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United Against Teachers' Unions? United Against Teachers' Unions?

United Against Teachers' Unions?

by Nikhil Swaminathan
February 4, 2010

It's tough out there for representatives of teachers unions. In the race to reform the U.S. public school system, the unions are being pilloried as protecting unfit teachers and standing in the way of our children getting the education they deserve.The firing line includes representatives from not only the right, but those on the left, as well. Early reviews of Davis Guggenheim's much-ballyhooed, Sundance hit documentary Waiting for Superman mention that shots are fired across the bows of the union ship. In addition, Joe Klein (at least the most liberal of Time magazine's columnists) recently piled on, starting a column titled "Why We're Failing Our Schools" with the lines:

A remarkable thing happened in New York recently: the state legislature, in effect, turned down the chance to win $700 million in federal money. No one does that, except extremely conservative Southern governors (who inevitably relent and take the money) - oh, and occasionally teachers' unions.

With all that animosity heaped on unions, it was courageous for the head of American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, to appear on the same program late last week. (Link to video.) But, if your progressive soul was looking for a reason to relax any personal ire toward teachers' unions, Weingarten didn't offer much to work with. She dodged questions about holding teachers accountable early, offering a refrain of trying to achieve a goal of "great teachers, great teaching."
Here are some excerpts of exchanges from the 12-minute segment, which included an appearance by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (and son of a union organizer) Carl Bernstein:
Bernstein: The perception is that you all, over the years, have put job security over the welfare of kids. There is something to that perception.Weingarten: Teachers want to help kid succeed. So we said, let's make sure teachers are supported, get the tools, the time and the trust to do their jobs. Let's overhaul this evaluation system that all of us are complaining about....Willie Geist: What's the central complaint of the teachers union about charter schools? Why would you stand in the way of a place like Harlem Villages Academy [sic], where they've raised the standards and the test scores up to 100 percent in some cases. What could be wrong about that?Weingarten: Look, the issue becomes how do you help all kids? … The charter school that we started in East New York, with all the same contractual rules that other schools have, 95 percent of our kids just did great on the fifth grade social studies exam. the issue becomes how do we help all kids succeed? The issue in terms of the charter schools were we want to make sure that they're taking the same kind of kids that all other public schools take.
The point about charter schools playing by different rules, and not all students having access to quality ones is well taken. But, compared to Harlem Village Academies, whose 8th grade students, in 2008, were 100 percent proficient in math and science, 95 percent on a 5th grade social studies exam seems relatively meager.Unions were created to make sure teachers were well compensated for arguably society's most important occupation, molding young minds. And I think we can all agree that those who choose the profession deserve to be paid well. But, somewhere along the line, as Bernstein said, the unions lost their way. And now they've gone from advocating to teacher's rights to impeding children's rights.How can the unions rescue their tarnished image?
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