Solution-driven Unionism: Teachers

BEING A TEACHER these days can feel like being in the middle of a tempest. Education budgets have been squeezed, class sizes have risen in many places, and educators frequently are required to do much more with much less. Our students too often bear the scars of America's shamefully high poverty rate, while some people suggest that teachers can single-handedly resolve all of society's crises in their classrooms. Teachers often are required to implement top-down policies made without their input, and then they are blamed when the strategies fail.

It's enough to demoralize even the most devoted teachers and, indeed, teacher attrition in the United States is alarmingly high. But throughout the country, individual teachers, AFT state and local affiliates, and the national union are addressing this new reality with a new approach to unionism—what I call "solution-driven unionism."

The concept of solution-driven unionism took root for me when I saw the members and leaders of the ABC Federation of Teachers in Southern California commit to an approach that focuses on solving problems—not on winning arguments. Instead of finger-pointing about how student achievement was not increasing at the pace anyone wanted, the union and district partners identified solutions and used collective bargaining as a way to aggressively and collaboratively move systemic reforms. The result is double-digit gains in student achievement scores in each of the past 10 years and an approach that can serve as a national model for solution-driven unionism.

This concept is our compass at the national union as well. We know that this tough climate is no excuse for not having a proactive education agenda. To the contrary—it demands it.

In my keynote address to delegates at the AFT national convention this summer, I highlighted examples of solution-driven unionism that don't simply call out what doesn't work, they point to a better way. Here is a sampling.

The AFT has just launched Share My Lesson (see the story on page 16 and visit, an online resource for educators that we developed with our partner TES Connect. Share My Lesson is essentially a digital filing cabinet full of educators' best ideas. Many of the resources are aligned to the Common Core State Standards, providing tools and support to teachers who will be expected to teach to the new standards (in some cases the only support they will receive).

The AFT is challenging the current fixation on high-stakes testing. A new AFT resolution calls for tests to inform, not impede, teaching and learning. And we have created an online petition demanding an end to the misuse of high-stakes testing that has been signed by almost 23,000 parents, teachers and students in the first month alone.

In an era when many educators feel that teacher evaluations are more about "gotcha" than professional growth and improving student achievement, the New Haven (Conn.) Federation of Teachers set out to change that. The New Haven union and district are partnering to overhaul teacher development and evaluation with a focus on helping all teachers improve throughout their careers. Similar efforts are taking place at the state level in New York and Rhode Island, where AFT's state affiliates received AFT Innovation Fund grants to develop approaches to teacher development and evaluation that are rigorous, meaningful and teacher-driven.

In Cincinnati, our local affiliate and its community and district partners have created schools that put in place the conditions all students need for success, particularly at-risk and low-income students. Every public school in Cincinnati offers students and their families access to wraparound services, including health and mental health services, tutoring, counseling and after-school programs. Student mobility, which can be so disruptive to a child's education, is down. Discipline referrals have dropped sharply—keeping students in school, learning. And Cincinnati is the only urban district in Ohio to receive an "effective" rating—ranking 13th out of  609 districts on a state academic index.

At its core, solution-driven unionism unites educators with their students and communities and, in so doing, ensures that we don't merely survive, but that we succeed. Our success also rests upon electing leaders who support this concept, which is based on collaboration as opposed to conflict and on problem-solving as opposed to finger-pointing. The tempest swirling around us has far from subsided, and the November elections can shape whether it continues to rage or gives way to a climate of seeking solutions for the common good.

American Teacher, September/October 2012