American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten has an op-ed piece in today's Washington Post that might well be a Nixon in China moment for American teachers' unions. In the Post article, Weingarten--who is head of the second-largest education labor union in the United States--endorses national learning standards for K-12 students. Weingarten assails as unsatisfactory the currently "uneven patchwork of academic standards for students in our 50 states and the District of Columbia," and calls instead for a system of "common, rigorous" national benchmarks.
The problem, as Weingarten points out, is the mish-mash of federalism that is American education policy. Although the No Child Left Behind law ties federal funding to student achievement in math, literacy, and science, the federal government also allows states to create their own academic standards and testing mechanisms. So, in essence, the federal government says that students must clear certain hurdles if states are to receive federal funding, but then allows states to set the hurdle bar at any height they want. I try not to editorialize too much on this blog (if you want editorializing, check out some of Ivan's posts) but permit me the indulegence of saying that Weingarten is absolutely right. The current system of state standards makes no sense, and is the result of skitzophrenic policy-makers who seem unable to decide whether to worship at the alter of local control or at the alter of robust academic standards.
What's interesting about Weingarten's piece is not so much what it says, but who it's coming from. National academic standards--and standards in general--have long been a bugaboo for American teachers' unions (see, for example, this New York Times piece from 1991, this one from 2000, and this position statement from America's largest teachers' union from 2008). The party line for teachers' unions is that academic learning standards rob teachers of any creative control over their own classroom and make education a series of joyless test-prep drills. As a former teacher, I can say that ther is definitely something to that line of argument, and I'm glad that Weingarten is careful to point out that she is not "suggesting that teachers be forced to provide instruction in a scripted, lock-step manner, unable to tailor lessons or draw on their own expertise."
Still, even the embrace of loose, malleable national standards represents a sea change in unions' thinking. Perhaps the teachers' unions are coming to grips with the reality that standards are here to stay, and have decided to work within the standards framework instead of fighting it? Alternatively, perhaps the union believes that the creation of national content standards will make it easier for displaced or laid-off veteran teachers to get jobs in new cities. Moderating the union's stance on standards could also be a politically calculated move by Weingarten, who may have developed a taste for national politics when New York Governor David Patterson considered her for Hillary Clinton's then-vacant Senate seat. Regardless of the motivations, the Post piece is some food for thought for those of us interested in national education policy.