Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Despite Image, Union Leader Backs Change for Schools

Speaking of Randi, the NYT ran a cover story about her last week that was nothing short of fawning.  That said, relative to most union leaders, she IS a reformer and deserves credit for some of the steps she has taken, regardless of whether it's motived by genuine reform instincts or simply because (unlike the NEA), she's smart enough to realize that, as Chris Cerf correctly says in the article, "The earth moved in a really dramatic way":

In "Waiting for Superman," the new education documentary, the union leader Randi Weingarten is portrayed, in the words of Variety, as "a foaming satanic beast."

At a two-day education summit hosted by NBC News recently, the lopsided panels often featured Ms. Weingarten on one side, facing a murderer's row of charter school founders and urban superintendents. Even Tom Brokaw piled on.

It's nothing personal, really. Ms. Weingarten happens to be the most visible, powerful leader of unionized teachers, and in that role she personifies what many reformers see as the chief obstacle to lifting dismal schools: unions that protect incompetent teachers.

A combative labor leader who does not shrink from the spotlight, Ms. Weingarten has been fighting back. She issued awritten rebuttal to "Waiting for Superman," and she has publicly debated the film's director, Davis Guggenheim, arguing that teachers have been made scapegoats. More to the point, the portrait of Ms. Weingarten as a demonic opponent of change — albeit one more likely to appear in a business suit and cashmere V-neck sweater, with a Cartier Tank watch and a red kabbalah string around her wrist — is out of date, according to many education experts.

In the past year, for example, she has led her members — sometimes against internal resistance — to embrace innovations that were once unthinkable. She has acted out of a fear that teachers' unions could end up on the wrong side of a historic and inevitable wave of change.

"She has shrewdly recognized that teachers' unions need to be part of the reform," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, an education research group.

Christopher Cerf, a former deputy schools chancellor in New York City who has sparred with Ms. Weingarten, offered a similar, if more skeptical interpretation.

"The earth moved in a really dramatic way," he said, "to the point that a very successful strategist like Randi has to know that teacher unionism itself is in jeopardy, perhaps even in mortal jeopardy."

Both friends and foes describe Ms. Weingarten, 52, who became president of the 1.5-million member American Federation of Teachers in 2008 after a decade leading the New York City local, as a superb tactician who cares deeply about being seen as a reformer.


Despite Image, Union Leader Backs Change for Schools


Published: October 15, 2010


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