01/19/2010

Weingarten's Cleveland Trip Highlights Need for Cooperation

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AFT president Randi Weingarten picked Cleveland as the first place to visit with members following her Jan. 12 education speech at the National Press Club. In a daylong visit on Jan. 15, Weingarten went to three schools, held a candid, closed-door meeting with the district superintendent, met with reporters at a press conference and talked with leaders of the Cleveland Teachers Union. CTU president David Quolke accompanied Weingarten throughout the day.

Why Cleveland? As Weingarten told teachers during her first stop of the day, Ohio, at the state level, has been a model of cooperation and collaboration in education—most recently in developing a proposal for federal Race to the Top funds—thanks in large part to a new Democratic governor who has reached out to the union. Cleveland, Weingarten said, has great potential to move forward with productive school reform, but labor-management cooperation has been lacking locally. Superintendent Eugene Sanders recently unveiled a plan that includes closing 18 schools and revamping many more—a plan developed largely without input from the Cleveland Teachers Union.

"I have tremendous hope for the Cleveland school system," Weingarten told reporters at the press conference, but she added a caveat. Even if the superintendent's reform plan makes sense, "it will go nowhere unless there is real labor-management cooperation, and teachers and their union are really part of it."

East Technical High School

East Technical High School photo by Janet CenturyWeingarten's day started early at East Technical, with a gathering of staff in the media room before students arrived. Before most of the students, that is. Two students in the school's culinary program had set up a table of coffee and pastries, and were efficiently serving the faculty and guests. East Tech, located in one of the city's most disadvantaged areas and plagued by gang activity, is slated to be "repurposed" under the superintendent's reform plan. The school will likely be reorganized into a series of small academies.

A number of teachers at the school made the case for why technical programs can be a key element in engaging students, but added that they face deep-rooted stereotypes. "How do we make it so 'vocational-technical' is not a dirty word?" one asked. Weingarten, who opened her press club speech by describing an incredible technical high school in Philadelphia where the students are building world-class cars, said that well-designed career-technical programs not only can help more students graduate but also can prepare them for college.

Urban high schools, in particular, are in a tough position because "everything that hasn't happened for kids before then is placed on your doorstep," Weingarten said. She plans to focus on the issue of raising high school graduation rates in urban schools as she continues to discuss her education reform ideas.

Buhrer Elementary School

By the next stop, the weather had turned into a classic Cleveland January day—wet, gray and gloomy. That made the visit to Buhrer even more of a mood lifter. Opened in 2008, the K-8 school's lobby hits you like a dose of bright Puerto Rican sunshine, with walls of multiple tropical colors framing a huge floor-to-ceiling mural by a noted local Latino artist. Buhrer is a dual-language (English and Spanish) school that has started to make some academic progress in the last couple of years, in part by working closely with AFT professional issues staff.

Buhrer Elementary School photo by Janet CenturyWeingarten and the school's staff met in the lobby before students started arriving. She addressed a concern raised by one teacher, who focused on perhaps the most controversial element of Weingarten's speech—using student test scores as one element of a broader teacher accountability plan. Weingarten said that just as it makes no sense to base teacher evaluation on one short annual classroom observation by an administrator, neither is it useful to use results from a single student test. "Snapshots are bad," she said. "They are not right, they are not fair, and that doesn't help students either."

Instead, she said, we should use assessment data to figure out what works well in classrooms and what doesn't work; successful ideas should be replicated, and teachers who need to improve should receive ongoing assistance.

Once the students started arriving, Weingarten greeted many of them, most bundled head to toe in winter attire. The Buhrer visit ended with a stop in Ms. Fernandez's kindergarten classroom, where the teacher worked with her tiny students—switching seamlessly between Spanish and English—on colors, numbers, shapes, patterns, days of the week and more.

STEM Academy

The STEM Academy—its name based on the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math—is a showcase program for the Cleveland public schools. STEM is a partnership with industry, higher education and community leaders. Weingarten's stop took her to the school's 9th-grade site, housed at the Great Lakes Science Center. In addition to the roughly 100 freshmen at the science center, the school also has a 10th-grade program, which is located at General Electric's Nela Park campus.

Randi Weingarten at STEM academy in Cleveland, OH. Photo by Janet Century.It's hard not to envy the 9th-grade facility. In addition to its home in a modern science museum, large windows offer views of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Cleveland Browns' stadium and Lake Erie. A group of five polite, enthusiastic students led the AFT contingent on a tour that showed examples of the project-based learning that makes up most of the academy's curriculum.

In one room, students were testing speakers they had made from cardboard, paper and Styrofoam plates. Weingarten was almost as excited as the students when the gadgets played music after they were hooked up to a CD player. "To see their faces when the speaker actually works is great," she said. In another room, students are working on laptops designing the logos they will turn into business cards, T-shirts and other materials in a project to create promotional materials for a band.

Partway through the tour, Cleveland's schools superintendent caught up with the visitors, arriving a few minutes early for a scheduled private meeting at the science center with Weingarten and Quolke. Later in the afternoon at the press conference at CTU headquarters, Weingarten characterized the meeting as "a blunt and productive conversation."

Press conference at Cleveland Teachers Union

Expanding on her description of her meeting with superintendent Sanders, Weingarten repeatedly returned to the issue of labor-management cooperation, at one point referring back to a slogan from her 2009 AFT QuEST speech. "We are dead serious about a reform agenda that does things with teachers, not to teachers," she said. "Everyone feels an urgency to help kids succeed, and we talked about how we have to do this together." A strong labor-management relationship, she added, "is the glue for how we fix schools."

Randi Weingarten at CTU press conference. Photo by Janet Century.Weingarten cited the STEM Academy as a school that offers teachers what she called in her recent speech the "three T's": tools, time and trust. In addition, the CTU and the district have worked out a memorandum of agreement on hiring, curriculum and other areas that allows the school's principal and faculty the autonomy they need to put the program together and make it work.

For his part, Quolke said he left their meeting with the superintendent with a positive feeling about prospects for resuming a dialogue so teachers to have a real say in the implementation of the reform plan. "We're not opposed to [the] hard work" that it will take to turn around schools, he added.

Meeting with Cleveland Teachers Union executive board

Weingarten wrapped up the day with remarks to the CTU executive board, largely praising the union and its leadership for their hard work. "I've watched what you've done in the last couple of years, and I'm in awe," she said.

From local schools in Cleveland to politics in Washington, she added, it's time for a renewed teachers union movement. "We have to be heard again." And she returned one final time to the theme of the day: "We have to do things together to make schools work for kids. At the end of the day, we have to figure out how to get in there and have [superintendent Sanders] work with us to improve schools." (Photos by Janet Century.)

January 19, 2010