Considering its role in sparking the most-important teachers union strike in American history five decades ago with its shutdown of New York City's schools, and the years it has since spent making teaching the public sector profession most-insulated from performance management, the American Federation of Teachers is an unlikely name to be found among the wonks and advocates at the helm of reforming America's public schools.
But these days, the nation's other national teachers union is getting some qualified praise for supporting a handful of initiatives that tip-toe toward the prescription of more-rigorous curriculum standards, standardized tests, school choice and consequences advocated by the school reformers the union has long opposed. Whether or not the AFT will fully embrace school reform -- or simply backslide into its inveterate support of traditional education concepts -- is another matter entirely.
In October, the AFT shocked the education world when its New Haven, Conn., local agreed to a new contract that would allow the New England city's school district to offer merit pay to the best-performing teachers and allows for the conversion of laggard schools into charter schools. Given the longstanding hostile opposition to performance pay of any kind, the concession even made normally skeptical education scholar Andy Smarick of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute call it "a set of very exciting developments."
That same month, the AFT's foundation handed out $3.3 million in grants from an "innovation fund" it had set up earlier this year. Among the projects funded is an effort by the union's San Antonio local to expand the number of charter schools operated within the city's school district. Another project, an alternative teacher preparation program started by its Saint Paul, Minn., unit geared at attracting mid-career professionals and college students, bears more than a passing resemblance to Teach For America, the pioneering teacher program that has produced such vanguards of school reform as D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.
The AFT's innovation fund even managed to win over some school reformers that have long sparred with the traditional education establishment. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the prime backer of teacher quality advocates (and AFT foes) such as the National Council on Teacher Quality, poured $225,000 into the fund. Also ponying up money is the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation, whose cofounder (a homebuilding and insurance magnate) has helped lead battles against the National Education Association's notoriously bellicose Los Angeles local over reform of the nation's second-largest traditional public school district.
This is, of course, the same union whose president, Randi Weingarten, complained that President Barack Obama's Race to the Top effort was little more than advocacy for expanding charter schools and using test scores to measure teacher performance. Despite the NEA's gargantuan membership and sizable campaign donations, it was the AFT who transformed teaching from a profession to one of the most-ardent defenders of public sector union privileges. And the union's battles with the two most reform-minded public school leaders -- Rhee and New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein -- over new contracts also confirms fears among many that it is only trying to co-opt and subvert meaningful reform.
But the AFT's idiosyncratic past means that it isn't as resistant to breaking with public education -- or labor union -- tradition. During the 1930s, when most labor unions supported the passage of the racially bigoted Davis-Bacon Act, the AFT fully embraced the integration of blacks into the economic mainstream. During the 1970s and 1980s, its longtime president, the fiery Albert Shanker, was one of the few union leaders who demonstrably supported Lech Walesa's battle against Poland's Communist regime; argued for the kind of more-rigorous standards that would later form the heart of the No Child Left Behind Act; and even helped foster the early development of the charter school movement, the most-successful vehicle for the promotion of school choice.
The AFT also faces the reality that unlike the NEA -- whose locals are largely concentrated in the Midwest and South -- its rank-and-file teaches in the nation's most-woeful traditional public school districts, the hotbeds for the most-important efforts in school reform. With the big-city mayors, inner-city parents and young centrist Democrats more concerned about improving the quality of education than about union solidarity -- and even divisions within locals between older teachers nearing retirement and younger colleagues less invested in keeping tenure -- the AFT also finds itself in the biggest battles over the future of American public education.
AFT President Weingarten knows this all too well. Before taking the reins of the national union in 2008, she ran its New York City local, which is also the nation's largest. There, she found herself steamrolled by Klein -- the former Clinton anti-trust czar-turned-schools chancellor -- and his boss, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as they successfully won control of the school system from an appointed board, and proceeded to authorize charters, instituted new curriculum standards, and won concessions from the union to allow school principals to remove laggard teachers. Weingarten eventually learned to play along with some of the changes in order to get rich salary increases and keep such sweet protections as a "Rubber Room" where poor-performing teachers can collect salaries even as they are turn themselves around.
The experience partly explains why the AFT has taken its most-recent steps -- and may eventually go further. How far will largely depend on the outcome of what it considers its two most-important battles on the ground.
In New York City, the AFT local and Bloomberg are negotiating a contract to replace the one that expired last month. So far, the local's president has already vocally opposed Bloomberg's plans to test scores in evaluating the performance of teachers seeking tenure. Although the local and state locals had already thwarted Bloomberg on this effort last year, the pursuit of federal Race to the Top funds has end up leading to the tying of student test score data and teacher performance in California and other states over the opposition of other state and local NEA and AFT affiliates.
Back in D.C., the AFT is actively inserting itself into the protracted bargaining between its local and D.C. schools boss Rhee, who wants to replace tenure with a system of performance pay and stricter performance evaluations; the plan itself has formed a generational divide within the rank-and-file and even some of the leadership. This year, Rhee has unilaterally imposed a teacher evaluation system based largely on student test-score growth. In September, just as school began, she also used a $21 million cut in the school budget to lay off 266 teachers (including many longtime instructors); the AFT has since lost a lawsuit aimed at rescinding the move. The battle will likely spill over into next year, as Rhee's boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, faces re-election.
A few more lost battles won't likely make the AFT as much a bastion of school reform as the Democrats for Education Reform. But they could help push the union further in their direction.