Roundtable with Hillary Clinton

Excerpts from Transcript
American Federation of Teachers
November 9, 2015


Randi Weingarten: [S]ome of us, have known the secretary for a long time. We know her from New York when she was our senator.  We know her from when she was first lady.  And she shares our values.  She has the support of our members.  And she has the means, the tenacity, the experience, to not only get elected, but to govern for a fairer and better America.  And you can see that from the meeting we had with our executive council, where people peppered her with questions and people got at the end and said, "We get it."  We see who this person is.

And, frankly, I saw it when we announced the endorsement at our TEACH Conference, which is the biggest meeting we have with members, other than the convention.  There was a spontaneous standing ovation because people get who the secretary is.  And so, ultimately, what we're trying to do today is—we have watched you from when you were at the Children's Defense Fund, to the work when you were First Lady, to the work as senator in New York.

What many of you don't know is I watched Hillary Clinton walk through those piles after the Trade Centers went down—I was the head of the Municipal Labor Committee at that time in New York City as well as the head of the UFT [United Federation of Teachers]—when it was still smoldering, when you could see that the people who were working there were going to have serious illnesses.  And it was by dint of her own tenacity that we got the medical benefits for the people who were on that pile.

That's who our former senator, the former first lady of the United States, the former secretary of state is.  And so, without further ado, it's my honor to introduce you to some of the hardest-working people in America…

Secretary Hillary Clinton:  Well, thank you, Randi, and thanks to all of you, and thanks to our host.  Laura has been at some of my events with her members, and I am so grateful to you for that.  And to each and every one of you, I appreciate this opportunity to have a conversation.

Randi is right.  She and I have known each other a long time.  We've gone through some political and policy battles together, and it means so much to me to have the AFT endorsement because I really want to be your partner.  I want to figure out how we can work together to achieve our common goals.

I think there's been too much contention and lack of cooperation when it comes to education.  There's been a concerted relentless attack on unions, and in particular, teachers unions.  We know the governor from New Jersey has said he wants to punch teachers unions in the nose, and that is just so wrong.  It's so counterproductive.  It's just so unhelpful.

But what I think we have to do is really, starting today and moving through the election into the next administration, figure out what our priorities are, how I can be working with you, and how we can make the changes that we know will benefit kids and families and restore respect to educators and create an atmosphere in which we're all on the same team.  We're on the American team.  We're on the team that is going to actually get things done, not just talk about it or not just engage in insults.

So when Randi and I were talking, I said I really want to have as much of a chance to hear from your members as possible, and I'm glad she has gotten some of you together from the area and beyond.  So with that, let me just open it up, and I'm happy to talk about anything that might be on your minds.


Ryan Richman: I teach at Timberlane Regional High School in Plaistow, N.H., and it's wonderful to see you again, Madam Secretary…We've seen in this cycle especially a lot of talk about education, education reform, by a lot of the different candidates, everything from repealing Common Core, to college affordability.  But it seems like a lot of the rhetoric and talking points coming out of a lot of the other candidates is without the input from educators, real-world educators. And you've said that you would integrate advice and consultation from real-world educators to craft your policies on education.  How would you do that, and perhaps even more importantly, what will you do to help strengthen our public K through 12 schools with that advice?

Secretary Hillary Clinton:  That's a great question, Ryan, and I've talked with Randi about it.  I've also talked with Lily Garcia at the NEA [National Education Association] because it's important that you know I'm really serious about this.  I'm inviting you, the AFT and constituent members, to put forth your best thinking, your ideas, what you know will work better for our kids.

And, in particular, I want us to do a deep dive into the collective experience of educators and the research so that instead of these back-and-forths that you see now, particularly from the other candidates on the Republican side, it's not rooted in real-world experience.  It is not rooted in the advice from people who actually stand in front of a classroom and know the names of their students.  And so, I want to know what are the top priorities and how do we go about achieving those.

Now, we may be benefited in the sense that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—which is being reauthorized, which the AFT in Washington has had a major role in helping to shape—if that can get passed, then, in effect, my administration will be starting from a different base, and then we can figure out how we really build on some of the changes that are going to be made in that.


Liz Lynch: I'm from North Bergen Federation of Teachers in North Bergen, N.J.  I'm the president of the local.  I've been teaching for 30 years, and I'm all for teachers being fairly held accountable for ensuring that our students are learning.  But what I've seen in the last four or five years is crazy.

Students have been made to take paper and pencil tests in PE and music just so they can be evaluated.  Teachers spend an inordinate amount of time giving benchmark tests to prepare for more tests.  And all the testing is crowding out time my students and I used to spend on cooperative learning, critical thinking and project-based learning.

President Obama recently said that our children have endured too much testing.  What can we do to move away from all this testing and return the joy of learning and teaching to the classroom?  And how would you ensure that federal money for education is not tied to test results?

Secretary Hillary Clinton:  I was glad to hear the president make that statement because I certainly agree with him that I think we have become much too focused on testing, and there have been too many tests.  So I've said from the beginning of the campaign we need fewer, better tests.

I believe in diagnostic testing that teachers can use to try to figure out how to help individuals and classes deal with their learning challenges.  I do believe that there can be and should be a set of tests that everybody agrees on.  That's the way it was all those many years ago when I was going to school, and that's the way it was for a very long time.  So we do need as a first priority to figure out: What are the tests that should be administered? When? And what do we do with them?

And I have for a very long time also been against the idea that you tie teacher evaluation and even teacher pay to test outcomes.  There's no evidence.   There's no evidence.  Now, there is some evidence that it can help with school performance.  If everybody is on the same team and they're all working together, that's a different issue, but that's not the way it's been presented…

…I think with the ESEA, as I understand it, with the changes that have been made or at least we hope are going to be made, we'll move beyond that.  But then we'll have to do the hard work, and I would look to the AFT for advice on this.  OK, what are the tests, because you've got to have something? And what should they be, and how often should they be administered, and what should they be used for?  And I would be very open to your experience and your suggestions about that…

…[W]hat are we going to do to once again kind of open the curriculum?  If we're going to save time and stress from limiting the tests, then what are going to do about that?  What are going to bring back into the schools?

I think it's tragic that so many schools, and principally schools in poor areas that serve poor kids, have been stripped of arts education, of even PE, even recess time.  It's just crazy to me.  And so, we've got to be much more focused on how we re-create the classroom school experience so that kids have the chance for their talents to be recognized and blossom.  That's what I believe.


Karene-Sean Hines:  I'm Karene-Sean Hines, and I teach in Boston public schools, and I teach seventh and eighth grade ELA [English language arts], writing and computer science.  And in our school, about 25 percent of our students are special needs in terms of they actually have a SPED [special education] prototype.  And there are so many kids who've never been cored.  But what we're finding is that these kids need multiple services.  They need additional paras [paraprofessionals] in the classroom to help teachers like myself, and instead, one of the things that sometimes happens is that you get teachers who are triple licensed:  ESL [English as a second language], special ed, content area.  And then guess what?  You can check off the boxes, so, oh no, that kid is getting services.

So what are you going to do with your administration or in your administration, because I think we all firmly believe you're going to be our next president?

Secretary Hillary Clinton: …[M]y first job out of law school was for the Children's Defense Fund, and what we did, what I did, my very project was to go door to door.  We picked out census districts because kids with special needs, kids with disabilities, so to speak, were not in school.  And we looked at census figures. So we looked at like census tract A, and you'd say what is the population of kids from 6 to 18? And they'd say a thousand.  And then you'd look at the school population, both public and private.  How many kids are in school from K through 12? And they'd say 920.  Well, where were the other kids?  Where were the 80 kids who were missing?

So I literally went door to door in New Bedford, Mass., knocking on the door saying do you have school-aged kids who are not in school?  And we met some kids who had dropped out and never told the school, and we met kids who were pulled out to help support the family.  But about 50 of the ones that are missing were kids with some kind of disability, a behavior problem, a physical disability, whatever.  And so, then we turned all that information in, and we made a big move to get the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act passed in the mid-70s, and it was an amazing piece of civil rights legislation.

When we accepted that opportunity to really get all of our kids in school, the federal government said it was going to pay 40 percent of the cost of special ed.  The most we've ever paid is like 17 percent.  I think that's one of the reasons why you don't have the services and the support that your students need to be able to get the education they deserve.

So I have said I'm going to do everything I can to raise the federal contribution.  There are two big areas of federal funding that I feel strongly about.  One is the special ed funding, and the other is the Title I funding, the equalization of funding for poor schools... 

…Those were the earliest levels of commitment from the federal government, and we haven't really, in my view, fulfilled either one, and we've gotten diverted off into a lot of other stuff.  And so, I think I would do what I can to try to provide more support.  The same thing happened with No Child Left Behind.  The promise was there would be increased funding, and then it never came through.

So we have some work to do to try to get more resources directly into special ed, but we also have some research to do to try to figure out what's happening with these children.  Why are they in special ed, and is there something that could be done that we're not doing?  And is there a differential between special ed kids in wealthy districts versus special ed kids in poor districts? What works should be applicable for everybody.


Randi Weingarten: I'm serving on Gov. Cuomo's Common Core Task Force, and we had—and I think this is where Melissa's question is going—we had a hearing in upstate in Buffalo last week.  And the questions from parents and teachers were about how did Common Core go so wrong in terms of the kind of rigid application.  And I think that's where Melissa is going with her question.

Melissa DeVit:  I am a special ed teacher.  Also I teach high school, behaviorally challenged kids or emotionally disturbed children.  And I watch them struggle every day with not only mental health issues.  They come in and they're not fed.  Their parents aren't parenting.  And they're expected to learn topics that to them do not seem relevant to just managing daily life.

So I guess my question is: How can teachers meet the diverse needs of students and their learning styles?  The rigidness of Common Core has just led into—excuse me—resulted in standardization of education.

Secretary Hillary Clinton: [S]ome of what's gone on has been well-meaning but misplaced, and one of the well-meaning but misplaced areas that I have seen over the years is this emphasis on standardizing learning, and holding out college as the goal and stripping schools of technical education, of what used to be called vocational education, of job preparation and the like.

Now, the motive behind that was largely, I think, well-meaning but, as I say, misplaced, because there were too many places where kids were just warehoused.  It was one of the reasons why the aggregate data issue was so important.  Don't leave out kids when you're doing accountability because then you'll just leave them behind, and we will see that they will be ignored and marginalized.

So that's why I say I think it was well-meaning, but it was misplaced because what you're talking about is really an example of how we are not serving those students very well.  And we have created a one-size-fits-all model for education.

Now, I don't want to give anybody any excuses to walk away from or ignore the hard-to-teach kids, the special ed kids, the disciplinary kids, all of that.  But I also understand that if you're trying to fit different kids with different interests, different habits, different patterns of learning and all the rest of it, into one channel, it's not going to work.  And it creates great frustration for teachers, for students, for families.  And I think that’s been a large part of the reaction to the Common Core, especially in New York where people are just, this makes no sense at all; here's what I think my kid needs, or here's what my class needs.

So I would hope that we can, again, take a really hard look at that.  And the dilemma which is being really argued out around this reauthorization of ESEA is you have members of Congress who are adamant.  They are primarily worried about African-American kids, Latino kids, special ed kids, poor kids. They're worried that if we don't have some accountability, then a lot of schools are just going to ignore those kids, and we're going to back into a different set of problems. 

And then the other side, which is saying, hey, we've got to do better by these kids as well as other kids, and, therefore, we can't have this one-size-fits-all.

So some of the debates that we've had are, as I say, I think from a good place, even though you may not agree with them, and some of them are just totally cynical.  But this is one where there is a legitimate argument going on.  And I know the White House, the AFT, others are trying to negotiate because a lot of—well, the Black Caucus, for example, just basically said, no, we're not going to give up on testing everybody because that's the only way we'll ever get anybody to pay attention to the kids that we worry the most about.

Do you want to say something about that, Randi, because you've been in the thick of the negotiations?

Randi Weingarten:  I was just saying to the secretary before we got in here that there is a chance of actually being able to thread this needle.  And I know there are a lot of our members who wondered why initially we said, yes, we need to keep the two tests, and said, well, the real issue becomes what are they used for?  Is it data that informs instruction, or are they going to be used as the hammer that they're used for right now?

I remember initially having a lot of Twitter debates with people about that, but this is what I love about our members—not to cheerlead about our members for a minute, but people really go with the evidence. And how do we balance making sure that data informs instruction, not that data is instruction?

But I do think that we're at a place that is similar to the Senate bill, where there're two things that are being litigated in the ESEA reauthorization.  One is the maintenance of the commitment to equity and to Title I—when we say "Title I" in this room, everybody knows what it means—and to make sure that there are funds at least that formula in terms of those resources, even though when you're president we need a whole lot more money going into impoverished schools.  But that formula stays intact, so that money actually goes to kids who need it most.

And the second piece, though, is broadening out and redefining accountability so that we can try new things, so that it's not just about the two tests, that it's about high school graduation, but not just about high school graduation, that it's about other ways of measuring student progress and thinking about how kids learn, and engaging kids like through project-based instruction.  But also, as you were saying, what is not traditionally thought of as the non-academics, like social-emotional learning, or figuring out how to have resources for art, and music, and parental engagement.

And so, what is being spoken about now is a sense of what are the different components that states can then do as a new evaluation, as a new accountability system...

Secretary Hillary Clinton:  That's exactly right.


Randi Weingarten:  The secretary talked a little bit about teaching the kids that are hard to teach, and she made a little news this week when she answered some questions about charter schools.  And I know Dorothy, who is from Ohio, wanted to ask a question about charters, where there are a lot of charters that have been unaccountable and not transparent.  So, Dorothy, do you want to ask the question?

Dorothy Fair:  Hello, Secretary.  My name is Dorothy Fair, and I'm from Cleveland, Ohio, and I am with the Cleveland Teachers Union, an executive board member.  With your recent interview with Roland Martin, you stated that the original intent of charter schools was to create laboratories for creative ideas that can improve public education generally.  And I know that [former AFT President Albert] Shanker had this in mind, too, when this was one of his projects.

But in practical terms, what has now happened is that charters are draining resources from the traditional neighborhood public schools.  In Cleveland, we have less funding to do things we need to do, class sizes have increased, our population has gone down as far as student population.  We do not have money for libraries, resources for after- and during school activities.  Right now we are sharing art, music and PE teachers with multiple schools that they have to work with, so that the child is not really being taught, the whole child, with social-emotional learning.  Nurses and librarians are stretched even thinner.

And when charters don't enroll high-cost special ed kids and suspend the kids that they don't want, district schools are left with a more challenging task because we do have to give them a public education, a free and appropriate education.  And I know it can be done, because I am working at a charter school for the Cleveland Metro School District where it is completely unionized.  It's been in operation for about eight years, so we were basically on the cutting edge for the at-risk/dropout prevention children.  However, other charters in Ohio are not held to that same standard as our school is.

When you are elected president, I would like you to answer, what can we all do to fix this problem, including holding charter schools to the same standards, to the same testing and accountability, as neighborhood public schools, and essentially, and not pitting the two against each other?  There should be more collaboration instead of the backbiting.

Secretary Hillary Clinton:  That's exactly what the original idea behind it was, and you're right to mention Al Shanker.  He was one of the leaders of the movement, and he did see them as laboratories, and he thought that the lessons would then be integrated into the public schools and would result in improving education in the public schools.  So there's no doubt in my mind that charters have to be held accountable.  There are good charters, and there are bad charters.

They have to be held to high standards, and if they are working like the one you work at, why aren’t there more using the model that you have pioneered?  And so, from my perspective, again, I want to go to the research.  What are the good models and where are they found, and how do you do more of what works instead of reinventing the wheel all the time? A lot of people show up and they want to do a charter, and they don't pay attention to the educational research.  They have a pet idea.  They may be, again, motivated to try to help kids, but they don't have the experience, and they don't necessarily know how to do it.

So let's look at what does work, like your charter school, which you said has been operating for eight years.  And there are examples of that, but there are also great examples of excellent public schools, and they should equally be held up as models.

And what I don't understand is why we can't do a better job saying, look, here's the kind of population you're serving, and here's a model that works. So what can we do to incentivize and fund more of those models, whether it's a public school, a charter school, and try to get more cooperation between the two?

So they should be supplementary, not a substitute, for what goes on.  And that was the original idea behind them.


Deb Howes:  I teach at Amherst Street School in Nashua, N.H.  And my question is about the unintended consequences of education reform.  So under No Child Left Behind and even more under Race to the Top, we've seen a premium on doing things that are new without necessarily taking into consideration the things that we're doing that might be working.

So there's increasing pressure to replace things because it's new, and we call it "churn" here.  And it devalues our experience.  It devalues our voice, and it's not good for us or our students because we're always learning something new, sometimes three or four or five new initiatives in the same school year.  We never get the chance to become good at them.  We never get a chance to look at it and see what's working well and what's not working so well because by the time we get through a year or two with it, we're learning something else new to replace what we've just spent a year or two learning.

So you can hear my voice get a little high.  There's a lot of frustration, and I'm just wondering if you've got any ideas on how to help with that so that policy is not forcing us to always throw everything out in favor of what's new.

Secretary Hillary Clinton:  Amen.  That's why I said in the beginning, let's get back to what does work instead of this constant reinvention, and the sale of new products, and the latest fad to come down the road.

Everybody feels so pressured to produce "results," but they then, I think, can be misled into adopting programs that are not particularly evidenced-based, that don't have a track record, and try to introduce those into either the curriculum or the teaching environment.  And I think we've been doing way too much of that.  I think we've wasted a lot of time, and money, and energy, instead of taking this deep breath that I'm calling for and saying what works.  What works for kids in special ed?  What works for kids in rural areas?  What works for kids who are impoverished but deserve the best instruction?  And you look to see where you can find examples—or what works for kids who are at risk of dropout—and you've got an example in Cleveland.

Every education problem that we face in America has been solved somewhere, and we act like everybody has to throw up the lesson plans and just deal every year, not just once, but maybe three or four times a year, to come up with this way you're going to deal with what is being asked of you…

…[F]rom my perspective, this has to be a collaborative effort.  School boards have to get out of the pressure that they feel to kind of produce results. The way you produce results is to produce an environment in which kids are able to flower, and learn, and not be beaten down.  And in many ways, that's going to take a lot more services than we have for certain populations of children.  But I believe it's doable.  I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you if I didn't, but I think we have to change mindsets, and that may be as important.


Greg Cruey:  Thank you for being here, Madam Secretary.  I'm a Title I teacher.  I'm a middle school math interventionist in McDowell County, W.Va.  And I work in an area where people live to be 60 instead of being 90, where 45 to 50 percent of my kids don't live with either biological parent, and drug overdose is the leading cause of death, and homelessness runs at three times the national average.  And I could go on with those sorts of statistics for 10 or 15 minutes.

We have something called Reconnecting McDowell that Randi and a nice lady by the name of Manchin, Gayle Manchin, helped us with.  And through it, we've seen some positive impact in the community.  And what I'm wondering is: If you're elected president, will you support and fund the sorts of initiatives that Reconnecting McDowell is there for, that the Coalition for Community Schools supports, and the American Federation of Teachers nationally—the wraparound services, the things that address the whole child needs, that keep students from coming to school prepared to learn? Because, quite frankly, when my kids show up, they're more worried about lunch and where they're going to sleep next week than they are about phonics and arithmetic. So if you're elected president, will you fund those sorts of initiatives?

Secretary Hillary Clinton:  Yes.  I mean, the answer is we have to because what you've described is a desperate situation.  I know some of you probably saw the study that just came out about how, when it comes to how long you live, which is the point you made, white Americans without a high school education are dying at an earlier and earlier age, and they're dying from alcohol, and drugs, and suicide.  And the desperation in a lot of communities, predominantly rural, but not exclusively, is so terrible that it has caused this international reaction because black Americans are living longer, Hispanic Americans are living longer, even folks without much education.  But in white communities, there's a collapse, and McDowell is a perfect example of that.

And we've got to figure out what we're going to do about all communities that are poor, whether they're white or communities of color.  We've got to figure out what we're going to do direct more federal help into what will work, not just get siphoned off into useless, unproductive projects.  And using the school as a magnet or as an organizing institution makes a lot of sense to me.

The community school movement is back for a reason.  It started actually back in the 70s.  The first community school was in Little Rock, Ark.  An educational expert named Betty Caldwell started a community school, and it was a community center.  It was a place where adults could go.  They could get job training.  They could get remedial education.  They could get all kinds of help, and then that fell out of favor.  We're always doing things that actually work and then they get expensive or somebody comes up with a new, "better" idea, and then we move on, and we leave behind the communities…

… I think what the AFT, and the Manchins, and others have tried to do in McDowell is an important effort, and I hope it will show some success so we have more help.  And we may have to consider even more drastic interventions because, at a certain point, the kids are the ones who are the most damaged, and it's true whether you're in an inner city in one of our great cities around the country or out in rural West Virginia.  It's the kids who suffer, and there is no doubt rural poverty is as, if not more, grinding with fewer opportunities…

…I will do what I can to support what's going on in McDowell, and I want to know what we can learn about what works. I want to know how we recruit and keep teachers like you because I know it can't be easy when you are dealing with life or death issues a lot of days, not math or other learning issues.  And so, part of my hope is that we look at what the real problems are and not get diverted all the time to the shiny object in the corner.  And that's what I'm looking at.

We have too many poor kids attending, too many poor kids without the resources they need, without the support they should get, and that's the real tragedy in education, and it's not test scores.  It's that we're leaving all these kids behind because we're not providing an education that will give them a fighting chance to get ahead, and that's just wrong.