Union Weighs Merit Pay For Teachers With heightened pressure to turn around poorly performing public schools, politicians are pushing for merit-based pay for teachers. Randi Weingarten, of the American Federation of Teachers, discusses her union's efforts to reform schools and why merit pay, previously considered off-limits, is now on the table.

Union Weighs Merit Pay For Teachers

Union Weighs Merit Pay For Teachers

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With heightened pressure to turn around poorly performing public schools, politicians are pushing for merit-based pay for teachers. Randi Weingarten, of the American Federation of Teachers, discusses her union's efforts to reform schools and why merit pay, previously considered off-limits, is now on the table.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, in our weekly parenting segment, we'll talk about two new books that offer the guy's take on parenting, but from two very different perspectives. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about another key challenge in American life: how to fix poorly performing public schools. And while some say what's happening in school merely reflects whatever troubles are going on around it, other people say it's what's going on inside the classroom that counts most.

And to that end, many people want to be able to reward the best teachers and get rid of the worst ones more easily. And to that end, political leaders across the country have been pushing for various merit-based pay plans for teachers. But their union representatives have mostly resisted, until now.

Recently, Randi Weingarten, the new leader of the American Federation of Teachers - that's a union of more than 1.4 million members - announced her members are now willing to discuss tenure, merit pay and other strategies that the union previously considered off limits. I caught up with Randi Weingarten yesterday, and I asked her about the speech she gave this summer where she said no question was off the table if it was good for students and fair to teachers. I asked her what response she's been getting.

Ms. RANDI WEINGARTEN (President, American Federation of Teachers): Except for the folks who want this new administration to be Bush three and want to continue the old wars of, they are the reformers and everybody else is not, there has been this huge embrace - even my members from New York, around the country, and a lot of people - I made this speech in November - a lot of people said, props to you, bravo, break the logjam. Come up with an alternative because I don't know a teacher - I'm sure somebody can find me one - but I don't know a teacher that didn't go into education to make a difference in the lives of children.

And so, what we need to do in this great new moment, even with all the economic turmoil, is figure out, how do we help get high standards for all kids? How do we help make sure that there's a curriculum that teachers need, have the assessments to make sure it counts because accountability is important. And then there needs to be the wherewithal to get it done. And that means both building the capacity in schools, having the collaboration, but also making sure that kids get the ancillary services they need.

I mean, look at D.C., for example, and I'm a newcomer to D.C. But this is the only community in America where people pay taxes and are not represented by a voting member in Congress. And so look what's happened. You've had every single experiment visited on the folk in D.C., six chancellors in 10 years. So it's no wonder that people are fed up.

MARTIN: John McCain, in the presidential campaign just concluded, said that access to a quality education is the civil rights issue of our time. Do you agree?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Totally and in fact, my union, the AFT, has been saying that over and over again for the last decade or two.

MARTIN: But John McCain also endorsed the idea of linking teacher pay to student performance.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Right. Look, this is one of these areas where the devil is always in the details because, of course, in the abstract, you want to make sure that schools are doing well and that what teachers are doing is promoting excellence in classrooms. So the real question becomes, how do you do this?

So, what McCain would do is look at English or math test scores. So let me just even go through this little (unintelligible) for a second. Take New York state, which I know better than probably any other place. The standardized tests are in January. So there is no way English tests - there is no way, even if they were reliable, to actually isolate the effects of teachers.

But worse than that, ultimately, then what you're doing is you're looking at - focus on test scores as opposed to educating the whole child. So I don't want to be viewed as not caring about accountability because I care about it passionately. But we have to figure out the multiple measures of what deems and constitutes success, and make sure that we're accountable for it.

MARTIN: The critics of the AFT - teachers unions in general and the AFT in particular - is that the union is good at raising issues but is not good at acting on them, and that even though, as the national leadership for years has said, we need to rethink all these paradigms. We need to be open to these new ideas. When it comes to actually negotiating contracts on the ground, the support is never there. What do you say to that?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Well, look, I am the new president in town, and ultimately, I've not seen that in terms of the AFT when I was a local president. I think the issue becomes, how do you make sure you scale it up so that you don't have an anomaly as reform, that you see it all over the place.

So, for example, in New York, one of the things that Sandy Feldman, one of my predecessors, and I also did in New York was, we started something called a chancellor's district. And it wasn't just us because remember, we're the union. It was even then, Mayor Giuliani - can you believe that? Rudy Crew was our chancellor at that moment.

And first Sandy and then myself, we took over 40 low-performing schools. It was almost like an intensive care zone, and within two years, every elementary school we took over was doing really well. They had turned around. We have gotten an award at that time from the Council of Great City Schools as the number four - or one of the number three or four turnaround districts in the nation.

But what we learned was, it does take a village. You do have to do three or four or five things at the same time. So my sense is, we started this innovation fund this year. We want to get in there in the weeds and really turn around schools.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. And we're speaking with Randy Weingarten. She is the president of the American Federation of Teachers, it's a union representing 1.4 million teachers around the country.

What was the critical change that you saw in those schools? People here in Washington, D.C., which is another jurisdiction that you mentioned, here, the chancellor wants to revamp the system by boosting teacher pay in exchange for asking teachers to give up their tenure.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Look, in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg and I boosted teacher pay by 43 percent over six years, and we did it in a way which, actually, the city taxpayers are paying for it. It was part and parcel of something that we convinced the city taxpayers and the state taxpayers they needed to do. They needed to make that investment.

And we did that with making the due-process system faster and fair, but enabling their still to be a due-process system, a tenure system, so to speak, because we want teachers to be able to take a risk, not to be fired for an arbitrary or capricious reason.

MARTIN: So why are you so convinced that these firings are arbitrary and capricious, as expensive as it is to train teachers, as hard as it is to recruit teachers? I mean, you hear this constantly when you talk about trading, you know, tenure for pay or relaxing quota work rules, but why would a principal want to engage in arbitrary and capricious discipline to get rid of bad teachers? It strikes me that a lot of people know who the bad teachers are.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: See, I think what happens is that anybody who has been a boss, if they're honest about it, would tell you, it's really hard to fire somebody. Emotionally, it's really hard to fire somebody. You look somebody in the eyes like you and I are looking at each other right now, and you say, you're done. I don't know too many people who know how to do that well. And that's probably not a bad thing.

So what happens is that, you have a lot people who don't manage very well. They let a situation go on and on and on, which is why tenure has now gotten this, you know, view that it is a job for life as opposed to simply, once you have your probationary period and where a principal has said, after induction and after they've trained you through the ropes, you deserve that, before you get fired, you have an arbitrator say, you're right or you're wrong.

MARTIN: How does this idea of making it harder to fire people improve the management of those people to begin with? It doesn't seem like it's done that because it's already hard to fire people, but the management still isn't that great from what you're telling me.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: So what I am saying is that have a process that's fair, that's aligned to what people are supposed to do, but don't let it be then used as, why did we have tenure in the first place? Because pregnant teachers got fired. Older teachers got fired. If somebody didn't like what you look like or whatever, you got fired.

Look at what happened in Kansas when somebody said, I am not teaching creationism. They got fired. Look what happened in Dallas. When somebody didn't get the best test scores with special needs kids, they got fired. That actually got reversed by the Texas commissioner of education.

So we need to make the process real. That is simply - it is simply about just cause. But the bottom line, and the reason that I am a big proponent of tenure, is that you want people to be able to take a risk. And ultimately, that's what tenure allows you to do. Same thing - can't make it a lifetime guarantee, though.

MARTIN: What do you make of the fact that in certain urban school districts, often heavily of color, the African-American and Latino parents are the ones who are most ready bolt. I mean, they are sometimes the ones who are the most aggressive and passionate supporters of charter schools, alternative educational experiences. What do you make of that?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Because people want to make sure that they have something for their kids. I mean, what my - actually, my experience in New York has been a little bit different than the experience in D.C., but in New York, when Edison came in at one point or another and said...

MARTIN: Edison being?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Edison was a private entity that was going to charter some schools, and they wanted to take over those schools. There were five schools where there was a vote of parents. Parents voted against them in each of those five schools because what parents really want, at least New York City parents - I can't imagine D.C. parents are different - they want their neighborhood school to be a good school because they want to be sure that their kids are safe.

If he can walk to school, that'd be great. If you have wraparound services around the school so that there's a way of making sure your kid is safe after 3 o'clock in the afternoon, that would be terrific. And so, you want that school to be the best it can be. So, when you ask the question that way, parents say, of course I want my neighborhood school to be best. But if it isn't, I don't want to be consigned to something that's failure upon failure. They want an alternative.

So, what's really tragic to me in terms of D.C., is every single experiment has been visited upon the kids in D.C. So first, it was vouchers. Then it was charters. Then it was six superintendents in 10 years. So, what happens in terms of real good education practice with a lot of different things that we have to do together, where we're doing it together in concert. That's what I want to try to do to help, even in terms of D.C. schools.

MARTIN: We had Geoffrey Canada on the program, who I'm sure you know, who, of course, is the founder and key player in the Harlem Children's Zone, who's got a district where there's a lot of wraparound services...

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Right, right.

MARTIN: Charter schools, a lot of different work rules, and in other places. And I asked him, and I'd like to ask you, is, why are we still having the same fights about education that we've been having for the last generation?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Oh, bless you.

MARTIN: Why is that, in your view?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: There's a good reason, and there's a bad reason. The good reason about this debate being so much in the forefront now is that finally, it matters to both the right and the left wing. So, that's important. Now, unfortunately, it matters because of the global economy, and people need to make sure, you know, you don't have manufacturing jobs anymore in the States. And so, ultimately, you need to make sure that all kids get a decent high school and/or college education and the skills necessary to navigate through the global economy. That's the good news.

The bad news is that we have not trumped all the social and economic vicissitudes that kids sometimes have. And ultimately, schools have to do that. So, that's part of the reason that Geoff Canada and I will agree that wraparound services, community schools, we need to do that to help kids because we need to compete with the streets. We need to make sure kids have health care. If kids can't see a board, whether it's the whiteboard or the old blackboard, how are they going to do an assignment on the board?

So, schooling in some ways has to be broader. And ultimately, we have to face issues such as making sure the best teachers are in the toughest schools. So part of this is, this a shared responsibility, but this is a very important moment. And that's why collaboration becomes so important. We need to do this together.

The schools that work well are the schools that work collaboratively. I've never seen the kind of tough-guy approach that Chancellor Rhee has or whatever ever work to turn around schools. What I've seen work to turn around schools is when the community comes together, and everybody does the hard work that we need to do. And ultimately, some of that is pay. Some of that is safety and discipline in schools. Some of that is engaged parents. It's all of that together.

MARTIN: Forgive me, not to be argumentative with you, but there are many, many people who would say that that's a copout. There have always been kids with social problems, there have always been kids with emotional problems, always been kids with financial problems and that really, what is important is what happens in the classroom.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: But what I'm saying is that you have to do both at the same time. It's not an either/or. We have to do the work. Teachers have to do the work they have to do in classrooms. But think about all those teachers who do all of that, and it's just sometimes not enough. We need to do both.

MARTIN: If you had to do it all over again, would you still go into education?


MARTIN: And why?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: I mean, look, for me, I have a weird career path into education because my mom was a teacher. My father was an electrical engineer. So, I started as a lawyer, and then I taught at Clara Barton High School, an inner-city school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And just like the teacher who was - I'm sure I was never nearly as good as the teacher who was mentioned in Jay Matthews' column, that teacher who recently passed - Bernie Glaze - but my kids took AP courses. They were so resilient. When I watched them after we worked weekend after weekend after weekend, working on the Bill of Rights, seeing them really struggle to put an essay together that fights about the Bill of Rights, and then to be able to take questions and compete with schools across the nation and to see the pride in their eyes and to see how eloquent they were, you see the difference you make in the life of a child. You see you're giving a child the opportunity to be whatever he or she wants to be. That is the magic of education.

MARTIN: Finally, President-elect Barack Obama has yet to name an education secretary. What kind of person do you think he should be looking for?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Someone with...

MARTIN: And are you interested?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WEINGARTEN: I have a great...

MARTIN: You've already got a condo. You've already moved, so?

Ms. WEINGARTEN: I already have a rental apartment. I have a great new job, you know, in the labor movement and in the teacher education movement. So, that's what I'm interested in doing. But thank you.

Three qualifications - number one, a real love of public education and what the potential is; two, steeped in a deep understanding of what works and what doesn't and willing to take the risk to do promising new things; and three, the ability to work collaboratively, particularly with parents and the Congress and the new president and the people who every single day are in our classrooms.

MARTIN: Randi Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers. It's a union that represents more that 1.4 million teachers across the country. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios, and we hope you'll come back.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. WEINGARTEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, after we spoke to Randi Weingarten yesterday, we learned that New York Governor David Paterson is considering her, apparently at her request, among the short list of candidates to replace Senator Hillary Clinton if Senator Clinton is confirmed as secretary of state in the Obama administration and vacates her seat. We tried to reach Ms. Weingarten for additional comment and were unable to do so.

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