Teamwork highlighted at AFT school improvement institute

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Teams from schools and districts around the country gathered in New York City on Jan. 23-26 for the 16th annual AFT Center for School Improvement (CSI) Leadership Institute, a proven path to the type of teamwork that is essential for reclaiming the promise of public education. Participants came from California to Massachusetts, and the in-depth training they received will spur strategies back home for cooperative school improvement on issues ranging from essential student and family services to professional development for teachers.


The event is held at the Manhattan headquarters of the United Federation of Teachers and is jointly sponsored by the AFT and the UFT's Teacher Center. As in past years, the 2014 institute drew a broad range of stakeholders from school systems: teachers, school specialists, union leaders, principals, administrators, school board members and representatives of nonprofit institutions involved in education. Together, they rolled up their sleeves and honed their skills in team building, professional development, data-informed decision-making and communication—training that will be supported with strong follow-up back home. There also was ample time for district teams to engage informally, the type of interaction that humanizes those across the table, making school improvement that much more likely.

"Communities want to see adults working together on behalf of kids," AFT President Randi Weingarten told participants at the opening session. She underscored how proper implementation of the Common Core State Standards can only happen in trusting, supportive environments—systems where professional respect is offered and given by all. "With this meeting, we've brought together people who know how to do this, as well as people who want to do it."

And, as in prior years, those interests were clearly held by the teams attending CSI in 2014.

"In a collaborative environment, where the union is a full partner, I get the supports I need and I'm able to understand what I need to do to help my students achieve," says Dawn Heeren, a special education teacher and vice president of the ABC Federation of Teachers in California.

"When we work together, we can solve problems, start new initiatives and get things done," explained Cheryl Bodger, director of schools for the ABC Unified School District.


"This is not sexy stuff to talk about," says AFT Executive Vice President Francine Lawrence, "but when it works, you are creating an environment for success." She told the crowd how, as a national AFT officer and a longtime union leader from Toledo, Ohio, she had seen CSI work as a springboard to meaningful collaboration and lasting school improvement in schools around the nation. The spirit of this effective, collaborative work, she noted, was showcased in the latest issue of American Educator, the AFT's quarterly journal, and Lawrence urged participants to draw lessons and inspiration from the publication.

This year's institute also gave participants a chance to dig beneath the headlines of one of education's biggest stories in 2013: The results of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Rob Weil, director of field programs for the AFT educational issues department, led the presentation on PISA, a massive, multiyear study of international student performance that yields much more information than sound-bite coverage in the media suggests. Among the strongest lessons from PISA, Weil said, was the danger of concentrated poverty and its dampening effect on student achievement, particularly in the United States.

[Mike Rose/photos by Bruce Gilbert]

Feb. 4, 2014