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.