Randi Weingarten, the notoriously feisty president of the second-largest national teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), received a hero’s welcome at the National Press Club last November. In her speech, she vowed to give ear to almost any tough-minded school reform, and, in a line that thrilled many reformers, promised that the AFT will not protect incompetent teachers: “Teachers are the first to say, ‘Let’s get incompetent teachers out of the classroom.'”
Weingarten would seem to be donning the reformist mantle of a previous AFT president, Al Shanker, a highly regarded reformer who shook up pro-union liberals by reminding everyone that tough school discipline and achievement standards were civil rights fundamentals. But an approach that worked during Shanker’s tenure is more difficult now, with the reformers and unionists pitched in a bare-knuckled fight that is not about lofty, system-changing goals as much as about the thorny specifics of state and local education policy. Caught up in a contentious situation with the Washington, D.C. school system that has challenged her reformist credentials, Weingarten’s attempt to satisfy both sides of the debate is being put to the test–the result of which could dictate the future of education reform across the country.