Live Blogging from Teach for America 20th Anniversary Summit, Part 2 – Randi Weingarten

When I joined back in 2006, I didn’t think TFA was about privatization, but there is no debate now. How is it that the people in this room have been tricked into believing that education reform is as simple as getting rid of bad teachers?

Conclusion: A strange session overall. Weingarten was apologetic for her opinions and Hess was painted himself as possessing the “right” opinions, and the crowd seemed to side with him.

GEM TFA Alum at the Summit

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11:45 Breakout sessions begin. There are sessions on everything from school leadership to segregation in our schools to workshops on teaching practices.
I chose to go to:
A Discussion with Randi Weingarten on the Role of Teachers’ Unions in Education Reform
The session begins with us all being given note cards. We are told that we can write our questions on these cards and pass them to the middle. There will be 20 minutes at the end for questions and they will read as many as possible. I hope this isn’t the trend in each session, but I have a feeling it will be. Sort of takes the power out of the question when the person asking it doesn’t get to attach their face and voice to it.
Moderator is Rick Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. He also writes for a blog “Rick Hess Straight Up,”
Randi begins. She gives a little history of herself and why she was drawn to teaching/labor issues. She says she thought  the labor movement was the way to change society, education is the way to change society. “The union is an empowering organization for teachers….most of us don’t have individual power…we need to create structures that create this power…we need you to be part of that.”
Waiting for Superman=she is talking about the contract signed with a GreenDot school in New Jersey. 97% of the kids are on track to graduate. 100% passed their math regents. She points out that this is a unionized school, so Guggenheim should have acknowledged this.
Hess: He says…In NY state, you and the union fought to keep student performance out of teacher performance evaluations and you fought against charter school cap being raised. He asks why she fought against these agents of change. 
Why is this the man moderating this? The TFA agenda is so clear to me know. It’s disappointing to see. When I joined back in 2006, I didn’t think TFA was about privatization, but there is no debate now.
Weingarten: Responds that the data system was flawed. Then goes into a discussion about how large school systems are like factories. She tells the crowd to email her if they see union problems:
Hess:  “How come you haven’t been more vocal about calling out management?” He is referring to management  (school leaders) not getting rid of “bad” teachers.
Why are we so focused on placing blame? It’s always about blame.
Weingarten: She says something about the budget crisis. “I stopped calling them out when the recession hit…” She refers to the fiscal crisis of the 70s. She says “you are right,” referring to Hess’s claim that we need to “call out” management.
“When the union leader does it (calls out blame), then it turns into a fight…it takes us away from the true problems…conflict makes great headlines…but it doesn’t help reform systems to help kids.”
 “Let’s have 360 degree accountability. Lets not just have top down, lets have bottom up. Shouldn’t teachers have a chance to evaluate principals…We gave Joel Klein an evaluation. What was interesting…70-80% filled out the evaluations. They want a voice.”
Not a bad sound bite.
12:00 I’m looking through the TFA handbook for the summit. Big companies sponsoring this event: Chevron, Fidelity, Wells Fargo, Comcast, Coca-Cola, Fed-Ex, Google, and the list goes on.
*This discussion is quite disjointed. Somewhat hard to follow. Doing my best to convey its tone/content.
Weingarten: ATR’s! Let’s see where she takes this. She is talking about the shift to allow free transfers. Now, she’s moving on to excessing, and how she cautioned against it when the DOE wanted to do it.  
She is telling a story about someone who worked in two failing schools.
“We have to get to a different system where we figure out who can teach and who can’t…a system that is fair.”
Hess: “We understand that the union has to protect its members, but it seems like the union is more concerned with protecting teachers’ due process rather than helping teachers who have to shoulder the burden of working in a system with so many bad teachers.”
There is a strong applause, loudest of the session. How is it that the people in this room have been tricked into believing that education reform is as simple as getting rid of bad teachers? 
Weingarten: Responds by saying, “Any union that does that, shame on them.” Then, she goes on to explain how she isn’t about protecting “due process” as her central goal. She is walking a fine line here, definitely trying to win over the crowd, which seems pretty split on their opinions of her.
Hess: “Last in, first out…AFT has stood by this… WHY?”
The questions are so leading. Paints the union as the enemy as well as Weingarten. Not that I’m a huge fan of hers, but still…this room is full of young teachers, though, who don’t want to lose their jobs, and who have been told (both directly and indirectly by TFA) that they are the best teachers—that they are the only hope for change in education. It is scary what this ignorance is doing.
Weingarten: “I’m not saying that seniority is the best way to make layoff decisions…the magnitude of the cuts to schools across this country are devastating…that’s what we should be fighting against. These cuts are devastating for kids. I am fighting to stop the magnitude of these layoffs.”
Hess: “School spending for 3 generations has gone increased. We’ve added adults to the system at twice the rate of students.” He’s gone on to talk about tax increases and how Americans don’t want to spend more on education.
Weingarten: “The American public wants to invest in education…I think there is wasteful spending in our system. We waste $ 7 billion on attrition. In Finland, you have almost no attrition with new teachers.”
Hess: “Let’s talk about the labor market…” Accusing that her wasteful spending claims don’t add up.
Weingarten: She’s been doing a great deal of apologizing on the stage. Why? When she says very pointed things, she concludes with a pitiful, “I’m sorry.” She is pleading to the audience, which is that last thing she needs to be doing. Speak with confidence, woman!
“My job is about public education…”
Why is she going around helping charter schools sign contracts?
Hess: School pensions in New Jersey. “We don’t have the dollars to afford these…they are being offered generous packages at the expense of the students.”
Weingarten: “600 dollars a month is what teachers in New York are getting.” She is pointing out how it isn’t really as “generous” as Hess just alleged. “We need to actually use pension funds to do things about infrastructure….my point is this…there are a lot of new things that need to happen in American…how do you become a fair society.”
12:35 PM
Question and Answer session begins, questions are read by Hess, not by those who have them. Is he choosing the questions to ask?
Question 1: How can teachers who are dissatisfied with unions do anything?
Weingarten:  “Get involved. We need you and we want you.
Question 2:  Oakland teacher who is his union rep wrote:
“Our kids are graduating at a high enough rate. When I raise this at meetings, no one wants to talk about teacher quality. What can I do to help them see this connection?”
Weingarten: “You can’t point fingers…regardless of what you think the problem is you have to engage with your colleagues…We can’t do it alone.”
 I think she is trying to hint at how teacher quality isn’t the only factor and that perhaps other things in our education systems need to change, but she doesn’t really come out and say anything specific. Again, she is walking that fine line all of us in New York saw when she was in charge of the UFT.  She changes her story for her audience. She clings to general statements that can be spun to her liking.
“I hate the status quo. I am not here to defend the status quo.”
Question 3:  Starts with a compliment to her for being her and a criticism of the head of the NEA not being here. The question is about her opinion of NEA.
Perhaps the NEA isn’t here because TFA doesn’t want them here? I’m not sure but I wonder what their president would be saying to this crowd?
Weingarten: “I’m not going to trash the NEA.” She doesn’t say much.
Question 4: “As states like CO, LA, roll out new evaluations for teachers and schools, what are the 3 key things to keep an eye out for?”
1. We cannot reduce education to a test score! (applause)
She doesn’t give two others, but explains this at length.
Conclusion: A strange session overall. Weingarten was apologetic for her opinions and Hess was painted himself as possessing the “right” opinions, and the crowd seemed to side with him.

Only 4 questions were allowed. There are at least 300 people in this room. This is a not a very interactive
12:45 A hunt for lunch ensues. Corralling 11,000 people into a cafeteria is not easy work. Rushing to make the next session, I get stopped by a TFA film crew, asking if I want to be interviewed. Pushing down my great fear of cameras, I agree. I ‘m asked about my perceptions of the achievement gap and I talk about how TFA uses this as such a buzz word. I’m also asked why I came to the summit, which gives me a chance to talk about my concerns about the current positions and direction of TFA. I talk about the privatization of public education, TFA’s blind support of charter schools and the strong anti-union sentiment I feel at the summit. The interviewer seemed surprised by my responses, and luckily I’m wearing my GEM button, so my message cannot be mistaken. Well see if they use the footage! Doubtful, as it seemed they were looking for some “Rah! Rah! Go TFA” clips.
1:15 Found a box lunch. Making my way to my next session and run into two people from my corps year. They are both working at charter schools (Achievement First and Girls Prep). Gave them some GEM literature, had a brief chat with both.  It’s a challenge to figure out how to talk to people who work in charter schools in a way that I can explain my perspective while still being respectful. But, these conversations are crucial.
1:40 Arrive at my Lunch session twenty minutes late. Need to eat. More soon.
From Cradle to Kindergarten: The role of early childhood education in ending educational equity.
1. Aaron Brenner, KIPP Houston
2. Shana Brodaux, Senior Manager of Early Childhood Programs, Harlem Children Zone
3. David Johns, Senior Education Advisor, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
*I missed David Johns piece, and came in while Shana Brodaux was speaking.


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