For those who remember the early days, Eduflack was founded nearly three years ago to comment on how successfully (or unsuccessfully) we were communicating education and education reform ideas. At the time, NCLB was a hot topic in many circles, Ed in 08 was committed to raise the profile of education issues in national campaigns, and changes in organizational leadership and new constructs of advocacy groups threatened to move education back onto the front pages.
But as a recent Brookings study has demonstrated, education stories simply aren’t capturing the hearts and minds of the media, let alone the residents of Main Street USA. So Eduflack evolved with the times. Rather than critique the scraps of media, I spend most of my time talking about the issues that merit discussion. But we long for the good old days and our original mission.
This is particularly true of speeches. As a former speechwriter (for members of Congress, members of presidential Administrations, and executives at Fortune 500 companies and leading non-profits), I greatly appreciate the written word. I particularly appreciate capturing a speaker’s voice, gaining an audience’s attention, and delivering a real ask that results in a change of thinking or a change in behavior. Unfortunately, such speeches are few and far between in education. Yes, we occasionally get the Gingrich/Sharpton engagements brought by our friends over at the Education Equality Project, but those are the exceptions, not the rule. EdSec Arne Duncan delivers a good speech, but pretty much sticks to the stump speech these days (with the true exception being the speech at the NEA last June). President Obama can deliver a powerful ed reform speech, as he did at the National Academies of Science last spring on the topic of STEM, but those are rarities. And if we spend time at many of the forums and discussions in DC and around the country, those “discussions” could be scripted and blocked out weeks ahead of time, with transcripts (including questions and answers) released before they are delivered. For the most part, education rhetoric has grown stale, with us saying the same things to the same audiences with limited impact. After all, what truly unique discussion can we have on topics like ARRA spending guidelines or RttT guidance.
But last week was one of those true exceptions. Last Tuesday, before a packed house at the National Press Club, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten unveiled “a serious and comprehensive reform plan to ensure great teaching, taking on systems that have been ingrained in public education for more than a century.” The full speech can be viewed here.
Over the last week, the field has seen some terrific analysis and critique of Weingarten’s remarks. Eduflack is not going to add to the chorus. Instead, we want to take a look at the “Weingarten Doctrine” as a communications vehicle, effective or not.
MESSENGER: From her days leading the UFT, Weingarten has cultivated a reputation as a reformer, one not set on defending the status quo. While she may not be the most eloquent of public speakers, she is passionate about her issues and a true believer. Since arriving in DC a year ago to take over the national union, she has laid relatively low. She hasn’t made headlines and she hasn’t truly rocked the boat. That changed on Tuesday. Channeling both the late AFTer Al Shanker and the Randi of her early UFT days, Weingarten was a truly effective messenger on a topic (teacher quality and effectiveness) that has been longing for a strong voice from one of the two teachers’ unions.
MESSAGE: When we wait long enough for a strong voice on an important issue, our expectations get higher and higher. Even with those sky-high expectations, Weingarten was able to deliver. She didn’t seek an expected middle ground on the issue. She didn’t try to defend the way things have always been. She didn’t run interference for the status quo. At a time when many think that teachers’ unions are the biggest obstacle to meaningful school improvement, Weingarten made clear that AFT is prepared to lead on the issue.
AUDIENCE: The AFT speech was delivered to a collection of the education blob, as membership organizations, advocacy groups, and those who influence (or pretend they influence) education decisionmakers. By delivering this speech to this audience, Weingarten sought to reposition the AFT in the current ed improvement debate. Most in attendance remember the days when the AFT fought the status quo. This speech informed those stakeholders that the AFT of old is re-entering the game.
VENUE: To reach those stakeholders, AFT hosted the speech at the National Press Club. This was probably the least visionary of AFT’s decisions. This speech was to gain media attention, regardless of where it was held. And while the NPC is a convenient venue for the DC chattering class, it provides a generic setting for a groundbreaking speech. With school reform, we often forget the true customer — the student. The backdrop of this speech would have been far more effective at a public school in the DC area. And extra points could have been awarded for going out on a limb and talking about the new AFT at a charter school (a market that AFT covets for future membership). Yes, you run the risk of using kids as props, but it is a powerful visual nonetheless.
POSITIONING: AFT was able to position the speech well with the media and key stakeholders alike. The day before, AFT provided embargoed copies of the speech to select reporters, providing strong media coverage the morning of the speech. Those pieces drove additional coverage that day, particularly within the ed blogger community. So in a media environment that can be difficult to wrangle, AFT did a strong job of maximizing a speech, and a vision speech at that (since there was no news or results to really talk about). Moreover, the AFT strategy seemed to box NEA out of the story, with the nation’s largest teachers’ union offering a “no comment” in the advance stories, assuring limited focus in the day-of coverage.
POLICY IMPACT: Without question, Weingarten’s speech made clear to the Obama Administration (and Duncan specifically) that Weingarten is ready, willing, and able to be part of the solution. She all but endorsed the EdSec’s four pillars of ed reform, expanding his tent and grading the road ahead just a little bit. It should be no surprise that the speech was delivered as the AFT (and the NEA) officially communicated to their states and localities that the unions were supporting Race to the Top in general, allowing the local unions to sign onto RttT application MOUs and have an impact on state ed improvement efforts in the coming years.
PRACTICAL IMPACT: Here we begin to see the unexpected consequences of rhetoric. Immediately following the speech, the new superintendent of Houston ISD in Texas sought to use Weingarten’s words to alter the dynamic of his negotiations with the local union on measuring teacher effectiveness. And Eduflack would be shocked if Michelle Rhee isn’t plotting the same thing in DC, using the speech to end her long stalemate with the Washington Teachers Union and seeking to do away with teacher tenure in our nation’s capital by moving Weingarten’s words into quick practice. Those carefully crafted words could come b
ack to haunt some in the teachers’ unions.
THE LONG TERM: Ultimately, speeches are rhetorical devices. They are not hard-and-fast policy, nor are they promises we are often held to. Weingarten’s remarks, in particular, lay out a vision for where we as a nation can go with regard to teacher quality and school effectiveness. Addressing issues such as professional teaching standards, standards for assessing teacher practice, implementation benchmarks, and classroom supports, Weingarten has offered a blueprint for how teachers and teaching fit in the current school improvement environment. But moving those words into the “Weingarten Doctrine” requires buy-in from federal, state, and local policymakers, from school leaders and practitioners, from business and community leaders, and from parents and teachers. This is no small feat. Delivering the speech is easy. Moving the rhetoric to practice is hard. Weingarten has planted the flag, now she needs to protect it and have others rally around it.
UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: And that leaves us with the “what nexts?” How with NEA respond? Will ED and the policy community see this as a starting point for negotiation or simply meet AFT as is and adopt these reccs as their own policies? How will the rank-and-file teachers react to this shift in policy? How will school districts beyond Houston seek to use this to negotiate new collective bargaining agreements and contracts? Does this end the debate on linking student achievement to teacher evaluation, or does it simply turn up the volume? Is this the prelude or the climax to the teacher quality discussion?
Regardless, Weingarten (and her speechwriters) deserve kudos for a well-executed “event.” The remarks moved AFT to the front of the discussion. It positioned the union as part of the solution, as an organization committed to school improvement. And it captured the attention of the chattering class, if even for only a news cycle or two. Will it change the future of ed reform, no. But it gives us some hope regarding the rhetoric, news, and ideas that may be possible in the near future.