Union leader's speech bodes well for D.C. education reform

Thursday, January 14, 2010

IT TAKES GUTS for a labor leader to concede how hard it is to get rid of union members not doing their jobs. It takes even more guts to admit just how wrong that is. So, it is a credit to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten that she has called for reform in due process for teachers. Whether she follows through will be a test of her resolve as well as the willingness of her membership to give up long-held protections that have favored the interests of bad teachers over the needs of students.

Ms. Weingarten acknowledged the "glacial process" of disciplining and removing ineffective teachers in a speech Tuesday that called for major improvements in how teachers are evaluated and developed. She promised to lead the way in streamlining the system whereby complaints against teachers are adjudicated. Equally significant was her admission that student test scores should factor in as one measure of a teacher's performance, although she provided little detail on how this would work.

To be sure, there is -- as skeptics were quick to point out -- a big difference between saying and doing. Consider that last year at about this same time, Ms. Weingarten, newly installed as head of the 1.4-million-member union, proclaimed that everything, save school vouchers, was on the table to reform schools. The results, as evidenced by contracts in New Haven, Conn., and Detroit, proved to be, if not disappointing, far from revolutionary. And, in the District, where Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has pushed for real change in seniority and tenure practices, there's yet to be an agreement announced after two years of negotiations and mediation.

Nonetheless, we want to take Ms. Weingarten at her word; her decision to tap Kenneth R. Feinberg, President Obama's "compensation czar," speaks well of her interest in trying to fix the system. No doubt she recognizes the pressure for change caused by the Obama administration's insistence that only states ready to challenge the status quo will be rewarded with federal education money. Time will attest to her ability to bring about real reform.

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