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AFT To Scrutinize 'Race to the Top' Regulations

The AFT will judge the proposed federal regulations for the $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" fund released on July 24 by how much the program helps students, whether it is fair to teachers, whether it is transparent to the public, and whether it requires shared responsibility.

AFT president Randi Weingarten, executive vice president Lorretta Johnson and 10 local and state AFT leaders, including Jean Clements of Hillsborough, Fla., were among the 125 invited guests at a U.S. Education Department event at which President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke of their shared commitment to improving public education, including using data carefully and ceasing the 'teaching to the test' practice.

"President Obama emphasized the importance of working with teachers and their unions to implement successful education reform, saying that collective bargaining can be a catalyst-not an impediment-to reform. He recognizes that this work must be done with teachers, not to teachers," Weingarten said.

The Race to the Top fund will provide grants to encourage and reward states for plans in four core education reform areas aimed at improving teacher and principal quality, academic standards, data collection and turning around low-performing schools.

In his remarks, President Obama left no doubt that he sees a vital role for unions in school improvement. He singled out Weingarten's great leadership of a professional union and, when it comes to problems such as turning around low-performing schools, he encouraged local union leaders to work with other stakeholders in "making collective bargaining a catalyst and not an impediment to reform."

The Education Department audience also heard from Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough (Fla.) Classroom Teachers Association, a joint affiliate of the AFT and the NEA. Clements and her local have collaborated with the district on such initiatives as performance pay systems and career ladder programs, and she used the opportunity to focus on the need for strategies that go beyond the quick fix.

"There is no 'one thing' that will improve teacher quality or student achievement," said Clements, who detailed some of the supports that helped make Hillsborough's quality initiatives a success. They include high-quality mentoring and coaching, well-trained principals who work collaboratively with teachers, adequate resources, and professional growth opportunities at all career stages.

"So much is said about teacher quality and the need to improve it-and clearly, there is room for improvement," the union leader said. "But in all of this discussion, I don't want any of us to forget the women and men-the public school teachers-who do an outstanding job of educating our children every day. Listen to them and work with them. We're ready to work with you." (Clements' complete remarks are available here.)

The Education Department has listed 19 criteria on which to judge grant proposals. "We are going to use our own four criteria when reviewing the department's plan," Weingarten said. "They are: Does it help kids? Is it fair and helpful to educators? Is it transparent? And does it require shared responsibility? If the answer is 'yes' for each, then we have a real chance of improving the quality of teaching and learning and raising student achievement."

Weingarten said the AFT will withhold final judgment until the final regulations are issued, following the 30-day comment period, of which AFT leaders will take full advantage.

"Will we agree with everything? I doubt it. But hopefully we will agree that teacher evaluations must be improved the right way. We need meaningful, fair and multiple measures for supporting and evaluating teachers so that evaluations aren't based on one observation by a principal or one standardized test score," Weingarten said. "But both the president and Secretary Duncan understand that teachers are essential to education reform and that their voices need to be heard as we launch this major offensive to improve public education."

July 24, 2009