By Neil Bomberg
Speaking to a packed room of city elected officials, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten touched on a wide range of topics important to city elected officials interested in pursuing an education agenda.
Noting that conflict sells newspapers and builds the kind of heat that reporters (and sometimes the public) thrives on, President Weingarten began her remarks by saying, "We need to build relationships. We need to be working together.... Conflict does not bring us the things that makes America right and great."
Weingarten added that when teachers, unions, elected officials, the community and everyone who is responsible for our children work together, we can make a huge difference in their lives and educational outcomes.
It is not enough to say we care about education -- the pillar for the democracy we need. We must do something about the education our children are receiving, and we must do it now before it is too late. In that frame the AFT president welcomed the involvement of mayors and council members who want to make education a major part of their agendas.
"I have worked with a lot of people in all sorts of relationships and the more productive relationships were built by sharing common goals and a recognition of the shoes that others, like elected officials, must walk in," Weingarten said. The AFT president added that teachers, and all of us on the Union side, must always remember that elected officials have budgets to balance, have a huge number of responsibilities to address, and that they also care deeply about education outcomes and what those outcomes mean for their community. We must always remember "that you can be important partners."
But Weingarten was quick to point out that she was not being "pollyannish."
"As teachers we see the realities that millions of children face every day. We see the poverty they face, the lingering effects of the Great Recession, and we know that there are no quick fixes to the plethora of problems that our students face," Weingarten said.
She also noted that the impact on teachers of their students' realities is creating a severe morale problem. "Not only are our teachers expected to teach, but they are also elected to solve all of the problems their students face." That, she added, is impossible.
Weingarten said it would be easy for teachers to blame everyone else on our failing education system. "We could point fingers," she said. But she also said, "that would do teachers no good because the issue before us is not who is to blame, but how together, we can create an educational system that provides our young people with the education and skills they need."
Pointing to cities like New Haven, Connecticut and St. Paul, Minnesota, Weingarten remarked that these cities chose to break the mold and develop a system of local community-based schools that transformed the neighborhoods, the students and the adults who live in those communities. "When we change the schools in a community, there is an incredible cantilever effect and everything else changes."
Weingarten said that her Union has decided to take risks, proposing what is right for education, sharing in the responsibility for making our educational system work, ensuring that every child gets the support the he or she needs, even when at times it appears that their position is not in the best interests of their Union. We as teachers, she noted, have a responsibility to collaborate, share responsibility, and do what works for our students based upon the evidence.
"If we want to find sustainability and scalability we have to follow the evidence," she said. Educators, elected officials, and the public cannot simply focus on random acts of reform or what others have described as the education "flavor of the month."
All that does is to cause us to change the rules for teaching and educating our students every time someone comes up with a new idea. We must, she said, stay focused on the evidence and on achieving outcomes that will benefit all students regardless of their social or economic status, their ethnicity, or the community in which they come from. She added, "The federal government has not been a very good partner. Sequestration will hurt the children who are most vulnerable." The educational waivers that the Department of Education is providing may help in the short term, but "at the end of the day, we need a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act that provides resources for the most vulnerable students and shines a light on how they are doing so that we know if we are making a difference for them."
Narrowing the curriculum, she pointed out, does not help; focusing on assessments rather than on teaching and learning does not help; blaming teachers for poor outcomes that have more to do with poverty and the impact of poverty on the lives of students does not help; and dumbing down the curriculum does not help, Weingarten said. Instead she pointed out that what really works is when all levels of government, from the local school board to Congress and the President, develop a shared system of supports and accountabilities.
President Weingarten's recommendations included:
• Investing in early childhood education: Weingarten pointed out that we know from the evidence that early childhood education has custodial and educational value, providing low income students with the same advantages as middle class students whose families offer them basic learning skills. And if you are concerned about the monetary reward, we also know that researchers have been able to show that for every $1 that is invested in early childhood education, society receives a $7 return in taxes paid, and social services not use.
• Providing wrap around services within community schools: Weingarten argued that when schools are focused on the community, and the community is involved, students succeed and families benefit. When schools are at the center of communities, children are not left behind and adults gain as well by having access to GED and other educational services as well as health care, social services, and day care.
• Focusing on providing each student a quality education: Weingarten said that students lose unless we focus on quality because if we fail to focus on quality there will never be fairness, and students who need a quality education will fail to receive it thereby reducing their chances for success. She noted that great teachers are made; they are not born. And the investments that are made in supporting teachers, helping them gain skills and become high quality teachers will ultimately save the nation billions of dollars. Right now half of our teachers leave after five years at an annual turnover cost of $7 billion. In contrast, Finland, the nation with the best education system in the world, has a 2 percent annual attrition rate.
And how do we do this? According to Weingarten by:
• Preparing our teachers like we prepare our doctors and require that every teacher have at least one year of clinical training after which they must pass the "teacher bar" in order to teach;
• Creating an evaluation system that is about continuous feedback so that we do not protect incompetence, but we also do not dismiss teachers as incompetent without creating a framework in which they can become great teachers; and
• Ensuring that the common core curriculum now being adopted in 46 states is part of a shared learning experience that helps move the common core forward in a way that is meaningful and ensures that it will be implemented.
Weingarten closed by saying, "I have seen school systems, even in austerity, develop and grow when we focus on shared responsibility, recruit and create the best teachers, have principals who are focused on continuous improvement, double down on critical thinking skill, and provide the wrap around services that are necessary to trump poverty. When these things occur we create the best environments for our students, they succeed, and ultimately schools do well by our kids."