07/08/2010

Weingarten Outlines Vision To Save Public Education

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Watch the full keynote speech here.

AFT president Randi Weingarten outlined a vision to "save public education … not as it is today, or as we knew it in the past … but as we know it ought to be." Speaking July 8 at the AFT's biennial convention in Seattle, Weingarten pledged that the union would fight hard against threats to public institutions, while fighting smart by "constantly searching for solutions we believe will work, even if those solutions force us to think outside the box or make us feel uncomfortable."

Weingarten, who offered a host of flexible and proactive approaches to improve teaching and learning since her election as AFT president two years ago, said the AFT would "lead and propose, not wait and oppose."

Speaking before more than 3,000 delegates to the AFT convention, many of whom are involved in union-led reform efforts to identify and put in place promising and proven strategies, Weingarten laid out a new vision for public schools that "builds on what works, and replicates it for all kids, in all schools, in all communities."

She outlined three foundations "upon which we can build a system of public education as it ought to be." The foundations include:

A systemic focus on good teaching, including better induction and evaluation procedures.

  • Teacher evaluations should include measures of student learning, but "there's a huge difference between using multiple indicators of student learning as part of a teacher's evaluation, and requiring that students' standardized test scores essentially dictate a teacher's hiring, firing and promotion," Weingarten said. "We should be assessing whether or not students are learning, but we're going to assess it the right way."

Great curriculum and conditions that promote learning and provide kids the opportunity to learn.

  • "All students need curricula that ground them in areas ranging from foreign languages to phys ed, civics to the sciences, history to health, as well as literature, mathematics and the arts," Weingarten said. "Right now, those curricula aren't routinely in place—a lot of teachers are forced to make it up every single day."
  • Weingarten reaffirmed the union's support for conditions that eliminate barriers to student success and called for wraparound services—such as after-school, nutrition, health and early childhood programs—to be available not only in some celebrated charter schools, but in traditional public schools, as well.

Shared responsibility and mutual accountability.

  • Weingarten described a vision of accountability "that is meant to fix schools … and holds everyone responsible for doing their share." She said that "shared responsibility should extend to the bargaining table," and described the growing number of AFT affiliates that have used "collective bargaining as a creative tool to codify collaborative approaches that improve teaching and learning."

Fixing Schools, Not Simply Affixing Blame

"We have looked at our practices and made changes when we needed to change," Weingarten said. "We have lived up to our responsibility and asked others to do the same. When there have been problems, we have sought common ground to solve them."

Yet, referring to what she called the "Blame the Teacher Crowd," Weingarten observed, "Never before have I seen so few attack so many, so harshly, for doing so much, often with so little."

She said the Blame the Teacher Crowd would rather "affix blame than fix schools." These critics, she continued, "would have Americans believe that there is only one choice when it comes to public education: either you're for students, or you're for teachers," which Weingarten called a "bogus choice."

"When a school is good for the kids, it's also good for the teachers," she said.

A Vortex of Challenges

Public education faces some of the most severe threats and challenges in generations, Weingarten said, and complete responsibility for dealing with these crises is falling to "the individual teacher." Weingarten identified three forces with significant consequences for public schools today:

The economic recession.

  • School systems are " 'solving' budget crises by cutting art, music and physical education, slashing prekindergarten programs and help for students who fall behind." Weingarten cited a recent study that found that the current recession will effectively wipe out 30 years of social progress in combating poverty. "That's more kids showing up to school cold or sick or homeless or hungry," Weingarten said, with fewer resources to help them.


Out-of-school factors.

  • "As much as we wish it weren't true, these factors matter—whether it's poverty, or stressful experiences like a death in the family, or losing one's home, or a parent losing a job," Weingarten said. Yet, when we point them out, she continued, "It's more likely that people confront us rather than join us in confronting the problem."


Our changing world, which requires education beyond a foundation in the basics.

  • "Today's students need a strong foundation in the basics, but they need much more," Weingarten said. "Students need to be able to engage in the creative problem solving and innovative thinking that are essential to success in today's knowledge economy."

"We are caught in the vortex—with recessionary forces, socioeconomic forces and global economic forces swirling around," Weingarten continued. "Yet the Blame the Teacher Crowd says: 'If only there were fewer bad teachers, all would be right in the world.' "

Weingarten challenged that claim. "It's simply wrong to suggest that there is an epidemic of bad teachers and at the same time to ignore poverty, budget cuts, the absence of curriculum, the huge attrition of good teachers—all things we know truly hamper student success."

"No teacher—myself included—wants a bad teacher in any classroom," Weingarten said. "The AFT and our locals are taking real steps to solve the problem and to strengthen teaching."

"Blaming individual teachers may make the deficit hawks feel better because it is 'cheap,' " she continued. "In reality, though, it's a cheap shot masquerading as a strategy."

Common Cause with Community To Strengthen Public Institutions

Weingarten pledged to "hold up what works and call out what doesn't," and announced that the AFT will work with its local unions to fight for public services through a series of actions in support of public education.

Central to these actions, Weingarten said, is renewing connections with the communities in which AFT members live and work, which have been frayed by the economic upheaval.

"The irony is that the movement—organized labor—that is largely responsible for elevating millions of workers and their families into the middle class, that has won economic benefits for all workers and not just our members, is under assault for doing the very job it was conceived to do," Weingarten said. "These hard-won, noble achievements now are seen as things that separate us from our communities rather than connect us to them."

Weingarten called on AFT members and unions to be "fully embedded parts of our communities" and to remember that, "especially in tough economic times, we have a responsibility to work with communities to strengthen the institutions in which we work, and upon which they depend."

She laid out the immediate steps AFT affiliates can take: participating in the AFT's day of action called "Raise Your Hand for Our Public Schools," marching in the One Nation March on Washington in October being organized by the NAACP, and building their community outreach programs—a step affiliates in nine states already have pledged to take.

Weingarten was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers in 2008, after serving for a decade as president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City and as the head of the New York City Municipal Labor Committee.

Weingarten's speech is the latest of several major policy speeches since becoming AFT president in which she has advocated a number of serious and comprehensive approaches to improve teaching and learning, including: a new template for teacher development and evaluation; a fresh approach to due process for misconduct cases; ensuring teachers have the tools, time and trust to succeed; and forging collaborative labor-management relationships. More than 50 AFT local unions and their district partners have begun work on new systems to develop and evaluate teachers based on the AFT model.

"Taking responsibility does not excuse others' irresponsibility," Weingarten said in her remarks. "But take responsibility we must."

The complete text of Weingarten's speech is available online. For more on the AFT convention, visit www.aft.org/convention. [AFT press release]

July 8, 2010