Learning Leaders Holds Debate: Randi Weingarten and Steven Brill
Learning Leaders, a nonprofit volunteer program in New York City, recently held its annual Education Forum at the Kimmel Center at New York University. The forum featured a panel discussion about reforming public school education between Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Steven Brill, author of “Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Save America’s Schools.” Joyce Purnick, a journalist at the New York Times and political analyst on WNYC, moderated the conversation.
Learning Leaders, founded in 1956 with 20 volunteers as the New York City School Volunteer Program, now has almost 10,000 school volunteers. These mentors work with over 230,000 students within 450 schools across the New York City. The volunteers provide individual instruction and support in reading, writing, math and ESL for elementary to high school students.
Weingarten expressed the desperate need for collaboration within schools and between schools and their communities. She mentioned the importance of an “efficient and effective way” to ensure teacher and administrative quality, while pushing the necessity of parental involvement and “wraparound services” that provide support for students and their families outside of the classroom. Weingarten praised programs like Learning Leaders that involve local parents, residents and small businesses in making schools centers of the community.
Brill disputed Weingarten’s answer, saying that her “idea of collaboration is suing every time a charter school decides to expand, [and] is making sure that the workplace of all the K-12 teachers in the United States does not ever judge people by their performance.” However, both agreed on the necessity of pushing ineffective teachers out of schools.
Weingarten then described the current state of public schools as a “toxic environment” where leaders “default to a fight” instead of collaborating to fulfill the obligation of helping students at a time of economic crisis.
Purnick suggested that if you asked the Bloomberg administration, they would argue that it is the teachers’ unions, like the AFT, that are bringing that fight. Weingarten contested that it “takes two” in these discussions, while Steven Brill added that this toxic environment comes from “challenging interests who are used to getting their way.”
Brill argued that most educators don’t want to rely on testing, but principals and other judges are too subjective and we do not want that either — therefore “since we can’t do it perfectly, we do nothing” and teaching remains the only professional field where, instead of being paid based on performance, teachers are “paid according to how long you can keep breathing,” he said.
Weingarten posited, “How do we stop the polarization and get people to work together?” She addressed the need to have “good leaders who are trained in terms of how to move an instructional agenda.”
Brill added, “Principals are crucially important.” He said that there are outstanding principals who can achieve the collaboration Weingarten discussed. These leaders, against the odds, are truly able to help teachers and students succeed. However, he argues, there is a need for accountability “up and down the chain.” #