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Weingarten Talks Teachers, Politics and Common Core

Lyndsey Layton (right) of The Washington Post interviews Randi Weingarten at the 67th National Seminar.

When Randi Weingarten gets depressed about the state of public education, she told attendees of EWA’s 67th National Seminar, she calls up memories of her students at the “We the People” competition in upstate New York a couple of decades ago.

Weingarten, the president of American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, described watching her students—mostly from low-income minority families—go from a mentality of “No, I can’t do it” to “Maybe, we can.”

“What we should be doing for kids is helping them find themselves,” Weingarten told EWA members gathered on May 19 at Vanderbilt University for the conference.

Weingarten’s reminiscences notwithstanding, politics took center stage during her appearance, which featured a question-and-answer session, first with national education reporter Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post and then with EWA members in the audience. Besides electoral politics, topics included controversies over value-added models for measuring teacher effectiveness and Common Core State Standards—debates that Weingarten said she saw as “just so dissonant with what we need to do.”

Right out of the gate, Layton asked Weingarten to weigh in on the Chicago Teachers Union’s vote earlier this month opposing the Common Core State Standards. “Welcome to democracy in action,” Weingarten said of the vote. “I had been expecting that resolution from CTU for months. It was interesting to me that it was delayed for so long.”

Coming a month after Indiana dumped the common standards, the vote took many others by surprise and fueled questions about rising union pushback to the Common Core. Weingarten noted that three years ago, CTU was one of several union locals that got a grant from the AFT Innovation Fund to develop curriculum around the Common Core.

The opposition vote, the union president said, came out of frustration with a lack of support and resources during the past three years. Weingarten mentioned a recent visit with CTU president Karen Lewis to a school that revealed the “complete depression and demoralization of teachers in Chicago.”

Like the National Education Association, the AFT was an early supporter of the Common Core but has become increasingly critical of the standards’ implementation. At the EWA conference, Weingarten predicted a hot debate over Common Core at the national union’s summer convention.

Weingarten said she had “been convinced” that the Common Core standards in reading and math for grades kindergarten through second grade needed to be changed. But in response to a question from a reporter, she said there were a “bunch of places” where the rollout of the Common Core standards was going well, including in parts of California, Florida, and Montana.

The AFT chief fielded several questions about the union’s political influence, which many analysts see as waning. Reporters in the audience asked for her take on major upcoming elections, including whether she’ll support Hillary Clinton should she decide to run for president in 2016 and if she thinks Karen Lewis will run for mayor of Chicago in 2015.

Weingarten dodged the question about Clinton, saying: “Frankly, I don’t know whether she’s running yet.” But, she added, “I think she would be a fantastic president.”

On the question of Lewis’s running against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Weingarten said: “I talk to Karen (Lewis) all the time. I think running for mayor is the farthest thing from her head.”

In the 30-minute conversation, two major contract negotiations also came up–those in New York City and Philadelphia.  

“I’m obviously in support of the contract, as you know from a bunch of my tweets,” Weingarten said of the tentative contract for teachers in New York City. She specifically noted provisions that she said will encourage people to stay in the profession, such as limiting paperwork for teachers and giving them greater control over lesson plans.

When asked about the contract talks—or lack thereof—in Philadelphia, reporter and EWA member Kristen Graham brought up the possibility of a teachers’ strike. “I can’t touch that question, even though I would love to,” Weingarten responded, before complimenting Graham’s reporting saying, “I hope you get a Pulitzer for it.” Graham was among a team of journalists from The Philadephia Inquirer who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 in the prestigious Public Service category for their series on violence in the city’s public schools.

Weingarten also addressed the issue of teacher quality, specifically teacher preparation programs and the use of value-added models that consider student test scores in evaluating teachers.

She criticized the Obama administration for what she deemed hypocrisy, citing its call for higher-quality colleges of education while also funding alternative routes to the classroom such as Teach for America, whose teacher-training programs the union considers too short.

Overall, Weingarten cautioned policymakers, journalists and others following education policy to look beyond the “numbers and algorithms.”

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t look at numbers, but if we reduce everything to a number we are losing the joy of teaching and learning,” she said.   



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