Why Randi Weingarten Should Follow Her Own Advice on Listening to Teachers
A conceit among education traditionalists is the idea that the “voices of teachers” are the most-important — and, in many cases, the only ones that matter — when it comes to structuring American public education. Partly based on the belief that supposed experts in education (including principals and superintendents) should be the ones to make decisions in schools and districts, as well as driven by the efforts of National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates to maintain their declining influence (as well as maintain the grand bargain of sorts between the unions and its members that drive NEA and AFT revenues), traditionalists tend to argue that the perspectives of teachers are the ones that matter most. So teachers should be the lead decision-makers in education (and in the minds of the most-radical, the only people who should make decisions at all).
The latest version of this argument came courtesy of AFT President Randi Weingarten, in an e-mail response to a piece by Thomas B. Fordham Institute research czar Michael Petrilli naming Karen Lewis, the notorious and tragedy-politicizing head of the union’s notoriously bellicose Chicago affiliate, as “Education Person of the Year” for rallying the more-radical of traditionalist forces to her side during the union’s strike action earlier this year. Taking a bit of offense at Petrilli’s statement that reformers should use Lewis’ challenge as an opportunity to win teachers over to systemic reform, Weingarten declares that Petrilli and others should “change course” and “try listening to what Karen and the Chicago educators are saying about how to improve schools”. Why? From where Weingarten sits, teachers with whom she agrees believe in doing more than just be consumed with” testing, competition and measurement rather than on teaching and on sustaining and scaling what works” — or what she really means, holding those in education accountable for performance, expanding school choice, and using objectively-measured student achievement data in providing more-honest and valuable evaluations of teacher performance.
Weingarten continued railing against systemic reform isn’t all that surprising. After all, the AFT (along with the NEA) have lost influence because accountability, choice, and teacher quality reform efforts continue to shine light on the failed policies and practices they defend. But Weingarten’s argument that reformers should listen to teachers is based on the false notion that the school reform movement pays instructors no mind. More importantly, her view is driven by a conceit about the expertise of teachers that isn’t even close to reality.
Here’s the thing: Reformers listen to teachers all the time. In fact, a driving force of the school reform effort is the belief, based on three decades of data, that high-quality teaching is the most-critical aspect of building the cultures of genius that that helps all kids succeed in school and life. Making teachers real players in shaping what happens in schools and districts is as critical to doing that work as overhauling teacher evaluations and launching performance-based pay plans. Considering that the vanguard of the movement includes such teacher-driven outfits as Teach For America, Teach Plus, and TNTP — as well as organizations such as Educators 4 Excellence (which succeeded in winning seats on the governance board of the AFT’s Los Angeles affiliate) — reformers give plenty of regard to the views of teachers, especially those who are dissatisfied with how their views are represented by NEA and AFT affiliates. This isn’t to say that reformers have always done a good job in reaching out to teachers incorporating those perspectives; the Chicago strike made this clear. But to say that reformers have ignored (or even demonized) teachers, especially when one looks at the record, is to be intellectually and factually dishonest.
Certainly reformers may not pay as much mind to the views of NEA and AFT leaders as Weingarten and her allies may like. But one can actually ask this question: Why should they? After all, Weingarten and her colleagues have shown through their deeds that they are more-concerned with the concerns of the dwindling numbers of Baby Boomers within the rank-and-file (as well as the perspectives of retired teachers who no longer work in classrooms) than with addressing the concerns of younger, more reform-minded teachers who now make up the majority of teachers in classrooms. It is hard to take Weingarten’s arguments about “listening” to teachers seriously when her own union continues to defend quality-blind seniority-based policies such as Last In-First Out layoff rules (which protect longtime veterans at the expense of younger teachers in the ranks), and affiliates such as that in New York City structure voting rules to ensure that retirees and Baby Boomers are better-represented in leadership than younger teachers. The fact that the NEA and AFT also ignores those longtime veterans who also want to revamp and ditch aspects of traditional teacher compensation — and that the two unions fight vigorously to keep in place laws that force teachers to either join NEA or AFT locals, or pay union dues to them no matter their preference — also belie claims about wanting reformers to listen to the views of teachers. If anything, reformers may do a better job in attending to the views of teachers than the old-school unions that supposedly do the job.
As with the oft-rehashed posturing by traditionalists that reformers “bash” and “demonize” teachers, the claim that reformers don’t listen to teachers is based on the unwillingness of traditionalists to admit these facts: That there are laggard instructors in our classrooms who shouldn’t be there. That America’s ed schools are doing an abysmal job of recruiting and training aspiring teachers. That the traditional teacher compensation system, focused on rewarding teachers based on seniority and degree attainment, is ineffective in spurring student achievement fails to reward good-to-great teachers and keeps laggards in classrooms to continue educational malpractice. And that keeping things as they are is too costly for students, families, high-quality teachers and taxpayers alike.
Meanwhile Weingarten’s statement fails to keep this important matter in mind: The perspectives of teachers aren’t the only ones that matter — or even the most-important — when it comes to overhauling American public education.
For one, there is the simple fact that American public education is a collection of systems financed by taxpayers and voters of all types. These taxpayers, who are also the customers and clients of schools and districts, have the right to play roles in how districts and schools serve their children. This includes companies, who are dependent on districts and schools to provide high-quality education to the men and women who will run their C-suites and staff their operations, as well as venture capitalists and other investors who are looking to back the next generation of entrepreneurs and builders of economies. It also includes governors, legislators, mayors, and city councilmembers, who run state and municipalities whose long-term fiscal prospects in an increasingly knowledge-based global economy are dependent on highly-educated young men and women.
Most of all, it includes families, whose children they love attend schools and districts, and whose learning they entrust to teachers and school leaders. The views of these mothers, fathers, and caregivers — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — have long been condescended and ignored by American public education. But considering the failure of schools and districts to provide children with high-quality education, families (and others) can and should no longer just leave education decision-making in the hands of others. They must become active players in shaping education for their children, ask tough, thoughtful questions about what is being taught in classrooms, demand information on the quality of the teachers working in classrooms, and play stronger roles in shaping the overhauls of traditional district schools (and in the operations of charter schools serving their kids).
Sure, the views of teachers are important. But the views of those who pay the bills and entrust the futures of their children to districts and schools are even more important. Considering that districts and schools have been their children (and taxpayers) for at least two generations, simply trusting teachers just isn’t good enough. Which, in turn, hits upon another reality: That not every view of every teacher is worthy of consideration.
For one, the view that the views of teachers matter most is based on the false notion that they have acquired expertise that those outside of education don’t have. This ignores the reality that teachers often don’t really know what their colleagues do because they often work as solo practitioners in classrooms with little interaction with colleagues outside of teachers’ lounges. The fact that many teachers come into the profession with little in the way of subject-matter competency and training in classroom instructional methods — a fault that lies largely with the failures of the nation’s university schools of education (who are aided and abetted by the NEA and AFT) — also means that not every teacher has the expertise needed to offer a thoughtful view on policies and practices.
Certainly as famed psychologist Daniel Kahneman has noted in Thinking, Fast and Slow, those with hands-on knowledge are likely to have a more-comprehensive view on what can and cannot work. But Kahneman also points out that expertise can only be gained in stable, predictable environments where professionals can learn from prolonged practice and lots of feedback. Those aren’t the circumstances in which many teachers — especially those working in massive failure mills such as Detroit and Philadelphia — are toiling; so it is unlikely that many teachers have acquired enough expertise in the first place. And considering the low-quality of subjective classroom observations that are the norm for traditional teacher evaluation systems, the state laws and collective bargaining agreements governing teacher performance management discourage school leaders from providing more-ample feedback, and that the use of objective student test score growth data is just coming into play, few teachers have gotten the kind of feedback needed to build such expertise in the first place.
[This fact, by the way, explains why the peer review method of evaluation touted by traditionalists is not an effective alternative to performance-based measurements based on objective student test score data. Teachers are more-likely to base their evaluation of peers on their own subjective biases, giving thumbs up to those who fit their view of what teaching should be than on whether they are actually effective in improving student achievement. It is also why subjective classroom observations by school leaders also tend to be ineffective.]
These facts hit upon a much more important point: The “experts” in education (including many teachers) really don’t know what they are doing. After all, it is the decision by experts to push ability-tracking and the comprehensive that have led to the low-quality teaching and curricula to poor and minority students that is a culprit behind the nation’s education crisis. It is the work of experts that has led to such practices as the overuse of suspensions and expulsions, and the overdiagnosis of learning disabilities (especially among young black men, whose reading deficiencies are often diagnosed as being special ed problems). And thanks to experts, we have a system of teacher training that, as former Teachers College President Arthur Levine and others have pointed out, has been ineffective in recruiting and preparing aspiring teachers for classrooms.
An over-dependence on experts who aren’t does not make for smart reform. This isn’t to say that the perspectives of high-quality teachers aren’t critical in advancing the overhaul of American public education. It is. The key is listening to good-and-great teachers (as well as school leaders) who bring strong mastery of their profession to the table.
In fact, one of the dirty secrets in education is that those very voices are the ones that are often marginalized within cultures of mediocrity and failure that are often the norm in districts and schools, thanks to policies that fail to reward and recognize good-and-great teaching, place bureaucratic obstacles to fostering this work among colleagues, and protect laggards from losing their jobs. The plights of legendary math teacher Jaime Escalante, famed instructor John Taylor Gatto, are just the most-visible examples of what happens when good and great teachers either shine too brightly, or challenge the views of laggard teachers and school leaders who would rather hide in plain sight.
This is why overhauling how we evaluate and compensate teachers, as well as revamping how we recruit and train school leaders, is so important. Performance-based evaluations based on value-added analysis of objective school data allows for districts and schools to recognize and reward those teachers who are doing good and great work. This, in turn, helps districts retain those teachers and, along with other efforts, build cultures of genius that make life better for children and teachers alike. It is why more districts should copy comprehensive evaluation systems such as D.C. Public Schools’ pioneering IMPACT regime, as well as use the lessons about the importance of high-quality feedback and performance management in evaluating principals and other school leaders. And when we bring strong school leaders into buildings — and give them the power to hire, fire, and reward teachers — we are helping good and great teachers gain the backing they need to do their best for our kids.
There is no question that everyone — including reformers — should pay attention to the perspective of teachers who work in our classrooms. But the views of our good-and-great teachers should matter more than those of colleagues who don’t make the grade. More importantly, the views of teachers cannot be the only ones that predominate in education decision-making. We need everyone to play their part in transforming our super-clusters of failure into systems fit for the futures of our children.
Editor’s Note: Since DN reader Eric Lerum came up with a pithier headline, the original one has been scrapped – - – and we followed our own advice.