Just Call Me Duffy could have been cast for the movie version of his job. A former Brooklyn kid with a "you and whose army?" attitude, the man who once taught in L.A.'s inner city wearing T-shirts and chinos now wears two-tone Miami mobster shoes and snazzy suits to lead a teachers union of 40,000 members, more than some school districts have students.
The lousy economy has landed some punches on schools and teachers, but UTLA just scored a knockout: Of 30 schools up for new leadership in a district reform, 22 of them were awarded to groups of teachers to fix, not to outside charters.
I'd characterize that as a victory, wouldn't you?
Very much so, because in part it gives us what we've been asking for: control over the schools, along with other stakeholders. Let us create the curriculum; let us create the professional development and decide how to use the money. We get blamed for everything, but we've never been in control.
Sounds like put-up-or-shut-up time.
It is, definitely. Now we have to transform public education.
Is there such a thing as a good charter school?
There's some really good charters. The reason they're excellent is because there is a true collaboration between teachers and administrators. As long as [a charter] has a union which protects teachers' rights and helps teachers be true partners with administrators, then I have no problem.
Everyone's frustrated with the state of public schools -- aren't charters generated by frustrated parents?
Charters are really generated by private enterprise that offers parents another alternative, which is a good thing, but they don't generate the community ties that public schools do. At the same time, the playing field is not level. I'd like to see charter schools having to operate [as public schools do]. Let them come up with a plan on how they're going to deal with second-language and special-ed and students they don't want.
The bottom line: We've gone as far as we can with charters. If you really want to strengthen this country, you have to fix public education, and it shouldn't be on the backs of so-called bad teachers. Bad teachers should be fired -- I got it. But if you let teachers and other stakeholders at schools hire teachers, you won't get bad teachers. Because teachers are teachers' most severe critics.
But at the end of the day, bad teachers should no longer be teaching, right?
I agree. What we're missing is the criteria. How do we help those people who are not doing a good job to get better? How do we give them guidance? Then, how do we create a system to counsel them out of the profession? We're beginning to look at programs around the country.
Your family in Brooklyn was well-off, but you struggled because of a learning disability. How did you manage?
For me to get help, the only classification at that point was brain disorder, and my parents weren't having it. My father was very successful; I grew up in wealth, but I was out on the streets. I was a heroin addict for many years. It wasn't a great childhood. One of the things that bothers me is the fact that [my father] never got to see me as a success, and that kind of weighs on me.
Between the ages of 25 and 30, I taught myself how to read. I chose five or six books that I read over and over again with a dictionary next to me. Ancient history -- I love that whole thing between Carthage and Rome; I'm a fan of Carthage. And every time I saw a word I didn't know, I'd look it up in the dictionary. When I got to college, I began to become successful. I wasn't a good test-taker, but a lot of good professors would let you do papers [instead].
Is it the testing now that's burdensome for teachers, or the by-the-book lessons, or the paperwork?