AFT Roundtable Highlights School-Improvement Essentials

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AFT leaders and superintendents from across the nation gathered in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 24 to discuss how to preserve, strengthen and expand school-improvement partnerships at a time when many provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act work against these collaborations. The conversation took place at an AFT-sponsored roundtable discussion on school-improvement partnerships in the era of NCLB, an event that drew both the media and Capitol Hill staffers working on NCLB-related issues.

Rudy Crew, superintendent of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, stressed that one essential ingredient to successful improvement is a climate that allows schools to be "vulnerable," to develop and embrace fresh new ideas in a non-punitive environment. Working against this essential factor, however, is the sanction-filled environment of an NCLB law that discourages innovation at the building level, Crew warned. Also essential, he said, are ongoing, sustained investments in training at the building level, and targeted district budget decisions that support promising efforts to raise student achievement.

United Federation of Teachers president and AFT vice president Randi Weingarten, who worked with Crew on successful efforts to improve low-achieving schools in New York City, stressed the need for commitment on both sides of the table. It's only possible to weather the inevitable ups and downs of any improvement strategy if there is a shared understanding that "what binds us is more important than what divides us," when it comes to the education of children, said Weingarten. She detailed several essentials for successful school reform, including qualified teachers with class sizes low enough to allow individualized instruction; timely intervention for students who are struggling; and transforming schools into centers where students and communities gain access to language, health, guidance and other essential social services.

Moderating the event was AFT executive vice president Antonia Cortese, who highlighted the need for focus and follow-through. "You have to have a will, committed to improving conditions for children, and it has to be disciplined."

The contract as a vehicle for reform, providing essential resources, and aligning school budgets to a strategic plan were some of the other themes highlighted by panelists. Several union leaders and administrators also pointed to flaws in the current accountability system under NCLB, which one panelist called "demoralizing" for schools and of limited use for gauging what's really going on in buildings.

Participating in the discussion were union leaders and superintendents from the ABC school district in California; Avon, N.Y.; Bozeman, Mont.; Hempstead, N.Y.; Miami; New York City; North Allegheny, Pa.; and Washington, D.C. The roundtable set the tone for the AFT's 10th annual Center for School Improvement institute (formerly the Institute on Effective Leadership in Academic Achievement). The four-day institute, which offers training to build cooperation in schools and raise student achievement, drew more than 200 participants from 19 districts.

January 25, 2008