The Implementation Dodge

We generally prefer to discuss policies rather than people on this blog, but there are some figures whose influence is so large that their words and actions justify scrutiny. One of them is Randi Weingarten, president of the million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Her choices have real consequences for students in the schools where her members teach.

Right now, Weingarten is in a tough spot. The education landscape has been transformed during the nearly six years of her tenure, with dozens of states embracing stronger teacher evaluation policies, adopting the Common Core State Standards, and undertaking other reforms intended to modernize the teaching profession and improve educational outcomes. Meanwhile, the number of dues-paying union members is declining nationwide, and upstart organizations like Teach Plus and Educators 4 Excellence are offering teachers new channels for expressing their opinions, which often deviate from official union positions. In addition, Weingarten faces her own Tea Party revolution from challengers within the union’s more radical flanks, like Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis (who recently invited Rev. Jeremiah Wright—yes, that Jeremiah Wright—to join her in attacking President Obama’s education agenda).

All of this has created some tricky terrain for Weingarten to navigate and made it difficult to position herself as a reform-focused leader in the vein of Albert Shanker, the legendary AFT president who earned a national reputation as a principled, independent thinker.

In the past, she’s found some success. A few years ago, for example, we publicly applauded her efforts to strike the right balance between representing her members’ most immediate interests and advancing the profession. As time has gone on, though, the signs that Weingarten will be the next progressive national union leader have faded. Her track record has been less about staking out a thoughtful position and more about shifting from one position to another as political realities demand.

Over the years, Weingarten has undertaken a number of high-profile reversals. One of the most notable came earlier this month, when she issued a manifesto laying out her case for her now-vehement objections to the implementation of Common Core and evaluation systems that measure teachers’ impact on student learning. Her approach: Fan the flames, then pull the fire alarm.

In the piece, she takes pains to praise the Common Core standards before moving on to bury them, resting her argument on a tale of “botched implementation” laced with suspect anecdotes (“There are far too many stories about teachers being handed 500-page binders and told to read the scripted lessons verbatim…”) and right-wing totems (attributing a conspiracy to privatize education to “the Koch brothers” among otherswho, for the record, are in fact funding anti-Common Core groups).

She then turns to value-added, the widely used, decades-old method to measure teacher impact on student academic growth. Like any such measure, it isn’t perfect. But it has been shown by numerous studies—including those done with AFT cooperation—to be the best predictor of long-term teacher performance, and it is always considered alongside other measures of performance, like classroom observations. Weingarten now calls value-added “incomprehensible” and “destructive.” She claims that she has always been “leery” of it, and that now, her worst fears are realized.

Her record would strongly suggest otherwise. At various points during the past three years, Weingarten has strongly endorsed the Common Core and negotiated numerous evaluation systems that incorporate value-added measures. She supported statewide legislation in Colorado mandating the use of similar measures of student growth in evaluations. And she accepted millions of dollars in grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has sponsored some of the most robust research on value-added to date.

Unfortunately, this inconsistency—to put it kindly—is part of a longstanding pattern of policy reversals that seem driven more by political convenience than by any coherent educational agenda.

While leading New York City’s local teachers union, Weingarten won plaudits for proposing school accountability systems that included measures of student achievement—and then opposed then-Chancellor Joel Klein’s school report cards for including those very measures, raising the same sorts of “botched implementation” charges she raises now when criticizing the Common Core.

Then, four years ago, with New York Times fanfare, she hired respected lawyer Ken Feinberg to develop recommendations for streamlining due process systems for tenured teachers, declaring that “due process shouldn’t be glacial process.” But she stood silent more recently when a bill proposed in the California legislature to accomplish the same goal was gutted by the state teachers union and superseded by a bill that did so little to address the problem, Gov. Jerry Brown—a Democrat and longtime friend to the union—vetoed it, saying it would “make the process too rigid and create new problems.” Meanwhile, the Feinberg recommendations have been collecting dust, artifacts of what appears to have been an elaborate public relations ploy.

Taken together, a portrait of a cynical strategy emerges. By publicly supporting forward-looking policies on the front end and in the abstract, Weingarten claims a reputation as a progressive, courageous, open-minded union leader. When the kitchen gets too hot down the road, though, she tacks back to the oppositional approach of an old-fashioned union boss, blaming management’s implementation efforts for her change of heart. Each seeming risk becomes a win-win scenario. Call it the “implementation dodge.”

The ultimate impact of the implementation dodge is the same. Popular policies intended to bring fundamental change to broken systems are impeded, de-legitimized and delayed. Kids continue to suffer in environments that never seem to change. And leaders who flee one position for another as political opportunity allows tend to pay little price.

So what’s the solution? Weingarten has long argued that, if given a seat at the table, unions can be forceful partners in educational progress. We say: Prove it. Instead of being a Monday morning quarterback for reform, engage in the challenges of implementation. Instead of making political hay of the problems, help solve them.

We believe that Randi Weingarten, with principled leadership, truly could be the transformational union leader that the country desperately needs. But her frustrating pattern of reversals should and will give pause to those looking to her as a partner. They’ve been burned too often to believe that this time, she’ll see things through. Unless something changes, there will be fewer and fewer education leaders and policymakers who see her as credible.

And that is why we spoke out on this issue. If past debates are any indication, it’s likely that Weingarten and her supporters will view this as a personal attack rather than a plea for real leadership. And it’s certainly possible that we’ll see some retribution. We accept that. We’d rather take the risk than stand by while bad becomes worse.

With Weingarten at the helm, this will either be the year that the AFT restores its engagement with efforts to improve schools or the year it fully commits to blocking those efforts. Let’s all hope for the former.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

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