Randi Weingarten

Teacher, teacher …

VTR Date: May 8, 2008

Randi Weingarten discusses the difficulties faced by teachers and schools.


GUEST: Randi Weingarten
VTR: 05/08/2008

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And just a few weeks before we record this conversation, the New York Times published a quite intriguing story about our guest today, Randi Weingarten, President of New York’s United Federation of Teachers … described rather glowingly not only as “a combative dealmaker and consummate political street fighter for city teachers,” but also as a reasoned and reasonable spokesperson for students’ needs AND the likely new President of the American Federation of Teachers, the national union.

Well, tributes to my guest’s prowess at the bargaining table and in the councils of government remind me, of course, of when her early predecessor, the redoubtable Al Shanker, first joined me here on The Open Mind nearly a quarter century ago.

That the power Al wielded had made him truly a legend in his own time — and not just in his own mind — had already been amply demonstrated in Woody Allen’s classic film, “Sleeper”, when a character explains that the old world had been destroyed when “a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear device”.

Funny — but with very much the ring of truth — despite the fact that “teacher power” seemed then, and seems now, almost an oxymoron.

Indeed, in our very first program together I told Al Shanker that I’ve always wanted to believe that at least among educated Americans who are, after all, those most likely to be familiar with it, the frequent reference to the cruel little ditty — “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” — really reflects a basic uneasiness about doing, not teaching; about churning up dollars and things, not about churning up minds.

For who among us doesn’t really look back with affection, with admiration, and with gratitude to those teachers who did challenge our minds and mold our thinking about ourselves and the world around us; those who charted for us paths that perhaps we’ve strayed from, but which we as surely maintain as key to the good life; those who in truth made “teacher” an honored title.

But, before I get teary-eyed about “Doc” Guernsey and Herman Schneider and Mary Martin and all those other splendid New York City school teachers to whom I owe so much, let me ask Randi Weingarten about then and now, about what’s changed since Woody Allen could joke about “a man named Albert Shanker [getting] hold of a nuclear device’. What has changed?

WEINGARTEN: (Laugh) You know a huge amount has changed and very little has changed. At the same exact time. And, ah, when I say that … I think what’s changed in the last 50 years is that in America we now believe in both universal access and universal attainment for our children.

So people say it in all sorts of different ways. But, if you think back in terms of both Brown versus Board of Education, where we’re about to have an anniversary … separate but equal was not equal. Try to get rid of segregated schools.

More importantly trying to say that there should be one level of education which all of God’s children have a right to attain, it they’re given the opportunity to attain.

And then 25 years ago a nation at risk that looked at all of our public schooling and say … saying … excuse the vernacular … “we ain’t there yet.”

And so if you look at this country compared to all other countries we do believe that in a democracy, capitalist democracy … the great leveler for all kids is a decent, good public education. And that’s what America tries to offer its kids.

And so that is what is remarkable about America and about public education. But what’s, what’s, what’s, what’s tough and why you always see these fights is that we never, ever, ever, and that was the, you know, the legacy of Ocean Hill Brownsville as well.

We never do enough to ensure that all kids can learn. And give them the wherewithal to do that. And when we falter, what you see often is that the people who are blamed are the school teachers themselves.

And it is this kind of … this, this, this … when, when The New York Times talks about my fury as opposed to my reasonableness, it’s when I see this unbelievable unfairness that the very people … who never went into the profession to get rich … should have a decent lifestyle, but never went into get rich … those very people who went into this profession to make a difference in the lives of children, then get blamed for all of society’s failing.

That’s … what’s same, that’s what different. Last ten years New York we actually made some strides … if you define progress as continuous incremental progress.

Ahmm … difficulty is that we want … right now … 100% of our children to, to be able, not just to achieve their … to dream their dreams … but achieve their dreams, and ultimately we’re far from that.

HEFFNER: You talk about progress … and I think back to the eighties and talking with Al Shanker about the Commissions that were looking …


HEFFNER: … toward the future of education …

WEINGARTEN: Right. He was talking about the “Nation at Risk” probably at that point.

HEFFNER: Right. And how do you measure that against other peoples, against other modalities of education?

WEINGARTEN: That is … I’m so glad you raised that question. That is the question that is roiling around education right now. Because what’s happened is that in the absence of a commonsense definition … you know what teachers will often say is, “Well, use Judge Potter Stewart’s ‘we know it when we see it’.”

You know when … you know … good teachers know in two seconds if the teacher next to them is a good teacher or not a good teacher. Good principals know the same thing.

But what happens is that in the absence of an accountability definition about “are we educating the whole child? Are we actually helping a child by twelfth grade be challenged enough, be literate enough, be numeric enough, have enough character development so that he or she can succeed in the world of work. He or she can go to college if he or she wants to and he or she can participate in the democratic processes in America.”

That should be our operational definition. But what happens is because it’s hard to quantify, people have reverted back, I think wrongly, to a definition of proficiently that just says, “Have you done well enough on an English test or a math test?”

And so in the last four years what we’ve gotten to is this absolute fixation with standardized test scores as the measurement of progress and that’s … and I think that has taken us back a step instead of forward in terms of American education.

HEFFNER: But measurement … measurement is the word these days and has been for some time.

WEINGARTEN: Well, “accountability” ought to be the word. But accountability has now, unfortunately, been defined as measurement on English and math tests. And when I say and, and, and, and I totally understand … look … I … we’ve been trying to get our hands around this. It’s very easy when people say, “Well the union doesn’t want to be accountable, teachers don’t want to be accountable.”

Teachers have been accountable for time immemorial, every single time you give a test to your students, you’re accountable.

I often remember … I taught tenth and eleventh grade … actually eleventh and twelfth grade social studies for six years in Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And I used to race to see the list of how my kids did on the Regents. Because … and I used to count who those kids were and did they pass the Regents and what did they get on the Regents and if I thought that somebody didn’t do as well they should do, I felt horrible about it for days and weeks on end. And I know many, many teachers who felt … who feel the same way. They just internalize it.

But accountability. The public has a right to know how our kids are doing. Whether kids are actually reaching the learning outcomes … whether you define them by high standards or whatever … that we expect them to have … both in terms of academic success and social development.

Where we go wrong … both in terms of government and particularly in terms of school systems is that when they publish these results and act like they’re not responsible that’s what’s … that’s wrong. What …

HEFFNER: What do you mean, “they are not responsible?”

WEINGARTEN: Because what is …

HEFFNER: Who are “they”?

WEINGARTEN: … what a school system needs to do, whether it be a Chancellor or a Mayor or a principal or a school Superintendent … the school systems responsibility is actually dual … and it’s tough … but it’s a dual responsibility. It’s not simply, in terms of accountability … to publish the results, to say “This is what we’ve done” and to give an excuse or claim victory, if they’ve done well. If they’ve done poorly, to given an excuse.

They have a much more complicated responsibility. Which is … how do we build improvement? How do we build capacity? How do we have a blue print for how to improve?

Because the difference right now, and this is … this is what we’ve been grappling with for the last several years and that’s why measurements are important.

Measure … no one … when, when kids go to private schools … suburban schools, nobody thinks about measurements. People basically think the schools are doing well, kids are getting into college, they’re prepared for life.

The place we have measurements are when we’re talking about how do we help … particularly poor kids get an opportunity.

And so, what a school system needs to do is it needs to maintain what’s doing well … and just maintain it … initially … and then focus like a laser beam on the schools that are failing kids, or the schools that are not performing well.

And that means building cap … capacity … I’m sorry. That means making sure that kids in these schools have great teachers, have a collaborative relationship between the principal and the teachers, have a good principal and have the resources they need so when kids fall through the cracks, we can help them.

HEFFNER: All right … now … you say “have great teachers”. And you know that that has been one of the sticking points in terms of unions, school systems, mayors, chancellor and otherwise. How do you get good teachers? The best teachers into the places where they need to be, the schools that if I may use the word are “failing”, where you have perhaps the youngest teachers, the least experienced teachers. How do you do that?

WEINGARTEN: So let me … you know …

HEFFNER: You, as a union leader … how do you do it?

WEINGARTEN: We … so … I am sure it will surprise you to know that we’ve actually made, or I’ve made in the last ten years at least four proposals to do this … all of which have been rejected.

HEFFNER: Why have they been rejected?

WEINGARTEN: Because they cost money and they cost and, and, and they require fairly decent management.

We have no problem making contractual changes where you create environments that are successful environments. And that means making sure that teachers, good teachers, go to schools that are struggling and stay in schools that are struggling. Because it’s the “staying” part that is as important part that is as important as the “going” part.

And so the best way we did this, the most important way we did this, the best reform we’ve ever done … at least in my ten year tenure at … as the union president in New York City … has been what we did with Chancellor Crew even under Mayor Giuliani.

And that was creating, what we called the Chancellor’s district. It was like an intensive care district. And that district, which was given a prize by the great city school districts as one of the best turnaround districts in the country. That district we put 40 schools in … schools that had been floundering for years.

And we did several things. We made sure that the schools could not hire anything but a certified teacher. Meaning somebody who had the basic competencies in content as well as in transmission of information.

HEFFNER: Did it mean the most experienced?

WEINGARTEN: It, it meant … first it meant basic certification. But this where the story gets interesting. We said to the people who were in those schools, “you can stay if you’d like to, as long as you’re certified … but we’re going to change things around a lot to make sure we better your practice and give you more support.”

And so we added 40 minutes a day … half of which was used for professional development, for teachers and half of which was used for tutoring, so when kids fell behind we could help them, not wait till the summer.

We added guidance counselors. We added a real parent component, meaning to try to engage parents in the community and in the schools. And we lowered class sizes.

And what happened is within two years every elementary school that was on this list of struggling schools turned around and got off the state and federal lists of struggling schools.

Had a harder time in terms of junior high schools. But what happened was we broke the back of illiteracy and innumeracy. And in that period of time we actually went from, when you look at these competency exams in math and in English, you look at them over a long period of time … we, we, we significantly dropped the amount of illiteracy to single digits in New York City.

HEFFNER: What then happened?

WEINGARTEN: That’s the kind of …

HEFFNER: Success. What happened to success?

WEINGARTEN: Because what happens is every new Chancellor and every new Mayor … actually I give, I give Harold Levy a lot of credit. He was the new Chancellor, he wanted to dump it … we showed him the stats, he kept it.

But every new Chancellor and every new Mayor get very afraid when they have … when they have experiments that had started before their time, that compete with their experiments. And my first big fight with Chancellor Klein was when he dumped the Chancellor’s District. Because it didn’t work within his world view.

And, you know, ultimately what we do in education too much is that, you know, when … if, if it’s not “your”, you know, success you dump it and do something else. And …

HEFFNER: Randi … let …

WEINGARTEN: So, so all I’m saying is that, that one really, really worked and, and worked to turn around schools so that we could really help kids.

And it shows … the reason I tell the story is that it shows that the union and teachers are not afraid of reform that works for kids and is fair to them.

And, we just need … in New York City, as well as around the country … in urban settings we need to work to also challenge and to help combat all the social and economic ills that beset children. Whether it’s the fact that in … there was a point in time in our school system, that 40% of the kids we had in ninth grade didn’t start in our system in first grade.

So the mobility, the limited English language issues where we had to help kids learn English, they were huge. And those are the things that we have to always factor in.

HEFFNER: By the time this program is seen … let’s assume, you are or are about to be the head of the national union …and let’s assume that come January, when a new President of the United States goes into office, and calls Randi Weingarten and says “What do you suggest? Education is important to this nation.” What are you going to suggest?

WEINGARTEN: Ahmm … I’m, hopefully, whoever that new President is will understand that you cannot help all of our children unless you work with the teachers who are on the front lines every day. And …

HEFFNER: But what does that mean, “work with the teachers”?

WEINGARTEN: What that means is probably the single most important and I say this with some trepidation because I don’t think that teachers can do everything. But the single most important thing we give to students is a qualified teacher. And someone who knows her stuff, knows how to impart it, knows how to pull things out of kids.

You were saying at the opening of the show, it’s not simply about how kids can memorize a, a math equation … but … and it’s not how a child can read a reading passage. It’s how do we unlock a brain so that a child has a thirst for knowledge, a love of learning, a sense that the world is ahead of him or her, not behind him or her.

So that’s what a teacher’s role is and a lot of that … some of it can be measured, some of it can’t be measured. And so the question becomes … how do we in America in the urban settings where we have not done as good a job as we should, how do we help … by 12th grade … virtually all kids get a decent education so that they can go into the world of work or they can go to college. Or both.

And that’s the job of … hopefully … that is the job, helping to create a national federal intervention policy particularly aimed at rural areas and urban areas. That’s, I think, the job of the next President.

I think you’ve seen that in the last seven years, despite all the fanfare, having a sanctions based system which is what “no child left behind” has been, hasn’t worked.

If it worked we would have seen huge increases in math and English scores around this country and instead …from both the Right and the Left you’re hearing a lot of people … some whispering, some saying it loudly … what’s it’s done, it’s just actually created “test-prep inc.” in a lot of schools and it hasn’t done what it was supposed to do, which is help the kids who had been left behind.

HEFFNER: Randi, I’m sure you’ve done this … because you’re a responsible leader and teacher … dollars. By what percent of what we, as a nation, spend now … states, national, government … what are we going to have to … by what are we going to have to increase what we spend now?


HEFFNER: A 100%? 50%

WEINGARTEN: I actually … just like … I have started to understand that the way you measure progress in a school system is continuous, sustainable improvement.

You could never … and maybe, you know, I’m saying something controversial … you cannot just throw a huge amount of money to schools and say, “okay, now you have the Rosetta Stone.” Money has to be spent wisely. And it’s going to have to be spent in a phased in incremental way.

So take, for example, New York City. We have raised … and this is something that I’m very proud of … it took tough bargaining and this is something I know the Mayor is very proud of … we have raised salaries in New York City across the board for school teachers by about 43% in a six year period of time, from 2002 to 2008. Mayor’s proud of it. I’m proud of it.

What has happened? All of a sudden where we were beset with shortages, where 17% of New York City school teachers did not the “basic certification”. In one … now … virtually no one doesn’t not have the basic certification.

In one summer … and this is how money matters … in one summer … 2002 … starting salaries went up 22%. We announced the contract in June … starting salaries in September went up 22% from $31,000 to about $39-40,000. That summer alone, we saw almost a complete elimination of, of the shortage in terms of getting teachers to come in. And the Mayor these days will tell you … he has, we have 10 applicants or five applicants for every teaching job.

So money is important in terms of saying to teachers, we are going to do … sorry I use a social studies concept … but a Lockean social contract, which is basically, you’ve got to work really hard as a school teacher.

I hate when people say, “Oh school teachers, only work six hours or seven hours a day, and they have their summers off.” Every school teacher I know lugs home tons of things, working all night long, or most of the night on their lessons, or grading papers or things like that.

Money is important in terms of saying to teachers … “if you work really, really hard and try your hardest and help do continuous growth yourself so that you’re learning what you need to learn to be the best teacher you can be …


WEINGARTEN: … then we’re going to pay you a decent way.

HEFFNER: I’m getting a sign there that says we have three minutes left … and I really want to repeat my question … because if you talk about a Lockean, or a Rousseauian social contract … we have an obligation to everyone watching and most Americans, for them to be able to understand what it is we need to do as a nation in terms of dollars and sense.

WEINGARTEN: We need to …

HEFFNER: Over a period of time.

WEINGARTEN: Right. I don’t think … the reason I’m not answering your question directly … is I don’t have that magic number. But what I do know is that when we spent 40% more in New York City in terms of salaries … it’s not enough … but we no longer had a teacher shortage. We have … and need to spend money in making sure we drill down in schools so that kids get access all the time to what they need.

And we need not to repeat what happened in the seventies fiscal crisis, that the moment there’s a budget crisis, the schools get cut. We just said, part of the campaign for fiscal equity case … that $5 billion dollars more would do it.

But that money is going for …

HEFFNER: In New York State.

WEINGARTEN: In New York State. That money … so that was about 10%, 15% more than we’re spending … 20% more than we’re spending right now.

But that money has to be spent wisely. So what we’ve done is said, it has to be spent on things like pre-K education. Like lowering class sizes so that you can really have personal one-to-one attention with kids … like on things like career and tech ed programs which we know … not only keep kids in schools, but give them a job … a well paying job … not a, you know, minimum wage job. So, there are things we know which will work. And which cost money.

And whether it’s 10% more, 15% more, 20% more … or the fact that Scarsdale basically spends, you know, double, what, you know, maybe a school in New Mexico spends on children. The key really is finding the reforms that work, putting them together like we did in the Chancellor’s district where we spent about 10% more than other schools and helping each kid individually.

Measuring it in terms of “are we making progress?”, but focusing on each kid individually.

HEFFNER: Randi Weingarten we’ve been talking about probably the most important subject in American life other than war and peace. Thank you so much for joining me on The Open Mind.

WEINGARTEN: My pleasure. Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.