The Teacher Unions' Odysseus

By Toch, Thomas | Phi Delta Kappan, September 2011 | Go to article overview

The Teacher Unions' Odysseus

Toch, Thomas, Phi Delta Kappan

As education reformers push for improved teacher quality, the two major teacher unions made startling announcements this summer. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), in a manifesto released jointly with its longtime adversary, the American Association of School Administrators, called for rigorous teacher evaluations linked to student learning and quicker dismissals of underperformers. Then the National Education Association's delegates signed off on a similar policy at that union's annual convention.

The steps break sharply with teacher unions' longstanding focus on job protection. They follow the passage of teacher union-backed legislation in Illinois that requires factoring performance into teacher staffing, tenure, and dismissals, and the launch of tougher evaluation systems with union blessing in Pittsburgh, Tampa, and other big districts.

At the center of the ferment is Randi Weingarten, who has emerged as the nation's most influential teacher leader since becoming the 1.5 million-member AFT's top executive three years ago. Weingarten, 53, announced a new stance on evaluations, tenure, and performance pay in early 2010, including the hiring of Kenneth Feinberg, special master of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, to create a streamlined teacher dismissal model. She hammered out the joint declaration with the school administrators' group. And at an AFT conference in Washington this summer she told her membership that "standing for [teacher] quality is the only path forward for ... our union."

What's behind Weingarten's recent moves? Is she leading the AFT and teachers away from collectivist policies that have long undergirded teacher unionism? Has she embraced a new role for teacher unions? Or is she maneuvering to minimize the depth and breadth of reforms in traditional industrial-style teacher unionism in the face of withering criticism of education unions in recent years?

Moving to leadership

Weingarten was exposed to the muscular side of teacher trade unionism early. Her mother, an elementary teacher, walked picket lines in the 1970s outside of New York City. Weingarten went to public schools and studied labor relations at Cornell University and law at Yeshiva University. In the 1980s, she joined a New York labor law firm. One of its clients was the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), led by Albert Shanker.

Before long, she was UFT's general counsel, a job she held for a dozen years. As the union's lead contract negotiator with New York City public schools, she fought for greater public education funding and battled the city over wages, hours, and working conditions. In 1997, then-UFT president Sandra Feldman succeeded Shanker as president of the AFT, the UFT's parent union, and Weingarten moved into the UFT leadership. She took over the national union in 2008 after Feldman was stricken with cancer. Along the way, she taught U.S. History, A.P. Government and other courses for several years as a part-timer at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn.

Although the NEA has twice the AFT's membership, Weingarten has assumed the leading role among teacher unionists. Four factors help explain why: Shanker's legacy as the father of teacher unionism; AFT's top-down governance structure and its strong presence in major cities; and Weingarten's force of personality (she's autocratic, say some staffers).

Moving up the ranks in the UFT, Weingarten saw the difficulties that Shanker faced, despite his influence, in navigating between reforms in the teaching profession--he backed teacher testing, faster dismissals of failing teachers, and other steps--and the reluctance of many members to depart from traditional industrial union policies and practices. Ultimately, Shanker couldn't get members to embrace his teacher reforms.

Today, Weingarten's under far more pressure to shift union stances than Shanker faced. He sought to move his union to the vanguard of reform in the wake of A Nation at Risk and other influential reform manifestos in the 1980s that focused on teacher quality as a key to greater student achievement. …

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