July 12, 2010

Gates speech at AFT

Originally written Saturday, July 10: I've figured out how to hang this electronic device onto the back of the chair in front of me while my old PDA foldable keyboard is synced and sitting on my lap, so I can write this blog entry in the middle of the AFT session. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gave a spirited speech before lunch, and then the floor approved a resolution on teacher evaluation without amendment.

This afternoon, we started with resolutions on community support and career/technical education (CTE) programs. For the most part, the resolutions this afternoon were neither going to be the controversial resolutions nor the controversial part of the afternoon session, which was Bill Gates' appearance at the convention. Very popular was a resolution urging public meetings for the national commission on fiscal responsibility and reform and giving AFT an official position in favor of progressive effective tax policy instead of Social Security benefits cuts that are regressive. As I've written before, a number of people simultaneously want policies that would end in significant layoffs of teachers over 50 and also significantly reduce pension benefits and contributions to public-employee pensions. Evidently, there is some group of self-defined reformers who are in fear that somewhere, someone is enjoying a retirement free from fear of destitution.

The Gates appearance started at 4:15. From what a colleague told me later, he helicoptered over from his island estate. Randi Weingarten at first started speaking from the sheet announcing Innovation Fund awardees and then turned to introducing Gates. She took care to quote from Gates's annual letter at points where he specified opposition to solitary use of test scores to evaluate teachers and supported evaluation as a tool to help most teachers. With a smattering of boos, Weingarten smiled and said, "I thought you guys were leaving," referring to the threats of a boycott by the small dissenting caucus By Any Means Necessary (BAMN). The majority of delegates roared. Later, there were about 25 delegates out of several thousand present who walked out as Gates stood at the podium. So much for the huge boycott of Gates's speech...

Gates started by publicly congratulating AFT for the approval of the resolution on teacher evaluation/development and on steps taken thus far, including the AFT locals who are working with the Gates Foundation on specific programs. He mixed in some misleading statements about "declining" graduation rates (as opposed to stagnation) with some fair statements and a clear statement that teachers must be included in reform. He spent a few moments discussing the failed small-schools initiative. The greatest applause lines came when Gates criticized the existing record of poor administrators' evaluations and when he acknowledged that people who have never taught in a classroom do not understand how difficult teaching can be.

The BAMN protesters then had pretty awful timing, coming back towards the hall shouting protests ... just as Gates said some teachers have challenges with students who are bored or engage in disruptive behavior. The hall erupted in laughter at the irony.

Gates's weakest argument was the individual teacher equivalent of effective-schools rhetoric: see what teachers do when students demonstrate great achievement. It's a high-risk claim, to assert that the development of a teacher evaluation system can also document which a priori behaviors are best. What may be easier is the collection of videos of different teachers, with a broad enough sample that some will turn out to be great teachers. Gates also highlighted two project districts in AFT: Hillsborough, Florida, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As is common with description of risky projects in early days, the rhetoric was a bit breathless, and I could hear a few oohs and boos in the audience when he mentioned merit pay, Race to the Top, and tying tenure to student achievement.

Gates ended with the obligatory reference to Al Shanker and the need for teacher voice in reform. "Don't give it back, take the risk, and keep it up." "No other union is doing what you are to make this [reform] happen."

Additional thoughts a few days later: Gates got some personal mileage by appearing at AFT. He spoke with a few reporters afterwards, and his appearance generated some newspaper stories at the St. Pete Times and Washington Post that were more about the Gates Foundation than the AFT convention. At AFT, I don't think delegates had their minds changed much by Gates, since they were likely to be aware of what he's done and where he agrees and disagrees with them.

Gates's rhetoric is compartmentalized. In a good part of what he said, teachers were at the center of what he describes as reform, including teacher evaluation. But then the sore-thumb statement popped out about tying due-process protections to student test scores, unmediated by professional judgment. It's as if there's a switch inside his head, where he can talk either about test scores or about better evaluation of teacher practice. Reform rhetoric as a quantum effect? I don't know. But it's poor strategizing and a poor contribution to discussion. One of the wealthiest men in the world should be able to be more sophisticated.

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Posted in Education policy on July 12, 2010 1:22 PM | Submit