National Union Leader Says 'Demonization' Of Teachers At Heart of Kansas's Struggles

Oct 9, 2015

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers
Credit AFGE / Flickr--CC

For the past seven years, Randi Weingarten has led the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest teachers' unions in the United States. 

In an interview with KCUR, she discussed what may be behind the persistent teacher shortages in Kansas, the politically tinged process to rewrite Missouri's learning standards and a case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court that could forever alter how unions like hers do business. 

But first, what are your reflections on the departure of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan? He's been in that position nearly as long as you've been in yours and you've crossed paths frequently. 

I think it's a mixed bag. Arne is a great person and his soul is really with kids. In Obama's second term, they did some really important things with early childhood education, career-tech education, teacher and principal leadership and focusing on equity to level the playing field for poor kids.

But in the first term, they picked the wrong strategy, the one that fixated on testing and sanctions instead of supporting teachers, parents, and kids. As a result, the gold-standard NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores have flattened, parents are frustrated and teachers are demoralized. 

There does seem to be rising momentum against the Common Core standards championed by Duncan. Here in Missouri, the Legislature this year defunded Common Core and teachers have gotten together recently to rewrite the state learning standards. How do you see this political situation from your vantage?

Common Core standards got conflated with testing. People don't think about the standards as what kids need to learn and know how to do. They look at them as a way to measure how they or their child did on a test, as something that is going to be used to fire teachers and close schools, as opposed to a real data point that can be used to inform instruction.

Of course we need high standards and need kids to improve, and learn resilience and teamwork. But these standards have now been equated with testing and parents and teachers are frustrated.

Kansas is actually looking into rewriting its learning standards to include some of the 'softer' skills you just referenced. Put that in a larger context. Is this something other states are doing, too?

It is a larger movement. People are starting to think about how to rewrite standards to include those socio-emotional skills. We have to instruct the whole child. It's easy to look at a math or English test and those became the skills we assessed.

That's not right. Kids learn in different ways. We have to focus on how we engage children. If you can engage them with art, physical education, civics, so be it. Then if that is your way in, then we get to critical thinking. That is education. That's why these types of softer skills need to be part of the standards.

Yet, a big story in Kansas this year has been a teacher shortage. Numbers just came out that show the state still has more than 300 vacancies — way more than normal. Is this unusual on a national scale or are Kansas's problems common?

Throughout the country, there are significant shortages of teachers because of the demonization of the profession. Think about it: ever since that movie "Waiting for Superman" (released in 2010) we've demonized teachers and we don't think there is going to be an effect?

People don't go into teaching for any reason other than to make a difference in the lives of kids. And they deserve support and a living wage. We should credit that and give them the benefit of the doubt.

So, in Kansas, just like in many other places, when you just throw things at teachers and tell them what to do and then fire them if their kids don't get good test scores, that's not how to treat the people who make a difference in kids' lives. 

The Supreme Court is hearing a case this term that could have a major effect on public sector unions' ability to collect fees from workers. How worried are you about that case?

There is no obligation for anyone to ever be forced to join a union. The fees and dues people pay for representation should never go to politics. The question is: if a union represents you, do you have to pay something for it? If unions are not strong, then we can't build a middle class.

Do unions do everything right? Of course not. But taking unions out of the equation, taking away those supports for people like teachers and firefighters, if this case goes against us it will make it worse for working people throughout the country.

Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster and reporter. You can reach him through Twitter @kcurkyle.