It is impossible to even ponder a successful turn-around of the Providence Schools System without major changes to the current teachers’ contract. The now notorious report out of Johns Hopkins was clear in its contention that the collective bargaining agreement plays a central role in the district’s dysfunction. Not the only role but a central role.
The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, swooped into town this weekend and immediately went into her usual victim spin. She claimed that teachers are being vilified and that everyone is only pointing their finger at the teachers’ contract—she has her facts wrong and she knows that. Blame has been passed around to plenty of folks, including Mayor Elorza (all the way back to Mayor Cianci), the City Council, the legislature and yes, the governor. Randi accused Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green of being just like her least favorite commissioners, Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, as if their names are epithets. For better or worse, both were courageous change agents who cared deeply about children. Randi is paid half-a-million dollars to ensure that children are never the priority.
In July of 2019, I wrote up a set of questions for Providence Teachers’ Union president Maribeth Calabro to answer. That was almost eight months ago. Now that Randi Weingarten has come to town twice, it seems that they should now be ready and willing to answer some tough—but fundamental—questions about what steps they are willing to take to turn around what we now know is arguably the worst school system in the country.
They keep speaking in platitudes — a shared vision, a partnership, let’s work together. But all of that is meaningless without substantive talk of measurable outcomes. I would remind folks that 94 percent of 8th grade boys in Providence do not read on grade level. That number is slightly better but still unconscionable at 89 percent for girls. (And over half of the 8th grade students scored a 1 on RICAS which indicates that they are not even partially proficient)
We—parents, the public, the taxpayers who fund the Providence School system—need and deserve answers to hard and important questions. Here are a few of mine:
- Will the union stand in the way of moving to a thin contract, no more than ten pages? (Click here to see an example of what that could look like.)
- Will the union consider contract changes to reduce teacher absenteeism?
- Will the union stand in the way of extending the learning day? Or the learning year?
- Will the union stand in the way of the quick assessment and termination of ineffective teachers?
- Will the union stand in the way of teacher reassignment, allowing administration to put teachers into the classrooms and buildings where they can make the biggest impact, without regard to seniority?
- Will the union stand in the way of eliminating the arbitrary barriers to entry into the teaching profession so that we can begin to build a long overdue talent pipeline to include people who come to teaching via an alternative pathway?
As a committed observer of Randi Weingarten and the AFT, all I can say is don’t be fooled. Weingarten has one priority and they are all adults. Sometimes her agenda aligns with what’s best for students. But often it doesn’t and when that is the case, her professional obligation is to put adults at the center of the conversation. The AFT does not pay her half-a -million dollars to be student-centered. On the contrary, when what’s best for students is in direct conflict with what the adults want, she will always side with the grown-ups.
Every. Single. Time.
There is a reason why Randi Weingarten talked about student success without mentioning a single example —it’s because she can’t.
Providence students and families need to know that Randi Weingarten and the AFT are not their friend. And neither is the Providence Teachers’ Union. On the contrary, all have played an outsized role in the catastrophe in Providence.
Students have been the collateral damage.