July 15, 2008
New Vision for Schools Proposes Broad Role
By SAM DILLON
Randi Weingarten, the New Yorker who is rising to become president of the American Federation of Teachers, says she wants to replace President Bush’s focus on standardized testing with a vision of public schools as community centers that help poor students succeed by offering not only solid classroom lessons but also medical and other services.
Ms. Weingarten, 50, was elected Monday to the presidency of the national teachers union at the union’s annual convention. In a speech minutes later to the delegates gathered in Chicago, Ms. Weingarten criticized the No Child Left Behind law, President Bush’s signature domestic initiative, as “too badly broken to be fixed,” and outlined “a new vision of schools for the 21st century.”
“Can you imagine a federal law that promoted community schools — schools that serve the neediest children by bringing together under one roof all the services and activities they and their families need?” Ms. Weingarten asked in the speech.
“Imagine schools that are open all day and offer after-school and evening recreational activities and homework assistance,” she said. “And suppose the schools included child care and dental, medical and counseling clinics.”
By laying out that expansive vision of government’s role in the public schools, Ms. Weingarten waded into a fierce debate among Democrats seeking to influence the educational program of Senator Barack Obama, their party’s presumptive presidential nominee. In an interview last week, she said the ideas in the speech amounted to “what I’d like to see in a new federal education law.”
In her 10 years of service as president of the United Federation of Teachers, which represents New York City teachers, Ms. Weingarten has defended teachers’ economic interests, raising her members’ salaries by 43 percent in the last five years. But she has also proved willing to accommodate the city’s ideas on improving schools. She has embraced charter schools, and last year — even as teachers unions elsewhere were opposing performance pay plans — negotiated an arrangement in New York that gives bonuses to teachers in schools whose poor children show broad gains in test scores.
With her move to the presidency of the national union, with 1.4 million members, Ms. Weingarten gains a broader platform from which to influence the nation’s education debates. Although the federation is smaller than the country’s other teachers union, the National Education Association, with its 3.2 million members, A.F.T. presidents have had an equal or larger political profile because presidential tenures in the bigger union are restricted by term limits.
Two previous presidents of the United Federation of Teachers, Albert Shanker and Sandra Feldman, also rose to lead the A.F.T.
“My sense is that Randi Weingarten is continuing Al Shanker’s tradition, clearly standing up for the interests of teachers but also trying to engage in thoughtful education reform that will be good for students,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation whose biography of Mr. Shanker, “Tough Liberal,” was published this year.
On Sunday, Mr. Obama spoke to the convention by satellite feed from California, and he mixed criticism of the No Child law with praise for teachers’ contributions and an exhortation to Americans to meet the nation’s responsibility to educate all children. He quoted a young Chicago teacher as telling him that she had been annoyed by a tendency “to explain away the shortcomings and failures of our education system by saying, ‘These kids can’t learn.’ ”
“These children are our children,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s time we understood that their education is our responsibility.
“I am running for president to guarantee that all of our children have the best possible chance in life,” he said, “and I am tired of hearing you, the teachers who work so hard, blamed for our problems.”
Convention delegates gave Mr. Obama a standing ovation.
Ms. Weingarten takes national office with robust support of the rank and file. “The last eight years of the Republican presidency have really been a threat to the middle class and to public education,” said William Gallagher, a high school social studies teacher in Philadelphia for 33 years. Ms. Weingarten, he said, would “work hard to make sure the new president, whoever he is, puts education on the forefront of issues in this country.”
In Ms. Weingarten’s speech, she praised the ideas of a group of Democrats led by Tom Payzant, the former schools superintendent in Boston, who have argued that schools alone cannot close achievement gaps rooted in larger economic inequalities, and that “broader, bolder” measures are needed, like publicly financed early childhood education and health services for the poor.
Another group, headed by the Rev. Al Sharpton and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein of New York, issued a manifesto last month urging the nation to redouble its efforts to close the achievement gap separating poor students from affluent ones and blaming “teachers’ contracts” for keeping ineffective teachers in classrooms.
Ms. Weingarten said the nation needs a new vision for schools “that truly commits America to closing the achievement gap once and for all.”
“Imagine if schools had the educational resources we have long advocated, like quality pre-K, smaller classes, up-to-date materials and technology and a nurturing atmosphere, so no child feels anonymous,” she said.
Ms. Weingarten, whose mother was a teacher in Nyack, N.Y., is a lawyer who was union counsel during the 1980s and 1990s. In the last decade, Ms. Weingarten taught high school history for six years in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.
In the interview, she said: “We all have to work tenaciously to eliminate the achievement gap and to turn around low-performing schools. But the folks who believe that this can all be done on teachers’ shoulders, which is what No Child tries to do, are doing a huge disservice to America.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company