Union Leader Argues in Favor of Teachers

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten outlined her theory of action for transforming the American school system yesterday evening at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Reaffirming her organization’s advocacy on behalf of teachers, Weingarten promoted the importance of teachers’ unions at a time when they have come under fire for erecting what some say are institutional barriers to cost-cutting measures. On the contrary, Weingarten said unions ensure a high quality of education in the U.S.

“Our work is informed by the real-life experience at the front line,” she said. “This is remarkable to me: we talk about how important teachers are, and then we turn around and don’t listen to them. This is why teachers need a union.”

Ed School Academic Dean Robert Schwartz, who introduced Weingarten, spoke briefly about the school’s historic connections to teachers’ unions, and called for a greater partnership resembling what exists in nations that outperform the United States.

“For those who think strong teachers’ unions and strong academic performance can’t coexist, think again and look at the international evidence,” Schwartz said.

Weingarten, who is known for her leadership in collectively bargaining on behalf of New York City teachers, emphasized the idea of partnerships between teachers and the community, citing as an example a partnership between Yale University and New Haven Public Schools that aims to make college affordable for qualified students.

“It’s been a model for the Connecticut legislature,” she said.

She added that collective bargaining could be used to form such contracts to effect greater change.

Weingarten continued the discussion by emphasizing the need for collaboration among educators in the United States, citing the example of Singaporean instructors, who she said work with each other at least 20 hours per week to develop curriculum.

Graduate student in international education Amy M. Blakeney, who previously taught social studies in Phoenix and Ghana, said she strongly agreed with Weingarten.

According to Blakeney, although American teachers “work harder when you count the hours they are in direct contact with students,” they barely have time to collaborate with each other as a result.

Weingarten also voiced her support for teacher evaluations in education reform, though she said she felt principals often lack the time to conduct them—or more commonly, don’t know how.

Blakeney agreed, stressing the need to evaluate instructor quality.

“We have to eliminate poor-performing teachers. The era of showing up and showing a video needs to be rectified,” she said.

However, she said she felt Weingarten did not adequately address the current divisive political atmosphere in which teachers find themselves.

“Truthfully, I don’t think the organization is raising the alarm enough about the attack on teachers,” she said. “My greatest concern is that in 25 to 50 years, it was what we did or did not do with education that caused the further decline in this country.”

Blakeney added that she felt recruitment of top graduates from universities into the teaching workforce should also be a priority for education, but that this would take a radical change in public opinion.

Said Weingarten, “All these countries [that outperform the United States] make sure that the stature of teachers is as high as it is low in this country.”

—Staff writer Michelle M. Hu can be reached at michellehu@college.harvard.edu.

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