Hope for the future of public education

At the closing session of AFT TEACH, Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus and AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram were joined by Deputy Education Secretary Cindy Marten for a conversation on what comes next in public education. They discussed the hurdles that teachers and school staff have cleared over the past 16 months, the amazing work being done to recover and prepare for the coming school year, and our vision for equity and access in public education.

General session with Cindy Marten

“What a week we had,” DeJesus said, looking back at the dozens of general sessions, workshops and videos during TEACH. Then she turned her attention to the conversation at hand, “The Future of Public Education.” 

“We’re going to spend some time on the bedrock, the deepest foundation of what we do as educators,” she said. “I’m talking about literacy, because literacy underlies everything else that we do. The AFT has been all-in for literacy for the past two decades,” since its publication of Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science

In the years since, the science has continued to advance. What hasn’t changed is that supporting literacy starts with teachers, DeJesus said, with the understanding that even before the pandemic, under-resourced schools struggled to provide high-quality reading instruction. 

DeJesus noted that students who were already marginalized suffered most in the pandemic. She said that has to stop. The AFT’s new campaign, Launching Literacy, will support our members to enhance their credentials and improve their instructional skills. The AFT plans to start with a member survey that will gauge what educators know about the state of literacy in their communities and what they need to support struggling readers and engage with their families. As we go back to school this fall, DeJesus said, every educator will become a reading teacher. 

To introduce Deputy Education Secretary Cindy Marten, Ingram quoted AFT President Randi Weingarten, who often reminds us that “elections matter.” Because of the election of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, we now have a U.S. Department of Education headed by actual educators—Secretary Miguel Cardona and Deputy Secretary Marten are both former teachers. Marten has more than 30 years of public education experience as teacher, instructional leader, principal and now policymaker. 

Marten worked at Central Elementary School in San Diego. From the start, she has believed in the education of the whole child with an emphasis on social-emotional learning and academic rigor. For the past eight years, Marten has served as superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District. Her district achieved the fastest reading growth in the nation, and she put in place an award-winning wellness policy for staff and students.

She may work in a different city now, with a different role in education and among new people, Marten told TEACH participants. “But what’s at the heart of it, who I am at my core, I’m a teacher.” 

And at its core, Marten said, her work is the same. The key questions are how will this help children and how will we give educators the tools they need.

Literacy is the cornerstone of success, Marten said, not only in school but in life. She’s a literacy specialist. Expressing her enthusiasm for the AFT’s Launching Literacy campaign, she said, “When we ensure that every student is reading at grade level by making sure that teachers are properly prepared, trained and supported to teach reading, it makes a difference.” In particular, she said, students need good books in their classrooms and reading materials appropriate for their ages and interests, their backgrounds and what matters to them. Marten highlighted the importance of immersing children in literature and honoring the literacies they bring with them to the classroom.

Marten is confident that with the right skills, support, resources and training, we can help children become strong readers. 

Responding to Ingram’s comment that the past 16 months have been hard, Marten said, “People say that … we’re all in this together—we’re all in the same boat. I don’t know that we’re all in the same boat. I know that we’re all in the same storm.” 

So, the question is what healing looks like. To start, she said, we need five-day-a-week instruction in school. The president’s American Rescue Plan provided money for screening and testing. And as important as that is, it is equally important to hire more staff, build more partnerships and enact new policies that align with the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to maintain health and safety.

Although heartened by the trend of reopening, Marten said, she’s concerned that some students, especially Asian American and Black students, are less likely to return for in-person instruction. She proposes sustained outreach to listen to families, meet them where they are and, if they’re hesitating, find out why. We have to ensure that every student gets what they need when they need it, and that starts with listening and being responsive. Teachers know how to do this, she said.

What we’ve learned, Marten added, is that we need to work together, with everybody at the table, including educators, their unions, parents and caregivers. It’s been a different pandemic experience for everyone, and everyone will experience reopening differently. We have to adjust, she said. While “everyone wants to talk about what’s been lost,” Marten remained hopeful: “I know children have gained things as well.” Preparing for this school year, we have to be creative about the benefits of home visits and virtual meetings.

Marten pointed to “Family Fridays” in San Diego. By end of her tenure there, up to 300 families who never participated before were coming to these meetings. And this is just one of many creative new tactics built out of necessity. Teachers and paraprofessionals have become proficient in remote learning. Look at us now, she said, having this virtual conversation. 

Marten also spoke of an equity-focused funding model in which California has targeted funding to the localities that need it most. “Put your resources on the communities with the most-significant needs,” she said, and this will lift student performance while attracting and retaining teachers. Now the federal government is looking at the same model. 

When Ingram asked how we can ensure that teaching is an attractive profession, Marten responded that teachers need great professional development throughout the school year and diversity in the ranks. It’s not just students of color but all students who benefit from educator diversity, she said. Again, the American Rescue Plan can help meet these goals in the short term, she said.

Ingram asked how Marten thinks the Education Department will work to make sure education remains the cornerstone of our democracy. 

“It’s all I think about morning, noon and night,” she answered. “Schools are the cornerstone of our democracy,” so we must ensure that all students—no matter their languages, neighborhoods or needs—receive a high-quality education. “Your demography should not determine your destiny.” 

President Biden has been clear, she said. He has proposed historic new investments in education, healthcare and middle-class prosperity. This legislation needs everyone’s support. 

A renaissance begins with the arts

DeJesus and Ingram thanked Marten and expressed their gratitude for leaders in the nation’s capital who, like us, are seeding a renaissance in public education—and a renaissance in arts education. As a music and band teacher for 10 years, Ingram said he knows for a fact that music saves lives. 

To that end, Ingram announced that the AFT is bestowing its Making a Difference Award on Steven Van Zandt, founder of TeachRock, member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and well-known actor. TeachRock uses popular music to help teach across disciplines. You can find out all about it on the AFT’s Share My Lesson, but first, watch this inspiring video about “Little Steven” as he describes his love for teachers, passion for arts education and gratitude to the AFT. 

“You, my friends, are the ones that make a difference every single day,” Van Zandt says in the video. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Finally, speaking of music, the White Plains Middle School Jazz Band in suburban New York played us out of TEACH with its renditions of “Eye of the Tiger” and “Everything Is Awesome” for eighth-grade moving-up day, held on the high school’s football field because of the pandemic. Band director Tim Veeder describes the importance of providing a celebration to keep up kids’ morale. 

“We have practiced so much for this day,” eighth-grader Gulgun Rosie Isiyel says in the video. She adds, “Everyone has a thing that they … express themselves with, and that is what music is to me.” Seventh-grader Israel Onofre says simply, “I feel honored.”

[Annette Licitra]