Yesterday afternoon I attended a round table debate between American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, New York City schools Chancellor Joel Klein, and D.C. schools Superintendent Michelle Rhee. The event was hosted by Democracy. If you don't follow education policy, let me break down for you, briefly, why the theatrics here were exciting: Weingarten, the most influential teachers' union leader in the country, currently runs the New York City local union -- and may or may not be angling to get Joel Klein fired. She is also heading stalemated teacher contract negotiations in D.C., where Rhee is attempting to push through the most aggressive teacher merit pay system in the country. It was riveting to see the eloquent, verbose Weingarten physically wedged between her two sometimes-foes -- though she's clear on the fact that she considers her relationship with Klein the more productive one, even if it is often antagonistic. When Rhee offered to pour Randi some water, Randi seemed unsure of what to say for a few moments. Finally she just responded, "Yes" -- but without making eye contact.
Despite the awkwardness, there was one topic about which Weingarten, Rhee, and Klein agreed: All are skeptical of the Common Core Initiative announced last week by the National Governors' Association, in which 46 states and the testing industry will work together to create high school reading and math standards. The consensus among these urban educators was that state legislators have less than a stellar track record in implementing education reform with teeth. Indeed, local politicians may not want to undo the years of work they've put into developing state-specific standards and assessments, as they were required to do by No Child Left Behind.
We do need "fewer, richer, deeper, and clearer" national standards, Weingarten said, but at the state level, standards-writing often leads to more complexity and confusion for teachers. "What we've done politically is that every time something is important to anybody, it becomes part of the standards. ... Standard 4.3.2," she cautioned. "Will we be able to call out if this effort doesn't mean anything more than it has to date?"
Rhee agreed that "we shouldn't be naive" about the NGA effort, which she regards as fairly toothless. And Klein warned that low-performing states still have every incentive to maintain their own standards and assessments, so they can obscure how far behind their students actually are. "It's very political," he said. "If a state can't control its standards or assessments, then it can't control its outcomes. If America wanted to do something very smart, tomorrow every state would adopt Massachusetts' standards," which are considered by many education experts to be the strongest in the country.
So there you have it: Three of the most influential education leaders in the country, all supporters of national standards, but all raising their eyebrows at the current state and testing-industry-led effort to get there.