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Public Schools Get a Boost Today: AFT Elects President Randi Weingarten

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Today in Chicago, Randi Weingarten was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union with a membership of over 1.4 million. Our country's teachers, students, and families are lucky to have her.

I first saw Randi Weingarten speak in 2003 at Madison Square Garden, where she welcomed New York City's 11,000 rookie teachers to the public school system. Randi brought the arena to life with an impassioned promise to do everything in her power to support our work in the classroom and see to it that we were compensated as the professionals we are. Every one of her words was backed up with action. Perhaps the greatest testimony to that is the fact that new teacher salaries in New York City have increased 43% during her ten-year service as president of the United Federation of Teachers.

Randi Weingarten fights for the right causes. A former high school history teacher, she spends enormous amounts of time inside schools, and she speaks directly to the on-the-ground realities in our classrooms today. For example, she advocates for more accessible early childhood education, school-based health centers to provide medical and mental health care to children, and subsidized housing for teachers to make city living more feasible for educators. She's gone toe to toe with formidable Mayor Bloomberg on a host of issues, and has more than once sent the mayor reeling, most recently defeating his proposal to tie teacher tenure to reductive test scores.

However, one of the traits that defines Randi Weingarten as a particularly skilled leader is her ability to work with people with whom she has previously clashed. She and Bloomberg collaborated to create a school-wide bonus program for raising test scores. Individual schools are given a choice to opt in or out. (I'm not a fan of cash bonuses for test score increases, but the merit pay train is rollicking along, and teachers need more money.)

Under No Child Left Behind, heightened emphasis on standardized testing has become one of the most important issues in our public schools. Randi Weingarten's ideas about how testing should or should not be used are essential to fixing the gross misallocation of time and resources in many public schools today.

In 2006, she wrote to the editor of the New York Times:

There is also a woeful lack of art and music in the schools and, other than on paper, no comprehensive plan for sports and physical education.

This fixation on high-stakes testing to the exclusion of everything else has narrowed the curriculum far too much. Our kids are losing out on the kind of well-rounded education that represents true learning.

At the 2007 EduStat conference at Columbia University, she told a roomful of number-crunchers:

"Too often, testing has replaced instruction; data has replaced professional judgment; compliance has replaced excellence; and so-called leadership has replaced teacher professionalism."

Randi Weingarten does not advocate for throwing out testing; she wants it used in a sensible way. There are not many major office-holders willing to make such a statement, for fear of being politically defined as "weak on accountability." However, Randi never settles to be merely a critic; she actively leads with proposals and plans and programs galore.

One example of Randi Weingarten's vision came when the Department of Education slapped letter grades (based almost wholly on test scores) on schools last fall. Parents, teachers, and principals bearing scarlet letters went into an outraged tailspin. Ms. Weingarten and the UFT responded by spending months developing a fairer, more transparent accountability system. The UFT system rests on four pillars:

1. Academic achievement including not only test scores but also the richness of the curriculum.
2. School safety and order;

3. Teamwork and collaboration focused on achievement;
4. The Department of Education's own responsibility for providing resources and oversight to the schools.

It's difficult not to view the UFT's plan as a better, more comprehensive system than the single letter grades, which were cranked out by a $80 million taxpayer-bought ARIS computer system.

There is no shortage of anti-union conservatives who wring their hands at the mere thought of Randi Weingarten. (A November 2007 New York Post editorial bemoaned Randi as a "squeaky wheel" and wished that she would "give it a rest.")

Randi responded to such detractors in her AFT acceptance speech today:

As a union of public service employees, we are Public Enemy Number One for those who take pot shots at the public schools, the labor movement, and the very concept of government serving a greater good. We have often been called a special interest. And I will never apologize for that because our "special interests" are the students we teach, the patients we care for, and all the people we serve. They're worth fighting for, with every weapon in our arsenal as a union of professionals: The power of a growing membership. The power of collective bargaining. The power of the political process. And the power of our ideas for improving the institutions where we work.

Randi Weingarten is a tireless fighter for safer, stronger, and more equitable public schools, which are a cornerstone of our democracy. Her rise to the AFT presidency is something to celebrate.

Dan Brown is the author of the teacher memoir "The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle."