Weingarten and King address teacher professionalism

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The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards 2016 Teaching & Learning Conference featured a conversation between AFT President Randi Weingarten and U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. on ways to build the U.S. teaching profession—an indispensable undertaking for the health of public schools, and one that could be spurred by the newly enacted Every Student Succeeds Act, both education leaders predicted.

Panel at Teaching & Learning ConferenceESSA is a genuine opportunity for states to "reset" education policy and do it in ways that return joy, meaning and recognition to the work, both Weingarten and King told hundreds of accomplished teachers who gathered in Washington, D.C., for the March 11-12 conference. They shared the podium at a plenary session moderated by education reporter and author Dana Goldstein.

Teaching as a profession has lost significant allure in recent years, Weingarten said, and a perfect storm of social, economic and political forces helps explain why talented educators are being driven into other fields. There is widespread anger, fed by the economy and public spending choices that "wither public education instead of changing it." Under current test-and-sanction policies, "teachers are held responsible without any latitude to do their job" and are typically denied the tools, time and conditions to do their best work. And respect for teachers is desperately missing.

"When you say, 'I am a teacher,' people should respond by saying 'thank you,' not by asking why," Weingarten said. Turning that around requires leaders at all levels who "find aspirations under the anger and turn them into action."

"States have that opportunity [but] they'll only get there through teacher leadership," said King. He pointed to new flexibility under the law for states to implement the types of accountability measures that support a well-rounded education and to develop interventions for struggling schools that reflect the wisdom and experience of the classroom rather than rigid prescriptions set by Washington.

Already, there are concrete examples of places where school systems, working with union locals, are making fundamental changes that benefit students, schools and the profession itself, said Weingarten, pointing to Meriden, Conn.; North Syracuse, N,Y.; and New York City's Progressive Redesign Opportunity Schools for Excellence (PROSE). These systems and schools are injecting the voice of the teaching profession into the fabric of the school day and are addressing issues that range from teacher induction and evaluation to the length of the school day.

Under ESSA, opportunities are there to expand this work—but only if teachers get in the halls of statehouses and make their voices heard, Weingarten said. That level of involvement will determine whether states "make fundamental changes or just tinker with strategies in place."

[Mike Rose]