A consortium of New York City public schools that has achieved outstanding results by stressing in-depth teaching over high-stakes testing, and a coalition of state workers that saved Connecticut $1.6 billion through a new preventive healthcare plan, are the winners of the AFT's inaugural Prize for Solution-Driven Unionism.
The New York Performance Standards Consortium and AFT Connecticut each received a $25,000 award on Oct. 17 during a national AFT ceremony in Washington, D.C. A third AFT affiliate, the Charlotte County (Fla.) Support Personnel Association, earned an honorable mention and received a $5,000 prize.
"The Solution-Driven Unionism prize is rooted in solving problems and successfully meeting the many challenges facing our communities, often in the most difficult of environments," says AFT President Randi Weingarten. "Our winners exemplify that mission. The New York Performance Standards Consortium is equipping students of all backgrounds with the tools and knowledge they need to succeed in the 21st century, and AFT Connecticut forged a solution to a state budget crisis that improved healthcare access, protected pensions, and is saving the state money."
The Prize for Solution-Driven Unionism was created in partnership with the Albert Shanker Institute and the AFT Innovation Fund. Winners were chosen from among applications submitted by AFT affiliates during the summer.
The consortium’s 39 diverse public high schools (37 are in New York City, one is in Ithaca and one is in Rochester) are staffed by AFT members and have received waivers from four of the state’s five standardized exams (students still take the English Regents test). The focus on student performance measures other than the state tests allows Consortium teachers to emphasize critical thinking and problem solving, writing and discussion, open-ended questioning, and student input. Students must also defend their work orally before external evaluators.
"The consortium schools have figured out a way to give an amazing education to all students, even those who walk through the door with the most challenges," says Michael Mulgrew, president of the UFT and an AFT vice president. "They have done this by focusing on what students need instead of fixating on high-stakes tests."
"Our initial mission and responsibility was to get kids ready for college," says Phyllis Tashlik, director of the consortium's Center for Inquiry. "Years ago, nobody was talking about that. All they were talking about was passing Regents exams and getting graduation rates up. The consortium's focus has always been on teaching and learning—and preparing to get our kids into college and to stay in college."
As with college courses, the consortium's assessments grow directly from the curriculum, and students are encouraged to think deeply and show evidence—the same goals sought by the Common Core State Standards.
"The consortium schools have created a powerful alternative to a system built around high-stakes testing," Weingarten says. "Their teacher-driven curriculum and assessments and focus on project-based learning have led to higher graduation rates, lower dropout rates, and higher college-persistence rates than their state and national counterparts. If the Common Core is about getting all kids ready for what they need for the 21st century, then this is a brilliant example of its adaptation."
By any measure, the consortium is producing stellar results.
The consortium's dropout rate of 5.3 percent is less than half the rate for New York City high schools (11.8 percent). And 85 percent of gradates attended colleges rated competitive or better, and persisted in college at rates higher than the national average.
The schools have also produced success among African-American and Latino males, far outpacing national rates. In 2011, 86 percent of African-American male consortium graduates and 90 percent of Latino male graduates were accepted to college (compared to national rates of 37 percent and 42 percent, respectively).
AFT Connecticut's prize followed an extraordinary union-driven solution to a state budget crisis.
In 2011, with the state of Connecticut facing growing budget deficits, Gov. Dan Malloy turned to state employees and demanded the workers come up with $2 billion in savings or face massive layoffs. AFT Connecticut worked closely with the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition to foster a win-win agreement with the governor, resulting in the Health Enhancement Program.
The new health program saved jobs and benefits, and is expected to save the state $1.6 billion.
"State workers were facing devastating budget cuts, which of course would also mean deep cuts for workers and services throughout the state," Weingarten says. "It wasn't easy, but there was a better way, and they worked collaboratively to put it in place. This is a great example of working with employees to solve problems rather than denigrating them or imposing top-down edicts upon them."
The program focuses on preventative care and chronic disease management, and includes incentives ($100 yearly) for enrollment and compliance in the program. There's also an additional $100 in monthly premiums for those who do not enroll. By May of 2012, 99 percent of state employees had signed up to participate in the plan, leading to better managed risk, lower costs for consumers, and savings for the long term.
"It was contentious and quite difficult," says Jean Morningstar, vice president of AFT Connecticut. "But we were determined to make it work. This was ultimately about protecting our members and our ability to continue to provide high-quality public services."
[AFT press release/photos by Michael Campbell/video by Brett Sherman]
October 17, 2013