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.”