM | Report abuse

The Huffington Post piece was not anonymous. The writer's name is Keli Goff and it's clearly displayed at the top of the piece on the site. (I didn't bother reading Goff's piece myself, but another blogger identified Goff by name earlier this week and I just checked the HuffPost site to verify that her name was included.)

Posted by: shirin2 | October 6, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

First the bad teachers myth.
Hunting down the "bad" teachers is as illogical as NCLB. The bell curve tells us that there are no more bad teachers than bad doctors or reporters. No Child Left Behind postulates that all children must be good looking and above average.
Our real problem now is finding good teachers, supporting them and retaining them. 1 out of 3 New Teachers leave within three years. 50% leave within 5 years. So-called reforme that fires teachers, fires principals and closes schools will in the end be successful at destroying public education.
The real answers are educating the whole child (including wellness, nutition, family, community, etc.);
consistent discipline (alternative ed with resources for troubled childen); small class size; quality professional development for educators; AND MOST IMPORTANT Pre-K, Pre-K, Pre-K.
Remember every $1 spent on Pre-K saves the taxpayer $7 later in law enforcement and prisons.
- Those of us in public education have to attempt to teach ALL children even those that start 3 years behind, are homeless and are lead poisoned right along with the gifted, engaged and born into a healthy, loving environment.
Full-Service, Community centered schools have shown promise in turning things around. Weingarten comes to the table with proposals and answers rather than demonizing the "privateers" who want to feed at the tax payer trough without any accountablity.

Posted by: bclemens | October 6, 2010 7:12 PM | Report abuse

It would be a lot easier to sympathize with Weingarten in the face of these smears if she had not alieanted so many of us in the AFT with her anti-Arab bigotry.

In 2007, she contributed to a racist smear campaign that led to the dismissal of a newly appointed Arab American school principal who had previously worked in an office in which some young volunteers printed out T-shirts that read "NYC Intifada."

In the face of vicious right-wing attacks falsely accusing her of supporting terrorism, the principal -- a native Arabic speaker -- had correctly pointed out that intifada simply means "shaking off" and does not connote violence.

However, Weingarten -- who does not speak Arabic -- writing on the opinion page of the New York Post, falsely claimed that the use of the word was actually an endorsement of "rampant violence and bloodshed" and constituted warmongering.

In reality, the word came into common usage in the West during the first Palestinian intifada (1987-93) against the Israeli occupation, which -- while it included well-publicized incidents of stone-throwing and several slayings of suspected collaborators -- was largely nonviolent, consisting primarily of peaceful demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, tax refusal, occupations, blockades and the creation of alternative institutions.

The Palestinian Center for the Study of Nonviolence, in a comprehensive study of resistance activities during the first two years of the uprising in Palestinians' occupied homeland, noted that 92 percent of the actions called for by the popular committees were explicitly nonviolent.

Intifada was also used by the Lebanese in their successful nonviolent uprising in 2005 against Syrian domination of their government and the ongoing presence of Syrian troops in their country.

As far back as 1986, intifada was used to describe the nonviolent insurrection in Sudan against the U.S.-backed dictatorial regime of Jafaar Numeiri. It is currently being used in reference to the nonviolent resistance struggle in Western Sahara against Moroccan occupation forces.

Any survey of the academic literature on this topic (including the Middle Eastern section of my book "Nonviolent Social Movements" (Blackwell Publishers, 1999)) confirms that the origins and use of the term intifada are very different from what Weingarten claimed.

Despite efforts by me and other Middle East scholars to get her to withdraw the statement, however, she has refused to correct the disinformation. It is profoundly disturbing that a union representing educators would elect as its leader someone so willing to distort the facts in order to pursue such a racist agenda.

Posted by: paxbono | October 7, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

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