Tag Archives: aft

Why is the “Won’t Back Down” Debate About Adults Instead of Kids?

In yesterday’s NYT, Vivian Yee describes the growing uproar over the film Won’t Back Down. The film tells the story of a parent who exercises a so-called “parent trigger” law to take over her child’s failing school. Though the film is obviously a “Hollywoodification” of the issue–and a work of fiction–education power players like AFT President Randi Weingarten and Michelle Rhee have become amateur film critics, the former criticizing the depiction of unions and the latter supporting the film’s premise and even hosting advance screenings. Though the “educators pretending to be film critics” thing on both sides has been amusing to watch, the debate has been primarily about adults in the film and not the people we should be really concerned about: the students who attend failing schools.

Before the film was released, the AFT sent out a statement to its supporters warning them about the movie’s release; of primary concern was that the film “depicts teachers and unions in such a false and misleading way.” While perhaps true, it is instructive that the statement doesn’t decry as “false and misleading” the depiction of failing schools and the plight of students who attend them.

The decision of the AFT to focus their energies on the struggle of teachers in the film instead of kids gives further credence to the obvious point that teachers unions do not exist to promote the interests of kids. I’ve said it before and will say it again: our educational system–and the parties entrusted with making its policies–should be singularly focused on student achievement. We need to rid ourselves of the idea that unions can somehow pursue the best interests of students and teachers simultaneously. That’s not to say that those interests are opposed–in many cases they are aligned–but just that they aren’t the same. The main takeaway from the movie ought to be the sobering reality that there are thousands of students and families frustrated by having to attend unsafe and ineffective schools. Unfortunately, that seems to have been forgotten.

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A “Bar Exam” for Teachers Misses the Point

In an interview with Walter Isaacson at the Aspen Ideas Festival, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten suggested that we establish a “bar exam” for public school teachers in America. This exam–which would be rigorous and would emphasize the teaching of critical thinking skills–would help to assuage growing concerns about the quality of teachers in America.

I respect and appreciate Weingarten’s intentions here. Ensuring that every classroom has a great teacher should be perhaps the primary goal of any education reform proposal. But I fear that another test will just be another hoop for potential teachers to jump through, further insulating the profession.

What we need to acknowledge is that, despite the emphasis on credentials in education, you learn how to teach by teaching; on-the-job training, experimenting, and adjusting is what makes great teachers great. I passed three PRAXIS exams before I started teaching, and I will be the first to admit that my high scores in no way correlated with immediate success in the classroom. (To be honest, closer to the opposite is true.) I’m not denying that learning key ideas and strategies before teaching can be beneficial for teachers. But creating a national exam for teachers and pointing to it as evidence of teacher quality falsely implies that teaching is akin to following an instruction manual–that we follow a set of clearly prescribed steps. It cheapens the art of effective teaching.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I fully support constant evaluation of teachers in order to ensure their instructional effectiveness. But evaluating teachers more before they step into a classroom only serves to further entangle the certification process in needless bureaucracy.