The nutty demonization of Randi Weingarten
It's not easy being Randi Weingarten these days.
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:
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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| 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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