Mission Accomplished?

Why the AFT's compromise won't end the education wars

Perhaps because it is inherently a little dull, the world of education policy likes to liven up its policy disputes by calling them “wars.” There are reading wars, technology wars, wars about Teach for America, and wars about pay-for-performance.

Well, it looks like it might be time for the victory parade down Fifth Avenue, because according to Dana Goldstein at The American Prospect, there is a peace treaty in the making. As Goldstein explains in her article, “The Education Wars”:

Like any successful negotiator, Randi Weingarten can sense when the time for compromise is nigh. On Nov. 17, after the Election Day dust had cleared, Weingarten, the president of both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)… gave a major speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. In attendance were a host of education-policy luminaries….

“No issue should be off the table, provided it is good for children and fair for teachers,” Weingarten vowed, referencing debates within the Democratic coalition over charter schools and performance pay for teachers — innovations that teachers’ unions traditionally held at arm’s length.

The AFT is the smaller of the nation’s two teachers’ unions (the National Education Association (NEA) has 3.2 million members; the AFT has 1.4 million members) but historically the one that gets involved in policy debates. The AFT, with more minority members and greater representation in America’s urban schools, is the teacher’s union to consider with regard to closing the achievement gap—the difference between the educational achievements of America’s students.

Weingarten has announced, essentially, that the AFT will be willing to consider new issues. Traditionally, the AFT focuses on improving benefits and working conditions for teachers and school support staff, and increasing state and federal funding for schools. It did not do charter schools, and it did not do differentiated pay for teachers. Weingarten has announced that these are now things she is willing to consider.

But while Goldstein casts Weingarten’s compromise with education reformers as the future of American education, she does not indicate that anything is actually changing in American education. The Prospect article makes it sound as if these changing alliances are a matter of great import, rather than just a very routine part of policymaking. So the president of the AFT is willing to talk to school reformers. This is great for school reformers and great for unions. But any thought of this as “great” for education is misguided. While it does matter how well the AFT functions, ultimately the only thing that matters in education is how well the schools educate the students. And the piece does not address this issue at all. This is a critical mistake.

The piece fetishizes “consensus-building” without stopping to examine how consensus-building actually relates to education reform. Of course compromise is central to policymaking, but compromise on its own is neither good nor bad. Compromise is a tactic. What’s important for policy reform is whether or not the compromises advance the reform efforts. There’s been a lot of talk in the journals of opinion lately about how the rules have been redrawn now that Barack Obama is in the White House. Civil Rights leaders can negotiate with big business. Labor can negotiate with management. He kept Robert Gates on as secretary of Defense. Even Hillary’s in the cabinet. Team of Rivals and all that.

Goldstein makes it sound as if this Obama-inspired spirit of compromise is a self-evident good; the country can at long last stop having these hard conversations about what works in education and instead compromise on something about which everyone involved in education can agree. But the things that everyone can agree upon are the unimportant aspects of education reform. Part of the reason the teachers’ unions fight with school reformers is because both groups have very strongly felt opinions about what works in education. These important differences get to the heart of what matters in education. But according to the author:

The series of compromises in the New York City and Washington, D.C., school districts are providing the sketches of a workable model: expansion of the magnet school and public charter school sectors but also an increase in unionization of these schools. Unions are making peace with nontraditional pathways into teaching, both for recent college graduates and mid-career professionals. And unions are slowly accepting that many younger members prioritize higher pay and better training over long-term job security.

“Making peace” is very good, but characterizing this strategy as effective is premature. Did the schools improve? How many people consider the District of Columbia public schools a “workable model” for their own children? Perhaps what Goldstein describes is the future of education reform, but we’re pretty much screwed if it is. That sort of compromise—agreements that only address the HR aspect of teaching, without regard to the structure of the school or what actually occurs in the classroom—is the recipe for no real change.

One of the more influential books about American education reform published in the last two decades is called Tinkering Toward Utopia, a history of education reform in America. The book demonstrated that while talk about education is usually apocalyptic, the actual reforms (e.g. desegregation, compulsory schooling, outcome-based education, extra spending to counteract poverty, school choice) have been minor and slow in coming.

So it’s odd that the author believes there’s a bright beautiful new world of education coming with Obama. So far the evidence indicates that ed policy is pretty much the same old thing. Sure, the alliances shifted a bit—but they always do once people discover their original tactics no longer work very well.

Frankly, how much does it matter what Randi Weingarten said in her last speech? (Quick, name the last president of the AFT.) Throughout the last forty years, if there’s one thing the U.S. has realized about the teacher’s unions, it’s that’s radical overhaul of the nation’s schools is simply not their game. This is why they’ve historically opposed reform efforts. Sometimes this opposition is good and sometimes it is very bad, but it’s never logical or well documented or based in anything bigger or more important than labor economics.

The AFT has done a great job protecting teachers’ rights and improving their pay and benefits. But it is a labor union. Expecting the AFT to play the major role in changing American education so that every school educates American children much better—and much faster—than they’ve done in the past is wrong. The expectation is not just misguided, it’s structurally absurd. No one expects the UAW to revive the U.S. car market, after all.

The Prospect article concludes with a self-serving, obviously untrue line from Weingarten herself:

“You know, I’m probably a disruptor, by birth and by training,” Weingarten says, referring to Rep. George Miller’s term for reformers who want to work quickly to improve American schools. “I think those of us who’ve been successful in life have been ones who have actually built continuous, sustainable reform. Do you need to have people who shake things up? Of course you do. But there’s a difference between shaking up and demonizing. And between shaking up and destroying things. Change for change’s sake doesn’t work.”

Someone who is a disruptor by birth and by training does not become president of the American Federation of Teachers. And building continuous, sustainable reform is not really the key to leadership of one of the country’s entrenched labor unions. The path to power there has more to do with concession on a lot of issues that might matter deeply to more principled, and more informed, activists.

As a starry-eyed profile of Randi Weingarten, the article is pretty comprehensive. As a look at the future of education reform from one of America’s leading journals of opinion, it is pretty weak. Sure, the Prospect supports Weingarten and her work at the American Federation of Teachers. But merely supporting the union doesn’t mean that the Prospect’s critical judgment needs to be subsumed to starry-eyed cheerleading.

A good piece on education reform should look at the tough issues the U.S. will need to cover in the coming years. This means not just what the unions need to give up, but also what policymakers and the public need to understand in order to see real change. Standardized testing, No Child Left Behind, alternative teacher certification, vocational programs, extended day and/or extended year schools, education funding, and the proper role of the federal, state, and local governments in education are far more important things to consider with regard to the future of education reform than what Weingarten said in her last speech. But the Prospect piece fails to address the major issues in education reform, and ultimately looks like it might feel more comfortable in something like American Educator—the magazine put out by the American Federation of Teachers.

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Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.