Another AFT surrender to education “reform”

August 21, 2013

Lee Sustar shows how the American Federation of Teachers' endorsement of a plan to fire "low-performing" teachers plays into the hands of education "reformers."

THE AMERICAN Federation of Teachers (AFT) has a message for corporate education "reformers" who target "bad" teachers: Let our union help you do it.

That's what AFT President Randi Weingarten told reporters on a recent trip to St. Louis, where she touted collaboration between the St. Louis Public Schools and AFT Local 420 that since 2010 has led to the ouster of 100 teachers--40 of them tenured--for being "ineffective."

"This should be the model and not the exception," Weingarten said, adding: "For that to happen you need the powers-that-be in this country to celebrate this."

Called the St. Louis Plan, the program guts teacher tenure--that is, job security. If a principal places a tenured teacher on a Performance Improvement Plan, that individual has a choice. Either they must improve within 18 weeks, according to standards set by the principal, or face a termination hearing. Or they can waive tenure rights and accept the oversight of a mentor teacher. The mentor then reports to an Internal Board of Review (IBOR) of five teachers and four administrators. If six members of the board vote to fire that teacher, the axe falls. If not, the teacher returns to work and regains tenure. A similar process is in place for all first-year teachers, who lose their jobs if they get a thumbs-down from their assigned mentor and the IBOR concurs.

AFT President Randi Weingarten
AFT President Randi Weingarten

The St. Louis Plan blows a hole in tenure and undermines union solidarity. Rather than encourage teachers to support one another cooperatively, it turns a few teachers into straw bosses for the principal. In short, the St. Louis Plan weakens the fundamental basis of teacher unionism--collective action.

What's more, the St. Louis Plan dovetails with the accelerated teacher termination sought by education reformers, who have spent the last few years pushing through state legislation that ties teacher job security to student test scores. The driver of that policy was the Obama administration's Race to the Top grant program, which made passage of such laws a precondition for competing for $4.3 billion in federal funds.

Thus, Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised labor-management collaboration in the St. Louis Public Schools back in 2009. "I think St. Louis can help to lead the country where we need to go," he said. "St. Louis has the chance to leapfrog ahead of other places based upon the leadership, based on the sense of collaboration, based on the commitment." Speaking alongside Duncan was the AFT's Weingarten and Local 420 officials, who stated their demand for teacher input in evaluations.

In September 2012, Weingarten was back in St. Louis to tout collaboration between the district and the union as a positive alternative to the Chicago teachers' strike that had concluded a few days earlier.

In fact, the Chicago Teachers Union used their strike to win, among other things, a limit administrators' ability to terminate teachers deemed "ineffective." In St. Louis, by contrast, the union is working to accelerate the process of firing teachers, all in the name of the cooperation that Weingarten promotes.

IN AN era when the corporate-driven education reform agenda is driving through--school privatization, union-busting and budget cuts, collaboration between teachers unions and administrators inevitably leads to union concessions.

Thus, Weingarten has been directly involved in negotiating contracts in several cities--including New Haven, Conn., Pittsburgh, Baltimore and others--that have systematically abandoned what were once the cornerstones of modern teacher unionism. The traditional defense of tenure, rejection of merit pay, opposition to giving some teachers the power to fire others--all this has been scrapped for the sake of preserving "partnership" with increasingly anti-union school districts.

The St. Louis Plan is modeled on Toledo's Peer Assistance Review (PAR) program pioneered by former Toledo Federation of Teachers President Dal Lawrence, who headed the union from 1967 to 1997. Lawrence boasted that he fired more teachers than any school district superintendent in Ohio.

So it's no surprise that the Harvard Education Review, in an article championing the Toledo Plan, would note that the "union has been sued in federal court three times on charges that they have failed to fairly represent a teacher; each time the union won its case. In the late 1990s, an African American teacher who was recommended for dismissal by the PAR Panel appealed the decision. Although the teacher ultimately retained his job, the case highlighted racial tensions among teachers in relation to PAR."

Those racial controversies included a 2004 charge by Toledo's Urban Coalition that the teacher mentoring program under the PAR system led to disproportionately high numbers of dismissals for first-year African American teachers. At the time, only 11 percent of Toledo teachers were Black, even though more than 40 percent of students were African American.

In response, Francine Lawrence, who had succeeded her husband as president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, defended PAR by playing the race card herself. Without justification, she wrote a letter to members claiming that the district "is about to establish one set of performance standards for Hispanics and whites and a lesser standard for African-Americans."

One might expect such a blatant appeal to racial fears would end the career of any leader of an urban teachers' union. On the contrary, Lawrence rose to prominence in the AFT, becoming director of the union's program and policy council from 2006 to 2008--an internal union think-tank on education issues--and became an AFT vice president in 2008.

Her big achievement--in the view of AFT leaders and education reformers--was her role in developing the Toledo Review and Compensation System (TRACS), a complicated merit-pay scheme tied to the peer review system. Under TRACS, a voluntary program, some teachers get school-wide bonuses based on performance, but also small numbers of individuals apply to join a special program to get significant pay increases based on their individual performance and/or taking assignments in hard-to-staff schools.

Lawrence sold the plan to the membership as a concept, not as contract language. "We agreed to a two-page outline of what an alternative compensation system would look like, what some of the key elements were," Lawrence said. "But we did not try to begin to design the system at the table. You just can't negotiate the details at the table." Instead, the plan is run by a committee appointed by the union and the administration, removing it from any accountability to union members.

Lawrence stepped down from her Toledo post only in 2011 after 14 years in office, concluding her and her husband's combined 44-year reign over the local teachers' union--a one-family reign remarkable even in a labor movement where union presidents often hold office until they die or are indicted.

Lawrence didn't retire, however. Instead, she gained more power, getting promoted to executive vice president of the AFT. It was an unmistakable signal to education reformers that the union was prepared to bargain away its longstanding principles.

Indeed, Randi Weingarten underlined the point. In a statement issued about Lawrence taking the union's third-highest position, the AFT president stated: "Fran has been successful because of her insistence that the only way to achieve sustainable education reform is for teachers and management to collaborate."

IS PEER involvement among teachers inherently anti-union? Certainly, input from colleagues can help teachers improve. Those new on the job in public schools welcome the help and support of colleagues as they take on the challenges posed by large classes, a test-driven curriculum and the problems of students from families suffering the impact of the depressed economy. Teachers likewise routinely compare notes and collaborate--for example, to run classes that blend special education students into mainstream classrooms. A strong union chapter can nurture this cooperation by keeping aggressive principals in check and fostering an atmosphere of solidarity.

This kind of "peer assistance," though, is profoundly threatening to the education reformers. They want to drive a wedge between teachers to weaken unions in traditional schools while accelerating the creation of nonunion charter schools. Peer review, along with merit pay, are intended to turn teachers into competitors for money and job security.

That's why such programs have been promoted at the U.S. Department of Education's conferences on labor-management cooperation. The 2012 event, "Collaborating to Transform the Teaching Profession," held in Cincinnati, highlighted the Baltimore school plan that ties teacher evaluation to "achievement units", which determine their pay. The system resulted in a majority of teachers being at risk of termination.

The AFT's Weingarten bears direct responsibility for this. When Baltimore teachers initially voted down the deal in 2010, she dispatched the union's national staff to the city to ram through the deal on a second vote. Then, at the Cincinnati collaboration conference, Weingarten and Education Secretary Duncan again held up Baltimore as a model.

Ironically, Weingarten left the collaboration conference to attend a Chicago Teachers Union rally that set the stage for the strike later that year. Weingarten said in her speech to union members, "There are over 100 districts talking about working together, and here in the second [sic] city in the United States of America, we have to rally just to be heard."

The point was clear: The AFT leadership prefers collaboration to the risks of confrontation, even it if means surrendering long-held principles and leads inexorably to a decline in numbers and influence for the union.

WHY DOES Weingarten cling to labor-management cooperation even as it threatens to unravel her union?

Back in the 1960s and '70s, the AFT won the right to bargain collectively through illegal strikes in which local union leaders regularly went to jail. The AFT modeled its bargaining strategy on that of the United Auto Worker (UAW), the pacesetting union for improving wages and benefits for the entire working class.

Today, the AFT still takes its cues from the UAW--but now, both unions are headed in the opposite direction.

Since the late 1970s, the UAW has clung to partnership with the Detroit Three automakers through various "jointness" programs that provided financial support for the union bureaucracy even as membership shriveled through plant shutdowns and outsourcing to nonunion suppliers. Contracts that were purportedly structured to save jobs did the opposite. As labor economist Sam Gindin noted, at the end of the 1970s, General Motors employed 450,000 UAW members. After the 2009 auto industry bailout, that number was 40,000. "Thirty years of concessions and a 90 percent loss in jobs," Gindin wrote. "If ever there was a failing strategy for workers, this was it."

The crisis facing the AFT and the larger National Education Association is unfolding much faster than the restructuring of the decades-long auto industry. The wholesale privatization of much of the public school system in New Orleans and Detroit, the proliferation of charter schools across the U.S., and the shock-and-awe budget cuts in Philadelphia set for September threaten the end of public education as we know it.

The AFT, though, continues to cling to partnership. Faced with the certain destruction at the hands of Republicans like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who gutted public-sector bargaining rights, the union is vainly seeking a reprieve through its relationships with Microsoft founder Bill Gates or supposedly pro-union Democrats--even though Democrats like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo are also driving the education reform agenda.

The AFT, though, has another institutional impulse toward collaboration with employers--its self-identity as a "union of professionals."

Fifty years ago, this identity was about winning dignity and respect for teachers, as well as decent pay and collective bargaining. Thus, AFT locals often fought the arbitrary power of principals over transfers between schools or the demand that educators must supervise lunch or recess, without time for class preparation.

Today, however, the AFT's version of "professionalism" is being hitched to the education reformers' bandwagon. Instead of leading the fight to give teachers' greater autonomy over their jobs, the union instead provides a cover for a systematic effort to deskill teaching through the increasing use of high-stakes tests and tying teacher evaluation to test scores. AFT leaders apparently believe they can resist this trend by convincing school districts to introduce peer reviews of teacher quality, rather than simply relying on test data and principal observation.

To that end, the AFT is trying to one-up the corporate education reformers on the question of teacher quality. Weingarten has proposed that teachers follow the example of the legal profession and create the equivalent of a national bar exam. The union therefore links the need for more rigorous teacher examinations to the incoming Common Core Standards, the rigid, test-oriented, one-size-fits all curriculum that is taking effect in the 2013-14 school year. "All teachers should demonstrate the core knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to implement these new standards," states the union's white paper on the subject--a project overseen by Francine Lawrence.

The AFT's approach legitimizes the reformers' narrative that bad teaching is at the heart of the problems of public education--rather than budget cuts, large class sizes and the social consequences of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. So even when the AFT rightly criticizes the widespread use of standardized tests, the union's voice is muffled at best.

A year after the Chicago teachers' strike, the attacks on teachers' unions continue to multiply. Unless and until teachers' union members trade the St. Louis Plan for a Chicago Plan--a militant defense of both their union and public education--they'll continue to lose ground.

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