It takes a lot of nerve for the head of a huge teaching organization known to have an overwhelmingly white membership to play the diversity card against another teaching organization that has 50 percent teachers of color, yet in the crazy world of education politics, it happened. No one these days seems immune to capitalizing on a hot headline, even when their decision to do so reveals such stunning hypocrisy that for a moment, it seems they couldn’t have really just ‘gone there.’
Randi Weingarten is not just the president of the American Federation of Teachers. She’s also one of the primary reasons that presidential candidates, particularly Hillary Clinton, are totally tongue tied on the debate stage when any substantive topics about k-12 education are raised.
It’s no secret that Randi isn’t TFA’s biggest fan but she did just appear on a panel with Howard Fuller, African-American school choice advocate and former superintendent, during TFA’s 25th anniversary celebration. Ironically, that panel was to talk about education and poverty and Weingarten described her goals this way:
My purpose was not to debate Fuller; it was to have a conversation about a path forward, to end the ridiculous debate in reform circles that poverty and greater economic issues don’t matter, and to debunk the notion that individual teachers can do it all.
Fast forward a few short weeks, and she is doing anything but having a conversation about a path forward, at least not on social media. But Randi made a miscalculation, at least by any decency standards, when she began to run with news of Teach For America’s (TFA) staff reduction.
Cue the snark. Build the glass house. Randi has taken to Twitter and tweeted three separate times about her “concern” about Teach For America’s recent decisions.
The elimination of the diversity office is a particularly surprising and disappointing turn for @TeachForAmerica. https://t.co/XttvGgM008
— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) March 22, 2016
Teach For America has decided to eliminate their national diversity office. They have already succeeded in reaching 50 percent teachers of color within their program—an unprecedented achievement—and have opted to work more collectively and locally to continue to lead on the issue of getting more teachers in classrooms who look like and share experiences with the students in the seats.
So what has Randi’s organization been doing on diversity? What do their metrics look like? Who is their national diversity officer? Who serves on their national diversity team? According to Think Progress and the Shanker Institute, 18% of the American teaching force are people of color, compared to 50% of TFA corps members. When I tried to track down more specific numbers about AFT’s own diversity, it turned out to be an impossible task. They are certainly not touting their numbers; on the contrary, it seems they intentionally make them hard to track down.
Randi Weingarten has made the calculated decision to feign concern and question TFA about its commitment to diversity when her own organization has a pathetic record on the very same issue. She uses her power as AFT president to oppose alternative licensure programs which means she herself plays a significant role in the blocking of access to teaching credentials for graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and tribal colleges.
Randi cannot refute the fact that Teach for America has been a leader not only on teacher diversity and inclusion work, but also on infusing culturally responsive pedagogy into its training; and through that process of evolving, the organization has recognized that diversity work happens best through partnerships with communities. Does she deny that diversity and inclusion looks very different depending on the geographic location and the demographics of the population? Does she deny that what works in the Mississippi Delta may be different from best practices on the south-side of Chicago or the Navajo Nation in New Mexico?
Rather than accept that this move by Teach for America reflects a belief that these differences are essential, beautiful, and important, she has chosen to demagogue their announcement without providing any context, statistics, or basic honesty. As a seasoned politico, Randi knows that this is precisely this kind rhetorical red meat that riles up her most extreme members and followers.
Certainly no one is pretending that local control of anything is a panacea; but TFA has made a decision based on what they see in the field and their track record on the issue certainly has earned them the benefit of the doubt, at least for now.
Perhaps a bit of reflection back to her teaching days is what’s in order. Surely she remembers the common practice of telling students to stop worrying about others and instead, focus on themselves.
So Randi, let’s try that. Rather than impugn the only teacher preparation that is, quite literally, knocking it out of the park when it comes to diversity and inclusion, take some time to clean up your own house, where the vast majority of teachers look nothing like most of the children they teach.
And while you’re at it, get that website updated with some actual numbers.