In Her Own Words

Excerpts from Sandra Feldman's Many Speeches and Columns

Why Public Education?

I grew up in a very poor community, in Coney Island, on the edge of another community called Seagate. Seagate was—still is—a middle-class enclave cut off from the rest of us, literally, by a gate and security guards. You needed special identification to get through.

In those days of strict tracking, I was the only kid in my class from outside the gate. None of my friends from my own street were in my class. I did make friends with some of my classmates, though, and that enabled me to see how they lived. In big houses, with their own rooms, with big kitchens and separate dining rooms where tables were set for dinner in fine ways I had never seen.

The difference between haves and have-nots, starting then, made a big impression on me. And the fact that, despite the great differences in our home lives, I got the same education as those "richer" kids did, made a big impression on me.... And here I am, privileged to be able to play a continuing role fighting for the things I believe in so strongly. And the right to a quality public education is one that I believe in with every fiber of my being.

*  *  *

As a local leader for 12 years, in a city which is as diverse as they come, I spent every opening day of the school year in a school in different neighborhoods of the city.

Often I was there because there were problems—overcrowding, leaks, asbestos, staff shortages.... But in every instance, every single instance, I was always struck by the line of parents registering their children. Newly moved into the neighborhood, newly arrived in the city or new to the country—often these parents spoke little or no English.

The children, always neatly dressed and looking shy, are of every different shade and hue in my little town. You'd see girls in veils and hoods and headdresses standing in a kindergarten line holding hands with a partner who might be blond or redheaded or darker or lighter. You'd hear several different languages being spoken, and strangely-accented English.

But one thing for sure: This was their school. No application to fill out, no interview required, no selection criteria, no fee. Children have an unqualified, unfettered right to go to that school, and that school, whatever its faults and problems and strengths, would ultimately make it possible for them to participate fully as citizens in America.

[In contrast] where would a voucher take them? Where would the overwhelming majority of the children in Chicago or Boston or Philadelphia or New Orleans or New York City go if not to the public school in their community?

*  *  *

We have to make the good fight [against private school vouchers] in the political arena, in the community. But this is not a fight that will be won with politics alone. And so we will work even harder to improve the schools. We will redouble our efforts so that the schools our poor children go to have at least the same resources as those that wealthier children go to....

We want all our students to have access to schools where order and discipline are taken for granted, where high standards are in place, and where children get the help they need to meet them....

None of us should defend schools we wouldn't want to send our own children to—we should fight like hell to improve them—and help to close and redesign them if that is necessary as a last resort. That's the real civil rights issue for us: not only the preservation of public education—but its dramatic improvement.

–AFT Civil, Human, and Women's Rights Conference, 1998

Every School a Good School: Close Persistently Unsuccessful Schools

Put very simply and most starkly: I propose that we do not seek to defend or perpetuate failing schools to which we would not send our own children. Failing schools that you or I, or the mayor or governor or any elected official, wouldn't send their own children to, must be turned around. As John Dewey, that brilliant educator and great AFT activist put it, "What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children."

We should not wait for states or superintendents to do it to us. We should advocate the closing and redesign of failing schools, and negotiate it—for the sake of the kids we serve, for the sake of the parents who shouldn't have to be torn between their commitment to their own children and to public education, for the sake of the public that is committed to public education but deeply troubled about its performance, for our own sakes, and for our union's sake, and for the sake of public education.

We should do this because when states or superintendents do it unilaterally ... they do it badly—rudely, crudely—getting rid of people instead of bad practices, putting in new people and keeping the same old programs and practices that didn't work.

*  *  *

Closing down and re-opening failing schools can be done right—it can be done without blaming, without stigmatizing people, and without defending the indefensible.

As a local president, I've been deeply involved in doing this. I have met for hours and hours with members who were hurt and angry, understandably so, because they'd never been given the chance to do the right thing. They'd never been given the leadership, ... the support, the tools and conditions and access to programs that would have, and could have, made a difference....

One high school, for example, had had many incompetent principals for years. Discipline was never enforced. Violence was common. Many times there were assaults on teachers and students and student rioting.

Working with parents and some of the faculty and an enlightened superintendent, we were able to close that school, and re-open it as four small, theme-based schools in the same building. And today, children from the surrounding area whose parents had forsaken the school and probably public education altogether, are sending their children, and the schools have a waiting list for children and teachers wanting to go there. About half the original teachers stayed; the others took advantage of a dignified transfer program that allowed them to select schools they preferred and they, too, are teaching happily elsewhere....

We must do whatever we have to do to turn around the lives of the students (and the usually unhappy teachers) relegated to failing schools.

We can do this, and we can still protect our members from unjustifiable firing; we can negotiate their transfer rights and create processes where those who want to stay and work for change can do so—in a cooperative, dignified, professional setting.

–QuEST, AFT's professional conference, 1997

[A]s school people, we can't, by ourselves, end the discrimination, the racism, and the bigotry that our students often face and must overcome. We can't control what happens to them at home. And we can't control what happens to them in the streets. I wish we could. And as a union, we'll keep fighting for the policies, programs, and elected leaders who can move us toward a more just society.

But I know in my gut that we can do more to make our schools work for every child. I know it because I've seen it happen. Even under the worst circumstances. Even in the toughest neighborhoods. Even in high schools that once seemed hopeless.

–Chicago QuEST 2001

Secondary School Students

I am worried, as many of you are, about those secondary-school students who were not the beneficiaries of high standards during the earlier years of their schooling. I am specifically talking about students who are dropping out, or at risk of dropping out, because they feel they have little or no chance of meeting new, tougher high-school graduation requirements. And I don't have to tell you what being a high-school dropout means in today's economy....

[T]he plain, painful truth is that most of these youngsters are still not benefiting from higher standards. In fact, they are being victimized. But let me be equally blunt: They would be just as victimized if standards were lowered for them.

Overcoming this problem requires understanding it. The problem is that the middle- and secondary-school students I'm talking about do not have the reading, math, and other basic skills they need. And you and I know that it is almost impossible to teach, and for students to master, high standards, secondary-level courses when students don't have secondary-level skills.

Their teachers are in a terrible double-bind. On the one hand, if they teach material at a lower level that reaches these young adults and from there try to move them up, they are criticized for not "believing" in their students and for being "resistant" to high standards. But if, on the other hand, they teach material at a higher level, they are criticized for failing to reach their students, thereby discouraging them and causing them to drop out. Of course, they also get slammed for being "resistant" to reform.

This double-bind has terrible consequences for students.... [Along with other remedies,] I propose that we give these youngsters the time they need to catch up by guaranteeing them afterschool and summer-school programs. And for those kids who may need even more help to meet the necessary standards to graduate, I propose a transitional year program—either before they enter high school or during high school, as soon as they are identified. And I propose that such programs be staffed by teachers especially trained to accelerate the basic skills of young adults.

–AFT Convention 2000

Early Childhood Education

[A]ccording to a major study on early childhood by the National Center for Education Statistics ... a small but significant percentage of our youngest children, primarily kids from low-income families, are in poor health and lack the pre-literacy, pre-math, and social skills that more advantaged youngsters have when they start kindergarten. Most of these children are perfectly capable of acquiring those skills, but they just haven't been exposed to the kinds of experiences and informal learning opportunities that produce them.

Without those early learning opportunities, it's hard for disadvantaged children to catch up with their more affluent peers. In fact, the study found that, while the children who had been behind at the beginning of the school year made great strides and had closed the learning gap in basic skills by year's end, the more advantaged youngsters continued to have an edge, especially in higher-order skills. In short, despite the terrific job their teachers did, they were unable to compensate for what many poor youngsters, because of their poverty, could not get outside of school....

It is clear that a critical part of closing this achievement gap is to get it right from the start. That's why we not only need full-day kindergarten available to all children, but also a national commitment to make high-quality, preschool education, starting at the age of 3, universally available—not compulsory, but accessible and affordable to all—with first priority given to needy children....

We can establish a successful universal early childhood education program through cost-sharing. By that I mean first, let's leverage federal, state, and local funds to establish the quality system we need and make it a priority to pay the costs for poor families who want to enroll their children in preschool. Second, let's ask other families who want their children in quality preschools and who can afford to pay some, or all, of the costs to do so according to a reasonable schedule of sliding-scale fees.

–Where We Stand, September 2001

The best solution to this problem is obvious—universal access to high-quality preschool, with priority given to poor children. The AFT has been pushing hard for this, but our nation is so far behind on early childhood education that it's not easy to get where we need to go, especially in today's economy.

However, we can make a "down payment" on quality preschool by extending the kindergarten year for disadvantaged children.

To do this, the federal government should help states and districts provide a "Kindergarten-Plus" program that would enable disadvantaged children to start during the summer before they would ordinarily enter kindergarten and then continue through the summer preceding first grade. Such a program would accelerate the progress of poor children and help them maintain it....

Four extra months of kindergarten would cost about $2,000 a child. Approximately 580,000 poor children would qualify, for a total of $1.16 billion. Too much to pay for dramatically reducing the achievement gap? Not if we consider that in one year alone, WorldCom got $1.1 billion in tax breaks, with no benefits for our nation, while Kindergarten-Plus would reduce the need for remediation and special education, lower dropout rates, increase the supply of productive citizens, and ultimately save us billions.

–Where We Stand, October 2002

End Social Promotion and Retention: A Third Way

[I]t knocked my socks off when I heard the president of the United States, in his State of the Union Address, hold out as a national goal that every child would be able to read well by the end of the third grade. And, frankly, I was embarrassed. How is it that the president of the wealthiest, greatest nation in the world has to talk about universal third-grade literacy as a national goal? ...

[H]ow does it happen that a child gets beyond third grade without solid skills in reading or math? How could it happen that a youngster could reach 12th grade, let alone graduate from high school, without solid skills in reading, writing, and math? ... These are good questions....

I am here today with the results of this AFT survey, the first such national survey [on social promotion] ever conducted…. [W]hat did we find? We found that no district has an explicit policy of social promotion.... We also found that just about every district has an implicit policy of social promotion.... For example, about one-half of the districts restrict the number of times that a student can be retained.... Still other districts essentially forbid retaining certain children, like students with limited English proficiency or learning disabilities, saying that these students are to be moved along according to "a pace that is appropriate to their abilities"—whatever that means.... [I]n most districts there are no agreed upon standards defining what students should know and be able to do at every grade level.... In the majority of districts, final authority for promotion decisions rests with the principal.... Principals can overturn the teacher's recommendation or change her grades.

*  *   *

Ironically, and painfully, it turns out that not only is social promotion rampant, but retention is, too. Despite the restrictions on holding students back, retention is used as often as it can be, as often as it's allowed to be. Accurate figures are hard to get, but it's estimated that ... [in] many large urban districts, ... upwards of 50 percent of the students who enter kindergarten are likely to be retained at least once before they either graduate or drop out.

*  *  *

The fact is, neither social promotion nor retention is the answer—if the answer we're seeking is getting kids to achieve. In fact, throughout the 20th century, we've swung like a pendulum between these two policy approaches to student progression, and neither policy has done the job.

Now, if I had a gun to my head and I had to choose between retaining or promoting a student who hadn't mastered the requisite material, I would choose retention over promotion. But there are better choices. And what are they?

First, we need to take an intensive care approach to students who are falling behind well before we're at the point of promotion or retention decisions by quickly identifying these students and concentrating every possible resource on getting them back on track quickly....

Secondly, we have to adopt rigorous standards that are clear to parents, students, and teachers. The standards should be accompanied by grade-by-grade curriculum, assessments that make it possible for teachers to know in time when children are in trouble so they can seek timely intervention....

Third, I want to say this one very loud and clear: We must place well-educated, well-trained teachers in every classroom, but especially in the classrooms of our neediest and most vulnerable children. And we have to make it a top priority, both in the schools of education and in district professional development programs to insist that all teachers of very young children are proficient in the teaching of reading....

But perhaps our most significant recommendation, the one that will ultimately make the biggest difference, ... is to make high-quality preschool and kindergarten programs available for all children, and if not for all children, then definitely and urgently and immediately for our neediest children.

–National Press Club, 1997

Improving Teacher Preparation

These are challenging times—ripe both with the prospect for the professionalization of teaching and for its slipping out of reach. And I know that when our institutions are under attack, it's tempting just to circle the wagons. That, however, would be a big mistake. Yes, we need to defend ourselves vigorously against critics who are simply out to destroy us and, with that, the possibility of ensuring every child a well-prepared teacher. But we can't shut our ears to all the criticism—especially not from the teachers you prepare and I represent. And when four out of five teachers—an overwhelming majority!—surveyed by the Department of Education in 1998 say they do not feel well prepared to teach in today's classrooms, we must pay very serious and very prompt attention. This is not an attack; instead, it is, in Secretary Riley's words, "a cry for help." And if we are truly committed to the absolute necessity of a professional teacher education program, if we are really serious about making sure that teacher education is strengthened and not dismantled, then together, we must answer that cry for help. That is the spirit in which I make my remarks, including my criticisms, today.

*  *  *

Put simply and plainly, a profession has a shared body of knowledge that all its members must possess. Of course, in teaching, there's a vast amount of information that teacher educators and others (everyone seems to have an opinion!) feel teachers should possess. But there is no agreement about the knowledge and skills teachers must possess—and, therefore, no core program that defines and unites teacher education. This is not the case with any other professional preparation. Let me give you an example. The California State Department of Education surveyed their teacher training institutions about teaching reading. It turns out that [what is taught] varied from professor to professor. Even on the same campus and in courses bearing the same title, what teacher candidates were taught varied; it was all a matter of the discretion of the professor—no common core was discernible.... Contrast these findings about reading to what we would find about teaching anatomy to prospective physicians. No matter the medical school: number one, you'd find an anatomy course and, number two, you'd find its content and duration pretty much the same.

Now, I'm not focusing on teaching reading because I don't think math or science or English, etc., are important. But if this is the situation with teaching reading, which is so very fundamental, then we know we're unlikely to find comfort in how teachers are prepared in other subject areas and skills....

A core program of knowledge and skills is characteristic of the education and training of every other professional, and that is where we, too, must go. Moreover, without that, our enemies will continue to be able to say that any institution, any group any provider can prepare teachers, because, after all, what teachers should know and be able to do is just a matter of opinion or fashion.

–American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education Conference, 1999

Making Standards-Based Education Work

The fact is, too many of our political leaders and school officials are not doing their part. Too many of them have reneged on their end of the bargain in the standards movement: that they would support our teachers in undertaking the hard work of teaching to much higher standards—not deny them the tools they need or seek to deprive them of their dignity and rights; that they would support our students, especially our neediest children, in their efforts to reach much higher standards of achievement—not drag their heels on early childhood education or class-size reduction, or other help youngsters need.

They promised we'd get new curriculum aligned with new standards. Where is it? They said tests would be better and used more responsibly. In how many places is that true?

Of course, what worries us about these stumbles, unintended or otherwise, is the effect on teaching and learning. What worries us, too, is that they have provoked a backlash, especially among parents, that is understandable but also threatens everything that's right and working in the standards movement—a movement that parents, the public, and, not least of all, our members still strongly support.

*  *  *

First, in the area of curriculum: We cannot continue to tolerate teachers being left to fend for themselves with a list of state standards and without curriculums or any other materials that are based on those new standards. State standards do not curricula make.

There is absolutely no other profession whose practitioners are denied their most basic tools and expected to invent them and try them out, all on their own, while simultaneously practicing their profession. It would be considered intolerable. It is equally intolerable for our teachers and grossly unfair to the children they serve.

How to get the job done? While we know that the federal department of education is prohibited from developing curriculum, it is not prevented from doing this: inviting the states to enter into a national consortium that solicits proposals to develop, try out, and evaluate new curricula, including high-quality educational software.

I'm not talking about an effort to get one, so-called "best" curriculum, because one size won't fit all students. I'm talking about developing a variety of outstanding and effective curriculums within each subject area, each of which is based on high standards.

This would be federalism in action. The federal government would contribute funds, but so, too, would the states. Plus, the states would have the added benefit of comparing their standards and following the example of the best. And by working together, they would have more resources, more intelligence, and more checks and balances than if any or each of them were to do it on their own.

*  *  *

There's another important job this consortium can do: work together to straighten out the problems in testing.

Obviously, if we had curriculum, then the problem, in too many places, of tests becoming the curriculum would substantially disappear. No test, no matter how good—and all too many of them are not—can possibly capture the sum of education, let alone be a substitute for real education. Yet, in too many places, that's what our officials are encouraging because they have lined up the incentives in all the wrong directions.

Let me be clear. I personally, and the AFT historically, support testing; it's a legitimate and necessary tool of diagnosis and evaluation. We also unequivocally support reporting out test results, fully and accurately, to parents and to the taxpayers who fund our public schools. And we support fair accountability for schools, for educators, for students—and for our officials.

But it is we and our students who are bearing the full and, sometimes, unfair brunt of accountability. It is, therefore, time for our officials to be accountable.

*  *  *

I urge those officials to listen to the voices of parents and teachers. They are telling you, loud and clear, that they support testing but that there is way too much of it going on, at the risk of getting kids truly educated. They—not to mention the testing experts—are telling you that some tests do not reflect high standards and actually undermine high-standards teaching and learning.... They are also asking you whether cut scores on some tests, challenging tests, have been set so high that they go beyond world-class standards into the world of the supernatural. Take these serious questions seriously. Look into them, and correct any problems you find.

–AFT Convention 2000

Fixing No Child Left Behind

I know very well that the new standards-based Title I, and the standards movement in general, has taken a tremendous toll on you, on our members. You were working hard already, and you had to work even harder. You were given new standards, often vague, but no curricula to guide you. We still don't have them.

Instead, we got lots of new tests, and you were given the message that the test should be the curriculum—and then the blame for narrowing the curriculum and teaching to the tests. And while some of the new tests were better, most of them weren't even aligned with the standards to which you were supposed to teach.... [W]hile the increased focus on testing has sometimes led to extra supports for struggling students, the resources for such interventions are still inadequate, and the work still falls primarily on you....

Instead of tests being used as a tool to give teachers, parents, and the public an accurate analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of our students and schools—instead of being used to get help where it's needed and change where change is needed—instead of, in other words, the kind of testing and accountability we support, we've seen too many instances of testing being misused and abused to cloud the true picture of our schools and to unfairly punish them....

Which brings me to the [new Title I law known as No Child Left Behind]. There is no question that there are serious problems [with it], and I fully understand why our members fear that life will get even harder and less fair than it's already been.

*  *  *

I want to have a candid political discussion with you.... Simply put, this reauthorization was like no other we've seen.

First, Title I, for the first time since its inception, was in danger of elimination—not a cut, but elimination. For a time, it looked like the only way to avoid that fate or some of the ugly proposals being made was to let the law expire and try again later. But "later" meant that things could get even uglier and, at best, Title I funding would be dramatically cut, because the economic downturn that's now slashing funding for education and every other vital service was already upon us. We could see what was ahead, and there was no way our schools could sustain that kind of hit.

The fact that we have Title I at all, let alone an increase this year over what was proposed, is a major achievement, and we can't lose sight of it.

Second, the political ingredients that went into this compromise law were also very new. Remember, the law was passed with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in both the House and the Senate. The problems as well as the pluses were bipartisan. Support for the re-testing of veteran teachers and the elimination of paraprofessionals in Title I, for instance, was just as likely to come from a liberal Democrat as from a conservative Republican. Vouchers and other forms of privatization were backed by so-called New Democrats, as well as conservative Republicans.

Brothers and sisters, in this alliance-shifting, hard-line, often toxic atmosphere, we can be proud of the constructive role the AFT played and the good we did. Together with our allies, we defeated vouchers in both the House and Senate.... We defeated the re-testing of veteran teachers. We prevented the elimination of paraprofessionals in Title I. We stopped major block grants, and [as a result] we kept funds targeted on the neediest kids. And, as I already mentioned, we substantially increased the funding for Title I this year over what was proposed, thanks to the leadership of Senator Kennedy.

But we couldn't do it all. As [former AFT President] Al Shanker used to say to us about the contracts he negotiated: "I could have written a better one myself, but I couldn't because there was another side across the table." And in the case of Title I, that immovable side was, as I said, comprised of traditional friends and foes alike.

So we have some pain to deal with.... [But it's] a case ... of not throwing out the baby with the bath water, of keeping before us our vision of what needs to be done and fighting intelligently—and fighting like hell—for it.

–AFT Convention 2002

[T]hat brings me to AYP—adequate yearly progress ... the linchpin—land mine, really—of the standards, testing, and accountability provisions of the law.

How does AYP work? The law calls for 100 percent of students in general and in each of a number of subgroups—low-income, racial and ethnic minorities, special education, and English language learners—to reach a "proficient" level on tests of reading and math in grades 3–8 and at least one grade in high school....

This means that schools whose students are way behind from the start have to make far, far more annual progress—both on average and with each of their sub-groups—than schools already at or beyond the state's starting point. Indeed, the experts told us—and we and they tried to tell Congress—that this AYP formula is not only statistically stacked against diverse schools, it also calls on most high-poverty schools, with their well-documented lack of resources, to achieve a rate of academic progress that has never before been seen, not in our most advantaged schools and not even in so-called "world-class" school systems.

Moreover, despite the word "progress" in "adequate yearly progress," the formula doesn't really give credit for progress. A school may make a large amount of progress in a year—let's say 6 points—but if the predetermined target is 7 points, tough luck; just like the school that made zero points, it'll be sanctioned, instead of praised.

Now, we led the way in turning around low-performing schools. AFT has always believed all children can learn and that the effects of poverty can be overcome with the right conditions and supports. I have always believed that no child should have to go to a school we wouldn't want our own to attend. And we have worked hard to achieve that goal—and, folks, truth be told, we are making great progress.

But this AYP formula staggers the imagination and maybe even human capacity. Furthermore, this formula could put a large number of good schools on the "failing" list—which, since states are then required to help them, could result in even less money to help schools that are really in trouble.

Now, you can be absolutely sure that we are watching all of this very closely. And, again, we're doing this in the AFT way, protesting, yes, but at the same time gathering the necessary evidence to win the fight by exposing the indefensible.... Because ... accountability for that which is attainable is legitimate. But accountability for that which is humanly impossible, laudable as it may sound, is unacceptable.

–QuEST 2003

Teaching Democracy

Democracy cannot be taken for granted. It must be taught; its values must be learned. Consider the following: Most of the youngsters in high schools today were just beginning school when the Berlin Wall—and all that it signified—came tumbling down....

This helps to remind us that those things which we adults take as current events—as if they had happened yesterday—are treated as ancient history by kids. The inspiring lessons about democracy that we learned from events such as the U.S. Civil Rights movement, or the birth of democracy in South Africa, will be lost unless they are taught.... Providing effective civic education is one of the key challenges to our society, since the continued existence of any democracy is ultimately dependent on the knowledge, commitments, and actions of its citizens.

–National Alliance for Civic Education, May 2000

What do teachers and education have to offer in a war with the shadowy, well-funded network of terrorists who attack our country and its values? The answer: plenty. Education goes right to the heart of this conflict, which is a battle of ideas about values: Who governs? By what right do they claim power? Are there free elections? Are free speech, a free press, independent trade unions, and free enterprise protected? Are people free to worship—or not—as they wish? ...

The United States should support programs that promote the dissemination of books, tapes, pamphlets, and model curricula in schools and libraries and over the Internet.... There are courageous people, many of them teachers, working in every sort of repressive situation around the world to promote and sustain democratic ideas. Where there are openings to help schools and promote the free flow of ideas, the U.S. and its partners—who know firsthand the value of the free exchange of ideas in teaching and learning—must act.

–Where We Stand, March 2002

Education Work Is Union Work

Ultimately, at the heart of everything we do and have done is this fundamental question: What is best for the student, the child, the patient, or the ordinary citizen that we serve? In our schools, doing what is best for the child is ensuring that we have high academic standards; a good, solid curriculum; a safe building and an orderly environment; well-qualified and trained teachers, paraprofessionals and support staff; and adequate resources.

It also means that we have to identify and push for "what works" in our classrooms—solid, research-based solutions that lead to higher academic achievement. We are making progress. The AFT's own analysis of state academic standards, "Making Standards Matter," notes that, although much still needs to be done, higher standards, with better and more specific curricula, have been put in place throughout the states. There are more rigorous graduation and course requirements. We also have been critical of the practice of "social promotion" and equally critical of the lack of alternatives and supports for students who are failing and must be held back.

Through the work of the AFT's task force on reading, we are also now advocating "what works" in the most fundamental skill on which everything else is built: reading.

–1996–1998 AFT Officers' Report

I know that it is not always comfortable for us to take on new roles. I know that many of these responsibilities are really "management's problem."

Well, sisters and brothers, if management in public education, in healthcare, in our colleges and universities, and in state and local services were dealing with their problems more effectively, we'd all be in better shape. But they are not. And the fact is, their problems have become our problems—the problem of whether or not we'll have public education and public services, the problem of whether or not we'll have a thriving middle class and the possibility of mobility into it. And these issues are so profound that we simply don't have the option of turning our backs.

Besides, we know our members want us front and center on these issues. They want us to take on new responsibilities, to give them the help they need to do the job. They want us to take a leading role in improving public education, healthcare, and public services.

–AFT Convention 1998

On May 26, 2004, shortly before Sandra Feldman retired from the AFT presidency to fight her cancer, the United Federation of Teachers dedicated the new Sandra Feldman Education Conference Center. The Center will continue the professional development and school improvement work that Sandy advanced as president of the UFT—and later as president of the AFT. The following are from her remarks at the dedication:

I'm really grateful for this. I wouldn't have loved anything more than to have [the new UFT] educational conference center in my name. And my fondest wish is that when the members pass through this center or its satellites, ... that they leave it with new knowledge of what to do for their students, and that it helps them ultimately with their kids, because that's the bottom line.

*  *  *

I see a lot of people right in this audience from across the country who, with the help of AFT ... [and the staff of the UFT Teachers Center] have begun to evolve [professional development] programs of their own.... I think that almost every single AFT local in the country is involved in this work in one way or another. In the AFT, there is this belief, and it is deeply held, that this education work is union work.


No matter how hard their parents struggle, the effects of poverty often leave poor children two to four years behind before they ever enter kindergarten. Many never see a doctor when they are sick because their families don't have health insurance or money to pay the doctor bills. Their physical development may be slowed because they don't get enough of the right kinds of foods. And many don't get adequate intellectual stimulation, either from their parents or from the poor-quality daycare that's the best their families can afford.

–Where We Stand, January 2000

We have never shied away from criticism of low-performing schools. In fact, we've led the efforts to improve them. And doing so must remain part of the national strategy for closing the achievement gap. But when elected leaders expect overcrowded, under-staffed, and under-funded schools to make up for every failure of society, and then attack us for failing, they are being disingenuous at best, and dishonest at worst.

 –AFT Convention 2002

[We need] high-quality—let me emphasize, high-quality—alternative settings for violent and chronically disruptive students. Because these troubled kids need the kind of intense help our regular schools can't give them. Because the vast majority of kids in our schools are doing the right things and they need to be protected from their troubled peers. And because no voucher advocate should be able to prey on parents' desire for school discipline and their children's safety—desires we fervently share—by telling them they need a voucher to get it.

   –AFT Convention 2000

Consider this. A well-known, billionaire businessman, who has announced his intention to break up the "monopoly" of public education through vouchers, was recently asked, in an interview, what happens to difficult kids in his scheme. I quote: "No one wants them," he said. "What becomes of them—it's like every other marketplace. Some kids are not going to make it."

–AFT Convention 2000

The AFT's push for higher academic standards during the past two decades is paying dividends: Dropout rates are down; more high school students are taking challenging academic courses; SAT and ACT scores are up; students are taking more Advanced Placement exams; and more students are going on to college. There is no longer a question of whether our nation should have higher academic standards but, rather, how to achieve these standards. To better serve students, the AFT is pressing for substantially more resources and attention paid to providing professional development for educators.

–1998–2000 AFT Officers' Report

[T]he majority of teacher training institutions don't offer the ... rigorous, liberal arts education that you need to teach an ambitious, knowledge-based curriculum. In fact, many pre-service programs argue that the academic disciplines should never be emphasized—the "teachers teach children, not content" philosophy. (That we can neither teach what we don't know nor teach ... without knowing how is something many of us discover the hard way.) In most school systems, this is compounded by ... professional development that can be compared to a drive-by shooting: It's rare that the right target gets hit, and who knows when they'll be coming back.

–Core Knowledge Conference 1999

[M]any of our experienced teachers, too, need ongoing support in teaching phonology, phonetics, orthography, and other language skills.... I use those fancy words ... deliberately.... [T]hink of ... going before a group of 25 or 30 wriggling, restless youngsters depending on you to unlock the mysteries of eye-to-brain coordination, of decoding and comprehension.... It is daunting. And it's as dumb and cruel to expect someone—even a brilliant young AmeriCorps type—to go in and do that with at-risk kids without proper training, as it would be to think one of us could take out another's appendix.

–National Press Club, 1997

I remember all of my teachers by name, and I'll never forget how my second-grade teacher introduced me to reading and gave me books that I could keep.

–The Reporter, Fall 1997

I would like to be remembered for helping to move the [New York City] school system from a time when teachers had to punch time clocks toward a more professional environment ... for the development of collaboratively run schools and leading the union into becoming an important player in the school reform movement.

–Crain's New York Business, March 25–31, 1996

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