Weingarten Outlines Comprehensive Education Reform Plan

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In a major speech Jan. 12 at the National Press Club, AFT president Randi Weingarten unveiled a serious and comprehensive reform plan to ensure great teaching, taking on systems that have been ingrained in public education for more than a century.
Watch the full speech here.
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Weingarten said it is imperative to move public education from an industrial model to one that will better prepare students for today's knowledge economy. She laid out a new approach to teacher evaluation, saying that a strong teacher development and evaluation system is crucial to improving teaching, and is essential for a fair and efficient due process system. Weingarten said the union is prepared to work with any district willing to take both steps: to create and implement a real evaluation system, and to establish a due process system aligned to it.

Weingarten announced that Kenneth Feinberg has agreed to spearhead the AFT's effort to develop an efficient protocol for handling allegations of teacher misconduct. The AFT president also detailed what teachers need to help their students succeed, and she discussed how to promote productive labor-management relationships, seeking out governors, mayors, school boards and superintendents to join in this effort.

In her speech, "A New Path Forward: Four Approaches to Quality Teaching and Better Schools," Weingarten said improving schools, ensuring high-quality teaching and raising student achievement takes a much more comprehensive approach than what some are fixated on—"the supposed silver bullet of doing away with 'bad teachers.'"

"The problem with the so-called 'bad teacher' refrain isn't just that it's too harsh or too unforgiving, or that it obscures the fact that ineffective teachers are far outnumbered by their effective peers. The problem is that it's too limited. It fails to recognize that we face a systems problem," she said.

Weingarten said a comprehensive and robust evaluation system is the necessary predicate for developing high-quality teachers, and for a fair, transparent and expedient process to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom. An effective teacher development and evaluation system "is essential for a fair and efficient due process system," she said.

Weingarten proposed four initiatives that she said will help pave the way for progress in schools.

A new template for teacher development and evaluation

"For too long and too often, teacher evaluation—in both design and implementation—has failed to achieve what must be our goal: continuously improving and informing teaching so as to better educate all students," Weingarten said, adding the AFT's proposed evaluation system is intended to inform tenure, employment decisions and due process proceedings.

Currently, Weingarten said, evaluations usually involve perfunctory observations and a "rating" at the end of the school year. "That's like a football team watching game tape once the season is over," she said.

Players and coaches deconstruct every play, analyze every call, understand what's working and what isn't, so they can constantly improve and win, she said. "We need to put the same time and effort into developing and evaluating teachers. And we need to ensure that the women and men who teach our children are participants in every stage of the process. That's what we mean when we say do these things 'with us, not to us.'"

"Yes, we must use good and meaningful data—but the real value of data is to show us what is working and should be replicated, as well as what isn't working and needs to be abandoned," she said.

Rigorous, regular reviews, conducted by trained expert and peer evaluators and principals, would help lift whole schools and systems; they would help promising teachers improve, enable good teachers to become great, and identify those teachers who shouldn't be in the classroom at all.

The main components of the AFT teacher development and evaluation proposal are:

  • Basic professional teaching standards. Every state should adopt standards that spell out what teachers should know and be able to do. Districts could augment to meet specific community needs.
  • Standards for assessing teachers' practice. These standards should be based on multiple measures, including student test scores based on valid and reliable assessments that show students' real growth while in the teacher's classroom. Classroom observations, self-evaluations, portfolio reviews, appraisal of lesson plans, students' written work and other projects should also be considered.
  • Implementation benchmarks. Implementation benchmarks must be established so professional standards don't gather dust. Principals and superintendents charged with putting this new evaluation system into practice need to take responsibility—and be held responsible—for making it work.
  • Support for teachers. Teacher evaluation needs to be a continuous process throughout teachers' careers. Ways to support and nurture teacher growth include solid induction, mentoring, ongoing professional development, and career opportunities that keep great teachers in the classroom.

This framework, developed by union leaders with input from some of America's top teacher evaluation experts—including Charlotte Danielson, Susan Moore Johnson and Thomas Kane—is already under way in several school districts, including Pittsburgh and Hillsborough County, Fla. (Members of the teacher evaluation ad hoc committee are listed here.)

A fresh approach to due process for teacher misconduct cases

Weingarten announced that Kenneth Feinberg—who served as Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and is now Special Master for TARP Executive Compensation—has agreed to spearhead the AFT's effort to develop a fair, efficient protocol for adjudicating teacher misconduct cases and, when called for, teacher removal.

"Just as there is a need for due process when dealing with ineffective teaching, there is a need for due process in cases of alleged teacher misconduct," Weingarten said.

"Let me be clear: Teachers have zero tolerance for people who, through their conduct, demonstrate they are unfit for the profession. And in those rare cases of serious misconduct, we agree that the teacher should be removed from the classroom immediately," she said, adding that "too often due process becomes glacial process. We intend to change that."

What teachers need to do their jobs—tools, time and trust

Weingarten said that to truly transform the public education system and allow teachers to succeed, they need the right tools, time and trust.

  • Tools. Weingarten said teachers and their students will thrive in an environment that is conducive to teaching and learning. She implored schools to provide teachers and students with an environment that sets everyone up for success—small classes; safe schools; healthy and adequate facilities; opportunities for parental involvement; basic classroom supplies like paper; common standards that are deeper, clearer and fewer than we have now; and a solid curriculum.
  • Time. "Imagine a system in which teachers have time to come together to resolve student issues, share lesson plans, analyze student work, discuss successes and failures, and learn through high-quality professional development," Weingarten said.
  • Trust. "Teachers must be treated as partners in reform, with a real voice," she said.

Labor-management relationships

Randi Weingarten at National Press Club. Photo by Michael Campbell.Weingarten said labor and management must transform their mutual responsibility for providing a great education into mutual commitment. Through strong labor-management relationships, union and school leaders can drive teacher quality, and advance student and school improvement.

She said the just-completed application process for the federal Race to the Top grants has exposed the fault lines in many labor-management relationships. "A program designed to put a premium on collaboration among stakeholders has, in too many instances, done just the opposite," the AFT president said.

However, she singled out several school districts that have made positive changes because of their trusting and respectful labor-management relationships, including in New Haven, Conn.; St. Paul, Minn.; and Detroit.

To help nurture and expand strong labor-management collaboration, Weingarten wants to replicate an Obama administration executive order to create a forum for labor and management to come together to improve their working relationships in order to improve the delivery of federal services. She said she has sent letters to the heads of the National Governors Association, the United States Conference of Mayors, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the American Association of School Administrators, the National School Boards Association, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and the Council of the Great City Schools, asking them to join the AFT to build protocols and trust, in order to better deliver to all children that most essential and fundamental right: a high-quality education. The Council of the Great City Schools and the AFT already have started some of this work by identifying districts and union partners that can work together to implement common high academic standards. (Weingarten's letter to Council of the Great City Schools executive director Michael Casserly is available here.)

"If we can work together on these four proposals, we can create a path to a stronger public education system that is defined by excellence, fairness, shared responsibility and mutual trust," Weingarten said.

Read press coverage of the event here.