Union Head: Education Reform Needs Fewer ‘John Waynes’

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Blake Neff Reporter
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Speaking on short notice Wednesday in California, the president of America’s second largest teachers union made a strident attack on the “John Wayne” characters currently leading the education reform movement.

American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten urged reformers to stop taking aggressive postures that vilify unionized teachers and instead collaborate with them based on principles of “trust, time, [and] teamwork.”

Originally slated to be in Europe this week, Weingarten instead spoke to an assembly of labor leaders and school administrators in Los Angeles to chart a forward course for teachers in Los Angeles and around the country.

Weingarten’s speech was prompted by the abrupt resignation last week of John Deasy, who was superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District for three and a half turbulent years. Weingarten’s speech was an epitaph for Deasy’s reign, which she criticized as based on fundamentally flawed principles that ended up hindering progress in the city’s schools.

Like many major education leaders in the past few years, Deasy came into the office with an aggressive attitude that wanted to shake things up in schools, and do it fast. He was a supporter of expanding charter schools and also launched ambitious, costly ventures such as the abortive billion-dollar plan to give every student in the district an iPad. Deasy’s aggressive approach however, created immense friction with the city’s teachers, who in turn agitated for his ouster.

“Now, I like John Deasy, he’s a longtime personal friend…But ultimately, his undoing was something we see in school districts across the country: A refusal to deeply work with those closest to the classroom,” Weingarten said.

As the Los Angeles Times editorial noted, “he failed to give teachers a voice.”

She also also singled out other major school leaders, such as former D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee and current Newark superintendent Cami Anderson, for making the same basic mistake of pursuing greater accountability and rapid change in districts at the expense of alienating those doing the teaching. The path to school improvement, she said, lays in cooperation with teachers, not in impatient hostility.

“If you want to go fast, you go alone,” Weingarten said. “If you want to go far, you go together. We want to go far.”

Despite her allusion to taking things slowly, Weingarten also expressed hostility to the idea that unions represent a status quo group that wants to preserve schools as they are rather than improve them.

“[Does] anyone in this room not feel urgency to improve public education? Let’s see a show of hands,” Weingarten asked the crowd, which kept its hands down. “[Does] anyone in this room feel like they are a member of the status quo crowd?”

The true sticks in the mud, Weingarten said, are actually the supposed reformers, pushing a “top-down, my-way-or-the-highway, test-fixated approach” to measuring and improving schools. She accused them of pushing the same agenda year after year, even after champions such as Rhee and Deasy have been forced from office after arousing local hostility.

“Instead of austerity, privatization, we can actually invest in public education…It all starts with collaboration,” Weingarten said. “Teachers want to collaborate, to work together. So that’s why I’ve never gotten the my-way-or-the-highway routine, because, if you know that about teachers, why wouldn’t you give us a seat at the table?”

Weingarten’s speech was not merely a statement of principles, but also an effort to rally teachers for what will be an important election year in the battle over school reform. She made reference to the intense battle between incumbent Tom Torlakson and challenger Marshall Tuck to be state superintendent of California. A victory for Tuck, Weingarten argued, would be a win for the “politics of division [that] continue to dominate the discourse about our nation’s schools.”

Weingarten’s organization is putting its money where its mouth is. This week, the AFT launched a six-figure ad buy in the state to push Torlakson’s candidacy.

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