The wrong partner for our schools

July 22, 2010

Lee Sustar looks at the implications of the "partnership" between American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates.

AS BOSS of Microsoft, Bill Gates steamrollered competitors, intimidated regulators and used his company's quasi-monopoly status to foist deficient software on business and consumers alike.

Now, America's richest man is using those skills to design a system to evaluate schoolteachers, and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten is his willing--make that enthusiastic--partner.

The question is: Will more militant elements in the AFT--including the newly elected leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union--challenge the union's direction?

At the AFT convention in Seattle earlier this month, Weingarten welcomed Gates as a keynote speaker, despite his long and destructive record in the attack on public education that passes for school reform. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent more than $4 billion to push school districts across the U.S. to break up large schools and replace them with small ones, foster the proliferation of charter schools, and push teacher evaluation programs linked to standardized test scores:

Bill Gates addressing the American Federation of Teachers convention
Bill Gates addressing the American Federation of Teachers convention (Lee Sustar | SW)

As Leonie Haimson of the organization Class Size Matters wrote at the Huffington Post Web site:

In recent years, the Gates initiative has turned districts upside-down, at first establishing as many small schools as possible, creating thousands of new administrator jobs, eating up classroom space, and compelling the neediest kids who were excluded from the new small schools to travel long distances to attend even more overcrowded large schools in worse conditions than before, relegating those schools to failure.

The small schools created in their place, with several schools sharing one building, were forced to fight fiercely over scarce space, losing science labs, art rooms, libraries and intervention spaces in the process...

Watch out, America! You have nothing to lose but your public school system, at the hands of the richest man in the country who, like a spoiled child carelessly playing with toys, breaks one after another.

While Gates went out of his way to be deferential to the delegates at the AFT convention, he let slip his disdain for public schools at a recent charter school convention in Chicago. "Charter schools are especially important right now because they are the only schools that have the full opportunity to innovate," he said.

Gates has put his money where his mouth his, last year pouring $60 million into charter school operators in Los Angeles that were angling to take over public schools.

WITH PARTNERS like Gates, the AFT and the National Education Association (NEA) don't need enemies. So why is Randi Weingarten so eager to collaborate with him?

Essentially, Weingarten is trying to use Gates as a shield to protect the union from right-wingers in state legislatures who have seized on federal Race to the Top (RTTT) legislation to try and gut teacher tenure and other job protections.

RTTT, pushed hard by the Obama administration, combines a few carrots with a big stick. States score points in a competition for $4.3 billion in federal funds if they pass legislation that lifts caps on charter schools and imposes strict evaluation criteria and merit pay schemes. This has handed a powerful new weapon to enemies of teachers unions as budget-starved states scramble for money to pay for public education.

The most notorious case is Florida, where the state legislature passed a law that would have made teachers at-will employees with virtually no job protection. It took a veto by Republican Gov. Charlie Crist--who was pressured by teachers' unions--to prevent that measure from becoming law.

By partnering with Gates, Weingarten apparently hopes to deflect Florida-style attacks and implement a system of professional evaluations that the AFT would help to shape. According to this logic, Gates may lack education bona fides, but what state politician or school board hack would dare oppose a man worth $53 billion?

So with Gates in her corner, Weingarten believes that the union can, as she puts it, "lead and propose" on teacher evaluation and other education reform issues while fending off the union-busters.

In fact, the Gates-Weingarten partnership on teacher evaluation was in full swing long before the AFT convention delegates approved a resolution codifying the union's approach.

In his speech to union members, Gates gave glowing approval to recent AFT contracts like the one negotiated in New Haven, Conn., that severely undermines job protections for teachers. He also hailed the AFT's stance on a new law in Colorado that ties teacher tenure to strict performance guidelines. "Critics who've long complained that teachers unions don't care about student outcomes have been forced to reconsider," Gates said.

But if you think that Gates has become enlightened enough to embrace a pro-teacher approach, take a closer look at that Colorado legislation.

The 40,000-member Colorado Education Association (CEA), the statewide affiliate of the NEA, mobilized against the legislation that teacher-bashers in the legislature designed to conform to RTTT guidelines. But the Colorado AFT, which represents just 2,500 members in the entire state, backed the bill, which passed with bipartisan support and the backing of Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.

The Wall Street Journal summarized the law:

Tenured teachers rated "ineffective" two years in a row would be stripped of tenure protection and would revert back to the same probationary status as beginning teachers. They could earn back tenure after three years of satisfactory evaluations. The new bill also mandates that student achievement be the primary driver in every evaluation.

By weakening tenure so drastically, the law could enable administrators to fire high-seniority teachers after a couple years of poor evaluations, which will in part be determined by student test scores. The CEA was particularly concerned that the measure will weaken, if not eliminate, due process in teacher terminations. Thus, the Colorado law--which is becoming a model for other states--could bring back the kind of arbitrary dismissals that spurred the massive expansion of teachers' unions in the 1960s.

One major problem with the Colorado law, argued CEA spokesperson Deborah Fallin, is that it doesn't define what an "ineffective" teacher is, leaving the details to a state commission. "The members who are contacting me are angry. I have actually never seen them more angry," said CEA President Beverly Ingle.

THE AFT's move to undercut the NEA in Colorado highlights the problem of partnership in general and deals on teacher evaluation in particular. Once a teachers union accepts the premise that the teacher evaluation system is "broken" and that the union should take responsibility for judging and removing "ineffective" teachers, it drives a wedge into the foundation of collective bargaining.

Of course, the AFT does call for fair and effective evaluations that aren't reducible to test scores, and that are overseen by specially trained professionals. And teachers have every right to take the lead in improving the quality of teaching by demanding funding for professional development, mentoring programs, adequate prep time for classes and, crucially, smaller class sizes that will help them meet students' individual needs.

But in the age of budget austerity and mass teacher layoffs, the likelier outcome is the weakening of teachers unions.

In Illinois, for example, the AFT's statewide body, the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT), was at the table when legislation on teacher evaluation was drafted as part of the state's application to RTTT. But the IFT and its counterpart, the Illinois Education Association (IEA), were able to win some concessions, including a provision that the law can't be imposed without funding from the federal government or other sources to support it.

Nevertheless, the Illinois law will impose a four-tiered evaluation system that ties teacher evaluation to test scores and other measures of student progress to be announced.

As IEA member Fred Klonsky noted on his blog, "Illinois has instituted one of the most severe and disturbing proposals for linking individual teacher tenure and evaluations to TBA measures of student performance. The fact that individual student performance is never the result of an individual teacher's work is apparently not a consideration."

The same point can be made in regards to the teacher evaluation systems and merit pay agreements devised with the AFT's--and Gates'--support.

In Pittsburgh, school officials are using a $40 million grant from the Gates Foundation to help support teacher training and fund bonuses in a new merit pay scheme. Under a contract signed earlier this year by an AFT local, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, veteran teachers hired under previous contracts will be given the option to forego normal step pay increases for the chance to win bigger pay raises. Those hired after July 1 of this year, however, will be on a merit pay system from the outset, as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

Such an agreement marks a major retreat for the AFT, which has historically opposed such widespread merit pay systems on the grounds that they undermine workplace solidarity and allow administrators to promote favorites and punish union activists.

Then there's the crucial question of how to fairly evaluate teachers--an issue that the Pittsburgh contract doesn't resolve. In other words, the AFT, in a partnership with Gates and Pittsburgh school officials, has launched a major transformation in labor relations without first securing job protections for union members.

Similar issues surround the AFT's deal on teacher evaluation and school reform in New Haven, which is regarded as a "model or template" by Weingarten.

Here also, labor-management committees are tasked with devising a framework for evaluation. But once a tenured teacher receives a negative evaluation by November 1 of any school year, he or she has only 120 calendar days to improve before being terminated. Crucially, the agreement stipulates that "evaluations and their consequences are not subject to the grievance procedure of the contract."

The AFT leadership insists that such a process can be implemented fairly. But the inescapable fact is that the union is providing administrators with the tools to push tenured teachers out the door.

Yet another Gates-AFT partnership goes further in upending the traditional sources of union strength by creating hierarchies in the workforce.

Gates gave $100 million to Florida's Hillsborough County school system--which includes Tampa--to implement a program that will pull 200 to 300 teachers out of the classroom to serve as mentors to new teachers. The mentors will be paid an additional $5,000 per year.

As in Pittsburgh, veteran teachers in Hillsborough County can opt out of traditional step pay increases in favor of merit pay--but can have their pay cut if they have subpar evaluations. Seniority will continue for job placement, but cease to exist for compensation. New hires will automatically be included under the new system. Forty percent of teacher evaluation will depend on test scores and other measures of student performance.

These union agreements are only the beginning of Gates' efforts to reshape teacher evaluation to suit his agenda. As he noted in his speech at the AFT convention, the Gates Foundation is funding the videotaping of 3,000 teachers in six school districts. "The chief goal is to work with teachers--using technology, data and research--to develop a system of evaluation that teachers believe is fair and will help them improve," Gates said.

Project teams will record student gains on standard state tests and another problem-solving exam. This effort recalls the time-and-motion studies made famous a century ago by Frederick Winslow Taylor, the industrial engineer who helped factory bosses squeeze more output out of fewer workers in the new mass-production industries. Now Gates wants to take a similar approach, implementing assembly-line teaching to achieve standardized results.

SO WHY has the AFT embraced Gates? Union President Weingarten made her direction clear in a speech in January, when she called for a "new path" for the union. "Labor and management must understand our shared responsibility to our communities," she said. "Great schools, skilled teachers and well-prepared students can only be achieved in partnership."

The problem is that Weingarten's version of partnership has been attempted by large unions across the U.S. for the last 30 years, with catastrophic results. Tellingly, the AFT's slogan for its approach to teacher evaluation is "continuous improvement." That's the English translation of the Japanese term "kaizen," the constant pressure to increase quality and productivity made famous by Toyota.

In the auto industry, the United Auto Workers (UAW) embraced kaizen at General Motors when the company launched the Saturn brand in the early 1980s. At the same time, the UAW developed "jointness" programs with the Detroit Three automakers to improve quality. The result, of course, was the continual disappearance of union jobs, the bankruptcy of General Motors and the shift of much of U.S. auto production to nonunion companies.

The analogy is limited, of course--schools aren't auto plants. But in terms of union organization, the tendencies are similar. Charter schools need not ever replace public school systems in their entirety to become a whip used to undermine collective bargaining and teacher job protections.

The vision of Gates--and, for that matter, Education Secretary Arne Duncan--is a public school system in which an elite group of highly trained and well-paid teachers are aligned with administrators to recruit the alleged best and brightest teachers for promotion, while the majority live in constant fear of termination. That's the way almost all charter schools run now, and the Obama administration is pushing public education as far in this direction as possible.

Will rank-and-file teachers in the NEA and AFT resist this trend? There were certainly sparks at the AFT convention, which has been chronicled extensively at and the Education Notes Online blog.

The AFT saw its first contested election in decades, as the Detroit delegation became the backbone of an opposition slate. The Detroit Federation of Teachers is in turmoil after a disputed vote over a contract that will "loan" $250 from every teacher's paycheck to the school board until they leave their job. Another flashpoint is Washington, D.C., where a union election was postponed following another controversial contract vote on a deal that will use foundation money to fund merit pay raises.

But likeliest place for a change of direction for the AFT is in Chicago, where the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) slate took over the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) on July 1.

While not formally part of the opposition--CTU President Karen Lewis joined the union's ruling Progressive Caucus and won election as an AFT vice president--there were frictions between the Chicago delegation and Weingarten's home union local, the United Federation of Teachers in New York City.

The main disagreements were over convention resolutions on charter schools--where the Chicagoans wanted to call for a moratorium on charters as a form of privatization, the New York delegation insisted on restating the AFT's support for charter schools as a matter of school choice, and prevailed.

For the moment, the debate over charters, teacher evaluation and merit pay may fade to the background as the Chicago teachers gear up to fight the threat of layoffs. But the AFT's pursuit of partnership even as teachers are under their greatest attack in decades will inevitably lead to a struggle over the future of teacher unionism.

Further Reading

From the archives