Leaders Tackle Challenges Of Education Reform

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, discusses challenges of education reform as part of the Tell Me More series on education. Host Michel Martin speaks with Randi Weingarten about education reform as well as her role in the widely acclaimed documentary "Waiting for Superman."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, we'll hear why some researchers believe that having dark skin may actually increase your blood pressure. We'll hear why in just a few minutes.

But first, the latest conversation in our education series. Throughout the month of September, TELL ME MORE has been bringing you stories about issues in education, what's outstanding, what needs improvement and what remains incomplete in the quest to strengthen the nation's schools and offer children from all backgrounds the best education possible.

Today, we focus on one of the fault lines in the fight to improve education, the role of teachers and the unions that represent them. Long a hot topic for academics and policy experts, the issue has been moved front and center in the public consciousness by the new documentary by Davis Guggenheim called "Waiting for Superman."

(Soundbite of documentary, "Waiting for Superman")

Unidentified Man: Among 30 developed countries, we ranked 26th in math and 21st in science. Almost every category, we've fallen behind except one, kids from the USA rank number one in confidence.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Now, the movie has turned the troubles of our nation's public schools into a compelling drama, but many educators say that that drama requires a villain and that they are being cast in that role.

Randi Weingarten, as we said, is the president of the American Federation of Teachers. We've just been talking with her about the One Nation Working Together march. She's one of the speakers at that march this weekend.

But education is one of the issues that is to be discussed at the march, so we asked her to stick around to talk more about her reaction to "Waiting for Superman" and the issues that it raises. And she stayed with us now. Thanks so much for sticking around.

Ms. RANDI WEINGARTEN (President, American Federation of Teachers): It's great. It's always great to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: Thanks. So I'd like to play a short clip from a conversation you had about "Waiting for Superman" earlier this month with one of my colleagues, NPR education correspondent Claudia Sanchez. Here it is.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

Ms. WEINGARTEN: The fact that the movie does not portray one great public school, does not portray one great public school teacher, the fact it gives no credit to any of that and no balance to any of that, as a result, makes it seem that only charter schools are the solution, and that's clearly not the case.

MARTIN: So, Randi, take that challenge from there. Did you present information about great public schools that could have been discussed in the film?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Well, this, you know, I had a conversation with Davis. First off, the film is very moving, and all of us have to cheerlead those parents that were in the film who moved heaven and earth to help their kids get a great education.

So this is, you know, we and there's things, every time there's a movie, anything about public education, because a lot of people say why are you even engaged in the conversation, we have to be engaged in the conversation if you want to be a problem-solver, if you want to actually help all kids.

So, you know, in one of the conversations I had with Davis Guggenheim, I asked him directly. I said, why didn't you put in any of the great public schools? And he said to me at that moment that nobody would let him film any of them, which is just patently untrue from my own experience because I got to know Guggenheim because he came to the school that Steve Barr and I created in the South Bronx, a Green Dot school.

He actually filmed the signing of that new professional contract, which is a small contract, a professional contract. And what's amazing about that school is two-and-a-half years later, he had access to the school, Steve and I both gave him access, and more importantly the kids and the parents and the teachers gave him access, that school now is breaking every sound barrier.

In this year alone, last year, we are on track for 97 percent of our kids to graduate from high school in the South Bronx.

MARTIN: So I take your point. His argument, he's got the film makes a clear-line argument that restrictive work rules and work rules that really protect incompetent teachers are really at the heart - part of the difficulty with public schools or a big part of the difficulty with public schools and that that is one reason why kids are not getting the education that they deserve.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Right.

MARTIN: So I take your point. You're saying that you agree that a lot of kids are not getting the education that they deserve. So what's your through-line argument about why that isn't happening now?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: So the our through-line argument is that if you look at places that are succeeding, and we just had this seminar in New York, Ed Nation that NBC put on, they had a great panel of the places that are succeeding, Finland, Singapore, others.

First off, it debunks the myth. They're all unionized. The states that are succeeding in the United States have the most densely unionized teacher populations.

So that's not the issue. The issue is much more complex, which is we are now -we now have two competing challenges. We have to help all the kids who are left behind, laser-like focus on turning around low-performing schools, the dropout factors.

But at the same time, because of the global economy, we have to help ramp up everything so that this is not just about memorization anymore. This is about ensuring that all kids are equipped with the knowledge skills, the problem-solving, creative thinking skills they need.

That means we have to do four things. We have to make sure that every child gets a good teacher supported by and if you listen to good teachers, they'll tell you they need supportive principals.

Number two, we have to do a lot more not just to have the new, the states to new standards, but have the curriculum that is aligned with those new standards and the time so that teachers get their arms around it, and we have time for kids to engage in it.

Number three, and we see this with all the new poverty reports, we need to yes, it'd be great to make sure, to have parents engaged in kids' educations. But we need to help all kids regardless, and that means things like the Say Yes program in Syracuse or (unintelligible) Harlem Children's Zone. That has to be out there in lots more schools because we have to meet the unmet needs of kids.

And the last thing, and this is where Michelle Rhee and I depart company, we have to all take more responsibility. It's not about somebody telling others to take more responsibility, it's about all of us taking more responsibility.

And that's why the union has looked very hard and said, look, no teacher should be a bad teacher, let's reform tenure. Let's overhaul evaluations. Let's take on what has been our Achilles' heel.

MARTIN: President Obama has voiced support for the policies advocated by the self-described reformers like Washington, D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is prominently featured in "Waiting for Superman," whose education secretary, Arne Duncan, similarly the case.

Do you where do you think the dialogue is going on this? I mean, you've got a perspective on this, and the presidential administration has a particular perspective on this. And so, do you see support for your point of view that it isn't just about what happens in the classroom but what happens, you know, outside of the classroom, as well? Where is this argument going?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: I think the if you look at you know, if you look at Race to the Top, which is the president's signature issue, he's focused on teachers, less so on principals and less so on the out-of-school conditions.

But even in the focus on teachers, most of the states that won Race to the Top grants did it because they had a collaborative working relationships with the other groups (unintelligible).

Now, we don't have contracts all over the place. Between the NEA and the AFT, only 53 percent of the teachers in the United States of America, public school teachers, have contracts, unlike in Finland, where 98 percent of them do.

So we can't use contracts as the way to actually do systemic change in some places. But we can in a lot of places. Like this week, Baltimore is going to have an amazing new contract. We have to do things together.

MARTIN: Are you feeling encouraged or discouraged by the dialogue that has risen around this film, very briefly, if you would?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: I'm discouraged by the dialogue around the film. I'm encouraged every time we have a dialogue, but discouraged because it's creating more of the polarization like we see with the Tea Parties. We need to have more coming together.

MARTIN: Randi Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. As we said, she'll be one of the speakers at this weekend's One Nation Working Together rally. Randi Weingarten, thank you so much for coming.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Thank you, Michel.

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