Randi As Al Shanker: Will Presidents, Governors, Mayors, School Boards, Unions and Their Members Be Willing to Take Risks, To Explore the Untried, to Create a New Kind of Collaborative Schools and School Systems?


In 1983 a task force appointed by President Reagan issued a report entitled, A Nation At Risk. a scathing denunciation of our educational system,
We conclude that declines in educational performance are in large part the result of disturbing inadequacies in the way the educational process itself is often conducted.
The education establishment criticized the report, with the exception of Al Shanker, who strongly endorsed the finds of the report. The image of Shanker moved from a union leader mocked in the 1973 Woody Allen film Sleeper (The Woody Allen character is told the old world was destroyed when a “madman named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear weapon”) to one of the leading thinkers in the world of education reform.
Is Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, moving forward in the steps of Al Shanker? (see Weingarten remembrances of Shanker here)
As the Obama/Duncan administration attempts to impose it’s will on the 14,000 school districts scattered across the nation, dangling $4 billion in competitive federal grants, teachers, local teacher unions and the largest union, the National Education Association (NEA) have been deeply suspicious.
On Tuesday, January 12th Weingarten made a dramatic speech, “Building A New Path Forward,”(watch the speech here, read a NY Times op ed by Bob Herbert, an Ed Week article and read the full text here)
Bob Herbert, a sharp critic of America’s public school system, praises and warns Weingarten,

My view is that America’s greatest national security crisis is the crisis in its schools.

Ms. Weingarten’s ideas for upgrading the teacher evaluation process are good ones and should be embraced and improved upon where possible by those in charge of the nation’s schools. The point is not just to get rid of failing teachers, but to improve the skills and effectiveness of the millions of teachers who show up in the classrooms every day.

If the union chooses not to follow through on these proposals, its credibility will take a punishing and well-deserved hit.

Although Weingarten is the president of the AFT it is the local unions that negotiate contracts. The New Haven and Detroit contracts contain clauses that move toward implementing her ideas. We have to remember that in spite of the forward thinking of Al Shanker changes in union contracts were excruciatingly slow and require innovative thinking on the management side, absent in the Ed Koch and David Dinkens administrations.

The AFT presidents words did not draw applause from her beleaguered old local, the UFT. The NYC local is facing an expired contract with no progress towards resolution, a Mayor and a Governor who are challenging core union beliefs, twenty school closings, the specter of a fiscal abyss and possible layoffs, and, an upcoming union election.

The current issue of the New York Teacher recounts each battle, each demonstration, the newspaper is a clarion call to battle the evil chancellor. Union members expect the union to be combative, to fight for their rights, real or perceived. The union was built and has thrived as the defender of it’s members and the families and children who populate schools.

Weingarten’s proposals, clearly popular with many teachers, probably younger teachers, are anathema to others, probably older teachers. The NYC blogosphere is unkind.

Endless warfare, a permanent revolution, is difficult to sustain. The world beyond classrooms, the think tanks and universities continue to challenge what was once unchallengeable: seniority-based salary schedules, pay-for-performance, achievement-based rating systems, defined benefit pensions, and on and on. (see here)

The past is always more reassuring than the future. For decades schools could not find adequate numbers of highly qualified teachers. In hard to staff schools “if blood don’t run out from under the door” no one investigated too closely, they were happy to have a warm body. In a thriving economy kids moved from high school to the world of work while others went on to college. Jobs were plentiful, and, many with union scale and benefits.

The world has changed dramatically, those jobs may still exist, except, they are in China and India. A high school diploma without intensive career training, and, in too many instances a college degree do not guarantee a job. The public demands that schools produce highly trained graduates able to compete in the world of work. The pressures on schools, principals and teachers are immense.

The President, Governors, Mayors, the policy makers and the policy wonks scramble for “answers,” and too frequently end up seeking that silver bullet, that elusive “new thing” that will produce the education that we so desperately need for all children.

It has become commonplace to blame teachers and their unions. If only we could rid schools of “bad” teachers, get rid of onerous union contracts and combative obstinate unions …

Randi has taken an enormous risk, she has admitted the failings of too many schools systems and offered to work together, labor and management, principals and teachers, mayors and union presidents, to move from a paradigm of eternal warfare to a paradigm of partnership.

Will Obama and Duncan and Bloomberg and Klein remember the Buddy Cianci (“The Prince of Providence) aphorism, “the hand you bite today may be attached to the ass you have to kiss tomorrow.”

Randi has offered the hand, and three million teachers, many with a degree of cynicism, await responses.

UPDATED (1/17/10): A NY Times Editorial strongly supports Randi’s Speech here.


5 responses to “Randi As Al Shanker: Will Presidents, Governors, Mayors, School Boards, Unions and Their Members Be Willing to Take Risks, To Explore the Untried, to Create a New Kind of Collaborative Schools and School Systems?

  1. Pingback: Remainders: The right to protest on the mayor’s sidewalk | GothamSchools

  2. That’s “Buddy” Cianci.


  3. The American public becomes an American parent very quickly. If the public/parent was honest with themselves they would admit that they only want the teacher to tell them that their child is wonderful.
    The American public becomes a member of the unemployed class and if they were honest with themselves they would admit that they lack a world class education because they always wanted to be called wonderful.
    Until the American public admits that they need to do what the teacher asks of them and do the hard work of a student all though their lives then they will always vote for the educational leader who is willing to tell them they are wonderful.
    The anger and small minded pot shots are going to continue because it’s easier to blame the teacher who’s influence in anyone’s life is pretty small. We want to believe that the teacher can change the world/change us without our lifting a finger.
    We want it to be like the movies.
    We want to be wonderful.
    We don’t want to be better.


  4. OOPS! “…easier to blame the teacher whose influence in anyone’s life is pretty small.”
    I always have to work on my grammar.


  5. There is some sense to the argument that these bad things (including use of test scores in rating teachers) will happen with or without us, so we might as well grab a seat at the table so we have at least a chance at some input in how it is done.

    But not much sense. And I certainly don’t buy it.

    Rather, we should be fighting every inch of the way. We’ll lose some of it. I get that. We all get that. But we’ll win some too. We’ll find our real allies. And we will develop a very different kind of vision, different from “let’s strategize around how we might swallow yet another bitter pill.”



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