‘They Demonize Us.’ Randi Weingarten Talks Tensions With 'Innovators’...

EdSurge Podcast

‘They Demonize Us.’ Randi Weingarten Talks Tensions With 'Innovators’ (and Betsy DeVos)

By Jenny Abamu     May 8, 2018

‘They Demonize Us.’ Randi Weingarten Talks Tensions With 'Innovators’ (and Betsy DeVos)

The eruption of teacher strikes in states all over the country caught national headlines, adding to the already heated debate about the questionable state of affairs in public schools. But the strikes aren’t over, so what is the next step for these educators? The quick-fix plans put together by legislatures in states such as Arizona and West Virginia feel more like a band-aid put on an ailing illness than an actual change. Educators in these states note that the "war" has not been won.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the largest teachers union in the country, joins the EdSurge On Air podcast for a lively conversation on what comes next for teacher strikes, working (or not working) with Betsy DeVos, and why she takes offense from people who come in to ‘disrupt’ public education.

Listen to the podcast for the full interview below or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or read highlights from the conversation (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).

EdSurge: I know that you've been on the ground with teachers who are protesting in so many different states. Tell me an antidote from your experience that maybe has not caught the headlines yet. What has stuck out to you?

Randi Weingarten: Let me tell you about two stories. One on the protest line, in Charleston, West Virginia, and one just this week in Phoenix, Arizona.

In Charleston, I was with high school teachers in Corona County, and one was not wearing a jacket. And so I said to her—because it was February—I said it's really cold. I took my jacket off and I gave it to her and I said, you've got to wear a jacket, you're gonna get a cold. And she told me she wasn't because she had a back injury, and it was hard for her to get clothes on and off. And I'm like, then what are you doing out here? And she looked at me and she said, how can I not be out here? We are actually fighting for ourselves, and then fighting for our kids, and I have got be out here.

That's the level of deprivation that I saw. The sense of, If not now, when? If we don't speak up now, all together, what will happen?

And then Zoe, in Arizona. Zoe did a press taping with me for MSNBC. Zoe's a first-year teacher. She has incredible excitement. Her life is ahead of her. And she explained what it means to have to, as a new teacher, dig deep into her pocket to create her classroom environment. What it means to as a new teacher, every single day, write a curriculum.

And so you juxtapose those two stories and they represent hundreds of other people. They actually represent hundreds of thousands of educators with whom I've had the honor to have individual conversations, who have told me these stories.

Now what I've heard you say on a few occasions, as kind of the next step for some of these teachers, to start electing more progressive officials. Specifically, what do you see Democrats doing for public education that Republicans haven't?

I'm a good Democrat, and I've been a Democrat probably my whole life. But, we make a mistake as progressives to start with what can Democrats do versus what have Republicans not done. What we're saying is we want pro-public education people in power so that you don't have to have a human shield to actually get what should be obvious to any elected official.

What is it that on a local level that people really want for their communities? They want their kids to be educated and have a chance at a future. They want their communities to be safe, and they want to have decent-enough services from their communities. That's what people want from government on a local level. Public education never used to be a Republican versus a Democratic issue, it used to be a bipartisan issue.

What has happened with these right-wingers is that they have decided to starve services, or they decided to cut taxes and give tax breaks to their friends or too big corporations at the expense of kids. That started happening in the recession in the mid-2000s, but still, state after state that has been run by these right-wingers opted for tax cuts to the rich as opposed to services for children. And what we're saying is that it's an American value, not a Republican versus Democratic value, it's an American value to want to have a ladder of opportunity for our next generation, not to make it harder on them, but to actually let them seize their future. And that comes in an equitable way in public education.

Spend the money wisely, but we still need resources. And that's what's happened in Oklahoma, for example. There is one billion dollars less in schools today than ten years ago—30 percent less. And so what you saw as a result is not simply that teachers were not getting paid enough, or that the cost of health care meant that teachers salaries were actually going down, but also that there was not enough personnel for art and music, or helping students with special needs, or that the books and supplies were so old they were not effective for today.

I've seen some of the spats back and forth in the media or on Twitter between you and the current administration. It's obvious that you're not a fan of Betsy DeVos, but I'm curious—figuring that she's lasted longer than most of Trump’s other appointees and doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon, what is the strategy for union leaders like yourself moving forward with this administration?

Well, there's no strategy with this administration. We tried when she first came in. We invited her to Van Wert, Ohio to actually go to public schools and see schools in places where they basically voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. Where they actually wanted, for whatever reason, Trump to be president, but they loved their public schools. And we took her to three schools that day. I think it was three of the 18 schools that she went to in total in 2017, and she made a lot of promises to people there that she'd spend time with her early-childhood teachers, she’d spend time with parents with special needs kids. And from what I can tell, she has basically violated or broken every single one of those promises. Because the truth is she doesn't actually do the work to invest the time, energy and effort to do the work to strengthen public schools.

Her ideology is simply, 'get rid of public schools.' Disrupt them, siphon off money. And she calls that “choice,” or she calls that these days “innovation.” Instead of actually making sure that schools and parents who want to send their kids, actually have the resources that they need, she essentially does the opposite. And that's why teachers like John Hansel, Oklahoma teacher of the year, he voted for Trump, he said you can't keep on siphoning money off our schools. That is what is making it harder and harder. And she answered him by essentially saying, well that's not my issue.

I have her actual answer if I can read it to you. Her answer was, that her goal was to redefine what education is, and she wants to call all of it public education. So instead of strengthening the places that 90 percent of kids go, her constant goal as secretary, assuming that she has one, is to basically disrupt and destabilize. How do you work with that?

In the edtech space, there's a lot of people who do talk about disruption for public school. That's a very popular topic. I'm curious, what do you see as the tension with innovation and the way traditional public schools have been run in the past? What makes it hard to have union rules and to also redesign schools if schools need to be redesigned?

The framing is what I find frankly pretty offensive because at the end of the day every one of us is constantly focusing on how we improve! I don't know a person, I certainly don't know a school teacher, I don't know a kid, anybody who says, I just want to be exactly what I am right now. There's a constant sense of, how do we improve? How do we strengthen?

Public schools are really different than market economics. Normally what happens is that people who want to disrupt because they want to shake a system up, to open up an avenue for them to bring in their own goods and services. And that's in some ways what every one of these entrepreneurs want. So what they'll say is, “okay we're gonna shake the system up!” And they suggest that those of us who have spent our lives trying to educate kids, they have to try to demonize us in order to elevate themselves. And that's what I find offensive.

So I say to those people, come into my classroom. Spend five minutes with me and my kids. Tell me what you think I should be doing differently. And then you try to teach for five or ten minutes, and then I can critique you. But my point is, come on in! See what we can do. Help us make things better. Don't immediately tell us how wrong we are because we made the choice to make a difference in the lives of kids.

When people talk about traditional public schools versus not, that is attempting to say that something is wrong, versus something is right. We need to have great public schools for all kids. We need to have schools that actually meet the needs of kids, focus on their well-being, engage in powerful instruction, build the capacity of the workforce, create collaboration. That's what we need to do.

It's not a matter of traditional versus non-traditional. It's a matter of how do we create, envision and sustain that kind of system of schools. Technology is really important as a way of helping to teach, but it is not something that will supplant or substitute for teachers. What kids really need is stable, safe welcoming environments. And so if you are always shaking things up, what do you think that means in terms of a kid needing a stable welcoming environment?

And what I have seen is that meant and successful, sustainable, scalable, means that you have to develop the muscle of good strategy. And sometimes that takes more than a nanosecond. Does it mean that some things have to be shaken up? Of course! But we basically need to have stable, safe, welcoming environments for kids where they feel safe enough to actually engage and to take the risk.

So let's focus on well-being, let’s focus on powerful learning, let’s focus on building the capacity of teachers and the agency and the voice of teachers. Let's have cultures of collaboration. And when you do those four strategies that also entail technology to some extent. Those are the strategies that make schools great.

This article is only a highlight of the podcast, where she continues by outlining what innovations she thinks can scale in public schools. Be sure to listen to the podcast for the full conversation.

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