It’s a clash of education titans, and definitely worth watching if you have any interest in teacher contracts or union negotiations.
D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee has made national headlines, recently appearing on the cover of Time magazine, and she’s been profiled by major news outlets. Her no-holds-barred approach to reforming the D.C. schools system—undoubtedly one of the most broken in the nation—has piqued the interest of not only educators but the public at large.
While I’m very happy to see Rhee clean house and get serious about education reform, I’ve been concerned her personality, or lack of personality, may stifle many of her efforts. She’s clearly not a team player, and so far her actions have not gone over well with the Washington teachers’ union (which has had its own issues) or some of the players she needs to be engaging.
Enter Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers and another woman who’s watched nationally for her efforts to reform urban schools. While Weingarten’s first interest is protecting the interest of her members, she’s also widely regarded as a reformer in the mold of AFT founder Al Shanker.
Now, Weingarten is coming to Washington to take on Rhee and her proposal to suspend tenure and protections for teachers in exchange for massive salary increases.
“Randi is the most important teachers’ union figure in the country today,” Thomas Toch, co-director of Education Sector, tells the Washington Post. “She’s a pivotal figure in this conversation. The stakes are very high for her in D.C.”
My concerns about Rhee’s working style were confirmed last fall after a phone interview and after I spoke with a friend who’s a teacher in D.C.—a young, smart, and ambitious woman who taught in New York City and has a true interest in urban education reform, just like Rhee herself. I expected her to be enthusiastic about Rhee’s pay-for-performance proposal, but she had harsh words for Rhee’s approach. “We don’t trust her,” she explained, referring to her colleagues.
Weingarten has her own plan for D.C. and salary negotiations. It also has plenty of merit and could fix some of the flaws in Rhee’s plan, such as an overreliance on test scores to determine academic progress. A compromise plan could become one of the most interesting developments in the teaching field in years.
It would be fascinating to see what these two power brokers could do if they worked together, but that seems unlikely at this point. We’ll be sure to keep watching and will report on any developments.
Joetta Sack-Min, Associate Editor