Union Teachers Accept Duncan Challenge to Join Him on Reform

AFT President Randi Weingarten greets Secretary Duncan at the AFT Town Hall Meeting in Washington, DC.

AFT President Randi Weingarten greets Secretary Duncan at the AFT Town Hall Meeting in Washington, DC.

The nation’s second-largest teachers union told Secretary Duncan on Monday that they’re “with” President Obama’s education agenda and eager to collaborate as long as education reform isn’t “done to” teachers. It was an encouraging message from the 1.4-million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT), because reforming education in partnership with teachers has been this administration’s approach from the beginning.

Arne demonstrated his belief in that collaborative approach by sporting the same button that 2,000 teachers at a Washington, D.C., hotel were also wearing. “Do it WITH us, not TO us,” the button said.

“I think we have a chance to do something very, very special—together,” the Secretary told AFT President Randi Weingarten at the start of a Q and A with members in Washington for a series of workshops. “Great teachers are performing miracles every single day.”

Weingarten praised Duncan for getting discussions of reform beyond the “camp mentality.” For their part, she said, unions need to offer ideas, not be intransigent. Quoting AFT’s legendary president Albert Shanker, Weingarten reminded her members “you can’t beat something with nothing.”

Touching on charter schools and how to hold them accountable, the value of bilingual education in a globally competitive society, how he thinks schools should extend their hours to be community centers, and ways to retool federal education law, Arne took questions from AFT members from some of the nation’s largest urban school districts. (The AFT mostly represents educators in cities. Arne did a similar town hall recently with the larger National Education Association, which represents more than 3 million teachers elsewhere.)

Not all the Secretary’s ideas and stances were popular with AFT. He endured a smattering of boo’s and groans with a smile. His endorsement of paying teachers based on their performance—with their students’ achievement being just one factor in that calculation—earned applause when Duncan said the entire school should be rewarded if students are succeeding.

“What I’m really interested in is results,” Arne said. “Let’s not get ideological about this; let’s take what works and scale it up.”

Adults can only change students’ lives for the better if they get past their own “dysfunction.” And that goes for the Secretary of Education and policymakers in Washington, too.

“I can’t just talk about it,” Arne said. “I have to walk the walk.” And wear the button.

Secretary Duncan proudly displays his 'Do it WITH us, not TO us' button at the AFT Town Hall Meeting in Washington, DC. AFT President Randi Weingarten greets Secretary Duncan at the AFT Town Hall Meeting in Washington, DC. Secretary Duncan talks to the audience of 2000 AFT members at the AFT Town Hall Meeting in Washington, DC.
AFT Members were allowed to ask questions of the Secretary at the AFT Town Hall Meeting in Washington, DC. Secretary Duncan answers questions at the AFT Town Hall Meeting in Washington, DC. Secretary Duncan talks to the audience of 2000 AFT members at the AFT Town Hall Meeting in Washington, DC.
Secretary Duncan thanks the AFT Audience in Washington, D.C. Secretary Duncan and AFT President Randi Weingarten answer press questions at the AFT Town Hall Meeting in Washington, DC. Secretary Duncan and AFT President Randi Weingarten answer press questions at the AFT Town Hall Meeting in Washington, DC.

Massie Ritsch