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Randi Weingarten Responds

The president of the American Federation of Teachers begs to differ with Rotherham's column, "Let’s Talk Honestly About Bad Teachers"

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Andrew Rotherham follows developments in education reform closely, and we’ve discussed the work the American Federation of Teachers is doing to strengthen teaching and learning. On occasion, he’s even written about our efforts to improve teacher quality. But unfortunately, rather than acknowledging our leadership in these areas, Rotherham willfully ignores our work, as sadly it doesn’t fit his current narrative.

But that doesn’t mean this serious, comprehensive work is not under way. Rotherham knows the AFT has done what we said we would do — we have developed a comprehensive teacher evaluation and development program, and we have revamped tenure and aligned it to the due process system. We have done the necessary and rigorous work to improve teacher quality.

Rotherham’s complaint that you cannot discuss poorly performing teachers without being accused of teacher bashing is a crude attempt to set up a straw man, a transparent ploy to compare apples and oranges. Perhaps he is sensitive to the “teacher bashing” charge because he has engaged in it. He knows educators are the first to be critical of colleagues who are not cutting it in the classroom. But being critical of a teacher for falling short does not constitute teacher bashing. What does constitute teacher bashing is blaming educators for the outcomes of policies imposed on them without their input. It’s requiring teachers to do more with less in times of increasing challenges, and criticizing anyone who points this out as making excuses. It’s making standardized test scores the sole measure of student achievement and teacher effectiveness, reducing their complexities to a one-dimensional and often unreliable number. Policies such as these do nothing to strengthen teaching and learning, and they have driven far too many good teachers out of the profession. Rotherham knows this to be true, but he has yet to acknowledge it.

Perhaps most dishonest about Rotherham’s column is the impression he left that the AFT, after Albert Shanker’s tenure, has never directly confronted the issue of teacher competency. He knows better, and that’s part of what is wrong with a self-defined “reform” movement. He may disagree with us on whether our remedies are effective, but to pretend that we have not directly confronted teacher quality is wrong and a willful misrepresentation of the facts.

Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers, WASHINGTON

Rotherham responds:

I’m grateful to Randi Weingarten for responding and for illustrating just how hard it is to have a reasonable conversation about teacher quality. Nowhere in my column did I suggest using test scores as the sole measure of teacher effectiveness, and in previous columns — including the one I wrote a week prior to this — I cautioned about the need to balance data with professional judgment. It’s also worth noting that the same column Weingarten is castigating me for points out that among too many conservatives, anything less than complete contempt for the teachers unions is seen as a sign on softness on reform. As my column made clear, the unions are not monolithic and some local affiliates around the country differ in how much they’re willing to do to solve today’s problems. Weingarten deserves credit for creating some room for them to do so. My main point, however, was that it’s hard to have a conversation about this issue that doesn’t involve charges of teacher bashing intended to chill the conversation. Randi’s response is a perfect example of this.