“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.