By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
Is a coordinated attack on teachers unions under way? In recent
months, front-page magazine articles, op-ed pieces, and news stories
have portrayed public schools as failing, and teachers unions as
the number one obstacle to fixing them. Now a new film, “Waiting
for Superman,” tries to define the issue, and paints teachers
unions as the villain. The film, by the director of the Oscar-winning
global warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,”
opens in Portland Oct. 8. But more often than not, teachers union
leaders aren’t asked for their views. They’re bashed,
but not given a chance to respond. To make up for that, the Northwest
Labor Press contacted American Federation of Teachers (AFT) national
headquarters and spoke with Rob Weil, AFT director of field programs.
NW LABOR PRESS: Are we seeing the ramp-up of a decades-old
conservative-tinted movement to reform public schools, with teachers
unions as the target?
WEIL: There’s been a so-called reform effort going on. A lot
of the reforms aren’t necessarily targeted to educational
improvement. They seem to have more political ideology than educational
Can you give some examples?
One of things we see all the time is the assumption that what’s
wrong with our schools is teachers — so we have to figure
a way to overcome the bad teachers. At AFT, we call that the “bad
We don’t make those same judgments elsewhere in
society. Like, we don’t say that high-crime areas are the
fault of underperforming cops.
No, we don’t. The difference is that this “bad teacher”
narrative is very well funded. There’s a PR effort behind
it, funded by foundations. Some of them are well-meaning, but some
of them are “bash union” groups — the Walton Family
Foundation, owner of WalMart, for example. The American Federation
of Teachers is not saying the schools we have today are the schools
we ought to have. We have to make sure that every kid gets a high-quality
education. What we’re saying is there are good ways to address
those issues, and there are bad ways. You remember the attempt to
fire all the teachers in Central Falls, Rhode Island? Nobody was
saying performance was good there, but it was actually improving.
Yet all of a sudden, people were calling for the mass firing of
the teachers, saying every teacher was to blame.
How’s that working out? Have they hired a new group
Cooler heads have prevailed. We’re trying to work through
it. You’d be hard-pressed in America to find a tougher place
than Central Falls, Rhode Island. These children don’t have
the opportunities of other children. Opportunities outside a school
affect what happens in the school.
In Central Falls, they fired all the teachers. Yet the
way some conservative critics of education tell it, it’s not
possible for administrators anywhere in America to fire bad teachers,
because teachers unions are so powerful. What’s that about?
There is no place in the country where K-12 teachers have a guaranteed
job for life. Tenure doesn’t exist in K-12 education like
it does in college. In K-12 education, it’s nothing more than
due process. Before you’re let go, you have an opportunity
to improve, and somebody else reviews it besides your direct supervisor.
What people are saying is that’s too high of a standard. What
the critics are saying is that they want teachers to be ‘at-will’
Our readers work in union environments, so they may be
familiar with “just cause” discipline, or the idea of
having union representation when you’re disciplined. Employers
have to make a case, and they have to take steps to discipline you.
That’s right, but for most teachers, they don’t have
that right away. The average probationary period for a teacher is
three years. For the first three years, they’re at-will. And
turnover in teaching is high. Nationally, in the first five years
of teaching, 50 percent leave. It’s a really tough job.
What does AFT think of merit pay for teachers, or pay-for-performance?
There’s this belief that if you just put carrots in front
of lazy teachers, somehow now they’ll put their better teaching
hat on, and go teach a lot harder because the money’s there.
That’s such a business philosophy. It’s total widget
thinking. That’s not how schools work. AFT’s position
is that compensation reform can be part of a comprehensive approach
to improving schools. In fact, AFT passed a resolution
back in 2002 that proposed a common sense way to approach compensation
for teachers. But there’s a difference between “paying
for performance” and just rewarding outcomes. In practice,
most pay-for-performance systems just pay for test scores. And a
was just released by Vanderbilt University showing that these pay-for-performance
systems have no impact on student achievement. It was a three-year
randomized study of schools that did all the stuff pay-for-performance
advocates talk about.
It’s also said that talented individuals —
from business, military, and other walks of life — can’t
get jobs as teachers because of licensure requirements.
I hear all the time that a PhD in physics can’t get a job
teaching in public school. It’s an urban myth. Virtually every
state has an alternative certification process. And the reality
is that when Mister PhD gets into the classroom, he wishes he’d
been through education classes and learned classroom management
techniques. Classroom management is the number one reason teachers
struggle in their first few years. If you think teaching is only
about content, you don’t understand teaching. I think making
sure that people who stand in front of our children have been reviewed
and certified is important. The problem is that people don’t
think of teaching as a true profession.
One of the assumptions of reformers is that the schools
are failing, that we’re in crisis and need radical action
When we do something too urgently, we tend to make a lot of mistakes.
Then we have to go back and re-fix it again.
Right now, charter schools are supposed to be the silver
Charter schools are not new; they started in the early ‘90s.
Every objective research study of charter schools says the same
thing: They’re no better, and on average they’re a little
worse. What this movie “Waiting for Superman” does is
highlight several charter schools that do well. But I could find
public schools that are doing the same things.
That’s an interesting point. There are public schools
in Portland that parents try to transfer their kids into from all
over the city, that have three times as many applicants as can get
Why aren’t those being highlighted? Because it’s about
a political agenda. AFT has members who teach in charter schools.
People think somehow the governance structure is some kind of miracle
worker. Schools are good when they’re run by good leaders,
and have good teachers, and have community support. When you look
at the schools that are successful regardless of whether they’re
charter or public, those are the things that make a difference.