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Q&A: A Union Leader On Tenure, Testing And The Common Core

Weingarten says people need to talk more about how to "attract, retain, support and nurture great teaching for kids at risk."
Shannon DeCelle
Weingarten says people need to talk more about how to "attract, retain, support and nurture great teaching for kids at risk."

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is holding its annual convention in Los Angeles through this weekend. For the AFT's more than 3,500 national delegates descending on LA, there is a lot on their plate and big challenges ahead for the nation's second-largest teachers union: the Common Core, tenure and fierce debate about testing, to name a few. We reached out to the AFT's president, Randi Weingarten, and NPR Ed's Eric Westervelt got her on the phone from the floor of the LA Convention Center.

What do you think the mood is of your members coming into this? Because one could look at it and say: Look, you've got tensions over Common Core implementation, testing and accountability. And now the big ruling in California on tenure and dismissal. I could see members saying, "We've taken it on the chin a bit in the last year. We're not feeling so great."

"Public education and educators have taken it on the chin not just last year but for several years. And so no doubt there will be frustration at this convention. But this is what I see about our members: There's tenacity and resilience and a relentlessness about the fight back. And the other side: The anti-union, anti-public education, anti-worker forces want to defeat us and want to demoralize us. And what I'm seeing at least from the activists I've bumped into is that they want to fight back and they want to fight forward. That means being solution-driven. It means being community involved. It means members have to be engaged and empowered. And frankly it means being a little badass. It's giving people a voice because so many times they don't have one."

On the Common Core, you've said you and your members like the promise. But you're worried about implementation and are frustrated about it. What, specifically, do you think your members want you as a leader to do now about Common Core implementation?

"Good question. Well first our members range from people who don't believe in standards at all to people who think standards are really important, including these new standards. You have the full range. Where there is real consensus is that they should be de-linked from testing. In all places where Core is being implemented, you need to de-link high-stakes testing and you need to stop with the profit motive. We should follow what all the other countries which out-compete us do: None of them test every single student every year in every grade. They may have two or three standardized tests throughout the experience of a youngster. But there is none of this toxic, obsessive test fixation that we have in the United States today that reduces students to test scores and teachers to algorithms."

I want to ask about the Vergara case . Do you think that pushback and fight back you talk about belongs in the courtroom, or is there still room for noncourtroom discussions — in California and beyond — about tenure, dismissal and coming up with different forms of accountability and measurement?

"What's disappointing to me [about the ruling] is that we have solved this in so many different jurisdictions. And that's part of the reason that you're seeing in some of the copycat cases that have already been filed, like in New York, lots of people are saying 'not so fast.' The American Association of School Administrators, the school superintendents and [the AFT] have worked out a whole protocol on ensuring that you have both fairness and quality and that the two are not in conflict with each other. How do you ensure that due process is really about fairness? How do you ensure that you have zero-tolerance for sexual misconduct while at the same time protecting against false allegations? How do you ensure that you help prepare, support and nurture a teacher? But if they can't do their job, and you've helped them, then they shouldn't be there. You can see throughout the country a lot of this work has been done by our locals, by state legislators and others. And what's sad is that none of this was discussed in the Vergara case and the aftermath. And the other thing that hasn't been discussed in Vergara is the real issues: How do you attract, retain, support and nurture great teaching for kids at risk? How do you turn around schools that need to be fixed? And not one second in the Vergara case was dedicated to that. And so that's why you have to have these discussions not only in the courthouse but in the court of public opinion, at the bargaining table, at the ballot box and in legislatures throughout the country."

Your counterpart at the NEA, at their recent annual meeting, called for the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, to step down. It passed. Do you personally endorse that, and would you support that as a resolution at your convention?

"This is now in the hands of our membership. We have a special order of business that's going to the floor of the convention that actually has a broader injunction here: that's that we will fight for the election and appointment of policymakers who stand on the side of working people, their families and their communities. And we'll hold them accountable. It sends a message: You either stand with working people — stand with students and communities and educators — or you don't. I understand the sentiment of the NEA membership. There is a deep frustration. It's the same frustration and impulse that led me to write [Duncan] an open letter and criticize him. But this is about broader policy. So if the members of the convention floor want to amend the resolution and make it specific, that will be their right to do."

But the question was about you specifically: Has he lost your confidence, and in terms of accountability, should he go?

"Look, I've called him out. And that's what I thought was important for me to do. This is a matter of making sure it's in a broader sense about any elected or appointed official. But we've created a vehicle that if people want to amend on the floor, they can amend it on the floor."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.
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