In her keynote address to the 2013 AFT TEACH Conference, AFT president Randi Weingarten laid a bold marker in the "education wars" that have resulted in frustration and fatigue over competing theories of reform. These competing reforms have made a lot of noise but not the progress communities want to provide all children with the education they need and deserve.
Speaking July 22 to nearly 3,000 educators attending TEACH, the AFT's largest gathering of educators focused on their professional practice and growth, Weingarten noted that the aspiration of a great public education for every child has never been totally fulfilled, which some have used as an excuse to abandon that aspiration and "to deep-six the entire franchise." She called on educators to join with parents and community partners throughout the country in an effort to reclaim the promise of public education and, in so doing, to fulfill our collective responsibility to enable individual opportunity for all children.
Public Education—Under Pressure and Under Assault
The promise of a great public education for all children is under pressure from economic and societal factors outside school that make it much more difficult to achieve success within the classroom, Weingarten said. Nearly 1 out of every 2 students in public schools lives in poverty, and there are more homeless families now than there have been at any time since the Great Depression. "When it comes to poverty," Weingarten told the educators, "we have become the first responders."
"These factors don't keep us from teaching," she said. "They keep us up at night."
"Public education is also under assault by those who want—for ideological reasons—to call one of America's great accomplishments—public education for all—a failure," Weingarten said. "These are the people who demand and pursue austerity, polarization, privatization, and de-professionalization ... and then argue that public education is failing. Maybe they never learned the difference between cause and effect."
But, Weingarten said, "People are beginning to see that the emperors of reform have no clothes. Years of top-down edicts, mass school closures and test fixation with sanctions instead of support haven't moved the needle—not in the right direction, at least."
The Common Core State Standards
Weingarten noted the tremendous potential of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), but cautioned about faulty implementation.
"Whether by design or default, too many officials have blown past the standards and moved right to standardized testing," she said. "The tests are not the reforms."
Weingarten underscored the potential of the CCSS to address serious inequities in American education. "Without an effort to create common standards such as the Common Core, children's access to the knowledge and skills they need to be successful will continue to be unequally distributed," she said. "Our support of the standards is an effort to break that cycle."
Weingarten recently called for a moratorium on the stakes associated with Common Core assessments, a call that was backed by tens of thousands of parents and educators who wrote in support of the moratorium to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and state superintendents. Last month, Weingarten noted, "Secretary Duncan gave states an extra year to get the Common Core right, before making Common Core-aligned tests count."
The AFT's Solution-Driven Unionism
Weingarten laid out examples of the solution-driven unionism practiced by the AFT and AFT members. She cited the AFT's work to help all prospective teachers get ample experience in classrooms alongside practicing teachers, and to meet a high standard, like the bar exam or medical boards, so they are ready from day one, not left to sink or swim.
She referred to the AFT's work to create a mechanism to make teacher evaluations a serious and constructive process that provides for continuous improvement and feedback. And she discussed the union's recasting of tenure to make clear that tenure enables "professional judgment, creativity and risk-taking" but also that, "if someone can't teach after they've been prepared and supported, they shouldn't be in our profession." Weingarten also touted Share My Lesson, a digital filing cabinet for teachers to share lessons. Share My Lesson has nearly 300,000 users, and resources on the site have been downloaded 2.8 million times.
Weingarten highlighted the AFT's work with community partners—from town hall community conversations across the country aimed at developing bottom-up solutions for struggling schools, to work in several cities to join forces to "fix, not close, struggling schools and to wrap services around those schools."
Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education
Weingarten said all of these factors make this a "crucial moment when we must reclaim the promise of public education—not as it is today or as it was in the past, but as what public education can be to fulfill our collective obligation—to help all children succeed."
"Reclaiming the promise of public education is about fighting for neighborhood public schools that are safe, welcoming places for teaching and learning. Reclaiming the promise is about ensuring that teachers are well-prepared, are supported and have time to collaborate. Reclaiming the promise is about enabling them to teach an engaging curriculum that includes art, music and the sciences. Reclaiming the promise is about ensuring that kids have access to wraparound services to meet their emotional, social and health needs."
This vision may look different in different communities, Weingarten said, "but it has a few common elements. Reclaiming the promise will bring back the joy of teaching and learning. It's the way to make every public school a place where parents want to send their kids, teachers want to teach and children are engaged."
"This is a vision that works," Weingarten said. "It's what parents want for their kids. And it can stop the privatizers, profiteers and austerity hawks in their tracks. But they're not going to roll over or go away."
"None of us can be bystanders," Weingarten said. "We need to open eyes to the good things happening in our schools—as well as the challenges we face. We need to open minds to our vision for great neighborhood public schools. We need to open hearts to joining in the effort to ensure all our children get the great education they need and deserve."
"And to do this," Weingarten continued, "we need to open our schools—inviting parents and the community to see what we do, to see what our kids need. Only by working together can we reclaim the promise of public education."
[AFT press release/photos by Michael Campbell and Bill Burke/Page One]
July 22, 2013