Bob Herbert takes a look at AFT President Randi Weingarten’s recent speech as part of a column on American workers.   He writes that:

Ms. Weingarten was raising a cry against the demonizing of teachers and the widespread, uninformed tendency to cast wholesale blame on teachers for the myriad problems with American public schools. It reminded me of the way autoworkers have been vilified and blamed by so many for the problems plaguing the Big Three automakers.

But Ms. Weingarten’s defense of her members was not the most important part of the speech. The key point was her assertion that with schools in trouble and the economy in a state of near-collapse, she was willing to consider reforms that until now have been anathema to the union, including the way in which tenure is awarded, the manner in which teachers are assigned and merit pay.

Two thoughts.  First, I know a lot of people in this business and I don’t know anyone who casts wholesale blame on teachers for America’s educational woes.    On the contrary, there tends to be a lot of empathy for teachers who are too often stuck in lousy structural arrangements.   Perhaps Herbert is extrapolating from today’s emphasis on teacher effectiveness and human capital.  But saying teachers are the most important within school factor in student learning, and that public policy does not respect that today, is not the same as blaming them for today’s problems.   Second, in the context of the column, Weingarten’s efforts, if she can succeed, are key steps to help ensure that public schools – and their employees – don’t find themselves in the same jam the auto industry is in, namely a failure to change with the times.

Meanwhile, over at National Review  Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess attack President Bush over No Child Left Behind.   They caricuture the No Child law a bit, but the fundamental point is clear:  They don’t like all this achievement gap and civil rights oriented national policy.   The fight for the Republican soul on education policy is on.

Update:  Mike Petrilli thinks my ilk should be declaring victory…

5 Replies to “Op-Eds”

  1. Bob Herbert closed with the words,

    “Teachers and autoworkers are two very different cornerstones of American society, but they are cornerstones nonetheless. Our attitudes toward them are a reflection of our attitudes toward working people in general. If we see teachers and autoworkers as our enemies, we are in serious need of an attitude adjustment.”

    You say that teachers aren’t being blamed, but please keep your ears open and if/when you hear attacks on teachers, please cite Herbert.

    Bur let me cite some of the words you link to, and explain why I call it teacher-bashing.

    If you argue that the key missing ingredients for transforming high poverty schools are “Expectations” and “Accountability” and that basically we know what needs to be done, then teachers must be “guilty of the bigotry of low expectations” or incompetence. So, what does it mean when accountability advocates argue “high schools in impoverished communities across America are saddled with a curse of low expectations that impedes the achievement.”?
    Then you add, “there is a small industry in the education community built around tacitly giving schools soothing reassurance that they really can’t do much better with poor and minority kids than they are today.”
    You also write a sentence that drives me crazy, “Different schools have different effects on similar students.” Technically, that’s like saying the Sun rises in the east or “all children can learn.,” That “small industry in the education community” has shown that we have had very little success in improving neighborhood secondary schools. You know that.

    But you may not know why so many teachers find the words of your allies, and often your words, to be so offensive. When we leave the hospital, the funeral, or the jail cell of one of our students, yes teachers seek reassurance. Yes, when we commit ourselves to school transformations and learn painful lessons that the challenge is far tougher than even we realized, we need soothing of our feelings. Being human, yeah we sometime seek someone to blame. And maybe we’re not being completely fair in blaming you guys for blaming us.

    But, please debate the evidence. If you read the evidence differently, fine; but don’t couch your words in ways that imply that teachers could be saving all of these kids if we didn’t have such low expectations and if the union didn’t put us first to the detriment of kids.

    Would every teacher sacrifice their own welfare for the students? No. But can the leadership and many of the rank-in-file persuade the members hip to sacrifice some of their welfare in order to help kids? Yes. You don’t seem to realize how much harder you make it for reformers within the profession. Half-truths are the norm in politics. But if you want to help kids, you need our help. If you want to help us help kids, then you need to take a higher road. And you need to persuade your less restrained partners to back off.

  2. Mr. Thompson as a teacher I can report that we’re all not as fragile as you seem to think.

  3. I agree with Don’t Break Me! Mr. Thompson might be overreacting just a little bit.

    There are many challenges facing our schools. In this case, I believe the cause of the angst for both unions is the perception that at the negotiating table, they are only focused on maximizing the return (salary + benefits) of their members without consideration to the sustainability of their employers.

    As I wrote here: http://interacc.typepad.com/synthesis/2008/12/blame-game.html, both unions and management need to approach the table genuinely committed to creating sustainable outcomes for their end customers (students/parents, car buyers).

    Perhaps this would lead to improving their image.

  4. The union/management dichotomy leaves out the local school board, a critical element in any kind of school improvement. WHY?

    Were local school board elections politicized, run as partisan competitive events, you’d have school reform issues openly discussed and acted upon.

    The reassertion of control by big city mayors over school departments is dramatic evidence of how easy(hah) it is to bring major reform to highly resistive intransigent public school systems.

    Would Michelle Rhee even be hired or Duncan, were it not for the involvement of an elected mayor?

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