By Fiona Cohen
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten told her members meeting in Seattle on Thursday that the past two years have been “tougher than I’ve ever seen,” with shrinking school budgets combined with increasing initiatives to punish teachers whose students don’t succeed.
She urged her audience to fight against what she called the “blame the teacher crowd” by embracing new strategies to reform public education.
She called it “Fighting Smart”: “searching for solutions we believe will work, even if those solutions force us to think outside the box or initially make us feel uncomfortable.”
She spoke to more than 2,700 delegates gathered at the Washington State Trade and Convention Center. The loudest applause of the morning when she talked about her feelings of betrayal by the Obama administration.
“I never thought I’d see a Democratic president, whom we helped elect, and his education secretary applaud the mass firing of 89 teachers and staff in Central Falls, R.I., when not a single one of the teachers ever received an unsatisfactory evaluation.”
Earlier, there were boos from the audience, when AFT Secretary-Treasurer Antonia Cortese mentioned Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
The AFT had invited both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to speak at the convention, which has hosted presidents and vice presidents in previous years. Neither accepted nor sent a video.
Among those who accepted invitations: Bill Gates, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, Gov. Chris Gregoire, Sen. Maria Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray.
Gates, who is scheduled to be at the convention on Saturday afternoon, is not a constant ally of AFT views. For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has a long record of funding charter schools, many of which exclude unions.
But the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is among the private backers of the AFT Innovation Fund, which is funding projects to improve public education.
“The AFT has never shied away from controversy. The real issue is we have to engage with people,” Weingarten said.
Weingarten said she supported evaluating teachers’ performance and intervening when necessary, but that evaluations had to be more nuanced and detailed than simply looking at standardized test results.
“A real teacher-development and -evaluation system involves rigorous reviews by trained expert and peer evaluators, based on professional teaching standards, best practices and student learning.”
She also said that administrators those responsible for creating the conditions in classrooms, should also be held accountable. For example, in areas where teacher turnover is high, administrators should be held responsible.