It was the marquee event of the NPE convention. Lily Eskelsen Garcia and Randi Weingarten sitting down with Diane Ravitch in front of a stuffed-full ballroom. I did not take notes, and the video is not up to rewatch yet, but I want to put my impressions down before they fade too much.
An organizer made one more fruitless attempt to get a room filled with teachers to behave, because when it comes to behaving like good students, teachers are the worst. But as he did so, he informed us that 1,000 people were already online to watch-- so we had to start on time.
Xian Barrett did the introductions, which had to be just a bit nervewracking, but he set a nice tone-- not too formal, but still respecting the weight of the occasion. Nicely done.
My expectations were not high. Both Garcia and Weingarten have carefully staked out and fully fleshed out positions, and while they are the faces of their unions, they are also tied to a big bundle of leadership teams and union bureaucracy. I did not imagine for a minute that either was suddenly going to throw up her hands and say, "Yeah, you know what? I've been wrong about that. I'm going to go ahead and reverse my union's position on the spot."
But it was my first time to see either in person, and I was interested to see how that played out.
Both came in full professional labor leader snappy dress and were whisked to one side moments before the start to don official NPE t-shirts. Garcia by far beats all comes in a hair contest-- it is just a magnificent mane, as iconic as an Elvis DA flip.
The discussion got off to a somewhat plastic start-- Ravitch asked a question and each leader in her turn launched into full-on campaign mode, which led to Ravitch's imposition of a three minute time limit on answers. Ravitch was herself as moderator-- one minute she's a scrappy political veteran and the next she's your grandmother learning how to use a smartphone app.
My not-high expectations were met. Garcia displayed a great grasp of how privatization, crushing unions, dismantling democracy, and test-and-punish all fit together into a larger picture that is bad for teachers, students, and public education. But she either can't or won't see how Common Core is part and parcel of that same drive to break up public education, and her enthusiasm for the Core (there's a great app for the Core! whee!) is both disappointing and intellectually puzzling. Hating testing and loving the Core is like going to the pound and saying, "I want to take home a puppy, but only the end that smiles and licks you on the face. I don't want to take home the end that poops."
Both were support-ish of the opt out movement (Parents should be able to do it; teachers should be able to talk about it). But neither was very strong in denouncing the enshrinement of testing in the ESEA rewrites. You can read a full version of what were essentially Garcia's remarks which boil down to "Less testing, less punishment for test results, and no using tests for purposes for which they weren't created." She is not so much envisioning a world without the Big Standardized Test as a world where the Big Assessment is so swell that everyone welcomes it cheerfully (in part because her imaginary assessment will cover what she considers the good parts of Common Core). She might as well envision a future in which students will ride to school on the backs of brightly colored dinosaurs. The assessment she imagines cannot and will not exist on a national scale.
I did hear Weingarten say one interesting thing (well, two, if you count the part where she said that she had no particular desire to marry her partner). What I believe I heard her say was that testing "has killed" or "has destroyed" the promise of Common Core. I'll be checking the tape-- if I'm correct, then Weingarten just declared Common Core dead, which is not as good as repudiation, but I'll still take it. Her hardest question actually came afterwards, when Mercedes Schneider asked her about that damn robocall to help Cuomo (let's not pretend it wasn't that).
The big moment came with the agreement by both that their unions would no longer take money from Gates. I don't imagine for a moment that they did so on the spot (or that they have the authority, really, to make that decision), but it was still a nice moment.
It was interesting to see their personal styles on display. I have to love Garcia for being quick-witted and snarky; plus, she speaks in a manner that seems completely authentic, like a regular human being. Weingarten is more of an old-school labor leader who suddenly erupts into a hollering bluster that I expect is a measure technique for whipping a crow up into a frenzy, but on Sunday seemed a bit affected and at times over-the-top. But I was born in New England, so maybe that's me.
I know lots of folks who watched from home and in the ballroom were disappointed. I wasn't, but as I said, I wasn't expecting much. Large national unions cannot turn on a dime, and labor leaders live with political realities (we may not like it, but I have heard multiple times from multiple directions that mandatory testing is untouchable in ESEA in part because advocates for civil rights and students with disabilities support testing fervently).
Their support of Common Core is misguided and wrong. Their opposition to test-driven reform-- but not the actual tests-- is befuddling. They have some great things to say about building and defending union power-- but having the power would mean a great deal more if they'd use it for something useful. I haven't liked their position on Common Core and testing
But here's the thing to like about Sunday at NPE.
They were there.
The two leaders of the largest teacher unions in the country agreed to come explain themselves and answer questions in front of a houseful of people who were vocal advocates for public education. Think back less than two years to Dennis Van Roekel dismissing NEA member opposition to Common Core with a flip, "Well, what do you propose to do instead?" That's not where NEA is now.
Even if you're just paying lip service-- you can't do it if you don't know what the answer is supposed to be. Two years ago our union leaders didn't even know that. Before giving her answer about testing, Weingarten acknowledged that some people were going to boo (they didn't, and there wasn't much booing, but there was plenty of hissing at some of the worst)-- she knows that her positions are not popular with advocates for public education.
Two years ago the Network for Public Education barely existed, and the support for public education that it represents was fragmented and invisible to the folks doing political calculus. Not that long ago national union leaders could have easily dismissed NPE and the viewpoint it represents. Today, they cannot.
On so many fronts, the folks who stand up for public education are becoming harder to ignore (looking at you, NY opt outs). Reformsters are spending money to try to rebut and respond to public education advocates. In fact, Peter Cunningham of Education Post, the heavily financed pro-reformster rapid-response PR organization was also at the convention this weekend.
You know the drill. First they ignore you. But eventually, they can't. The movement to defend and support public education has become strong enough that the union presidents came to us to talk about it. Yes, they brought much of their same old baggage. But they came.
As several speakers noted this weekend, this is a long haul. We are not going to turn any of the large organizations involved quickly or abruptly. But we can help them evolve. And the best place to start is with our natural allies, and THAT can't start until they show up to talk to us. Who knows-- maybe next time they'll come to listen to us, too. Baby steps.