WASHINGTON, D.C.—AFT President Randi Weingarten today delivered a major address at the National Press Club on the crisis that is hollowing out the teaching profession, driven by the massive disinvestment in public education and the deprofessionalization of teaching, and she detailed solutions to combat this crisis, namely by funding our future and securing the freedom to teach.
When it comes to combating deprofessionalization, Weingarten called for the freedom to teach, proposing pragmatic, tangible actions that are enabled by the 2015 federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. These actions, which could be legislated or negotiated at the school, district or national levels, will change the culture so that the teaching profession is marked by trust, respect and the freedom to teach and focus on three essential areas: developing a culture of collaboration, creating and maintaining proper teaching and learning conditions, and ensuring teachers have voice and agency befitting their profession.
“The ideals and ideas I have outlined are not quixotic fantasies,” Weingarten said. “They are pragmatic strategies that create the sustainable teaching and learning culture that enables the freedom to teach.”
To develop a culture of collaboration, we must:
- Build more teacher time into school schedules, in addition to individual prep periods, to observe colleagues’ lessons, to look at student work, and to plan collaboratively.
- Trust teachers. Develop policies—from the school board to the principal’s office—with teachers, not to teachers
To create and maintain proper teaching and learning conditions, we must:
- Ask teachers what they need to do their jobs so their students succeed, use their answers as the basis of an audit of teaching and learning conditions, and then integrate the results into assessments of the district. Ask principals, parents and students as well.
- Act on those audit results—through legislation, lobbying, collective bargaining and, if necessary, school finance lawsuits.
To empower real teacher voice and agency and the freedom to teach, we must:
- Give teachers the latitude, when they are asked—or told—to do something, to ask two fundamental questions: What is the purpose of what I am being told to do? And how does that contribute to teaching and learning?
- Respect teachers by giving them the latitude to raise concerns and act in the best interests of their students without fear of retaliation, as New York City’s United Federation of Teachers negotiated in its latest contract.
“Some say that you can’t negotiate teacher professionalism, that you can’t legislate respect for the teaching profession, that cultures forged over decades of deprofessionalization are too entrenched to change,” said Weingarten. “Talk about being agents of the status quo. Of course change is possible.”
Weingarten’s address was followed by panels featuring union and district leaders who are putting the strategies she laid out into practice.
Weingarten provided data showing that teachers and other public school employees are leaving the profession at the highest rate on record, that fewer people are entering the profession, and that this crisis disproportionately affects schools serving majorities of students of color and students living in poverty. For example, there were 110,000 fewer teachers than needed in the last school year, almost doubling the shortage of 2015; enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped nearly 38 percent nationally between 2008 and 2015; and nearly 300,000 teachers leave the profession every year, with attrition in teaching higher than in nursing, law, engineering or architecture.
“Teaching is unlike any other profession in terms of mission, importance, complexity, impact and fulfillment. Teachers get the importance of their work. So do parents and the public. But teachers know that some people don’t get it—whether it’s the empty platitudes, or the just plain dissing. And this has taken a huge toll,” Weingarten said.
“These statistics reveal an alarming and growing crisis, and it’s well past time we took action,” she said. “This crisis has two major roots: deep disinvestment from public education and the deprofessionalization of teaching. America must confront both.”
Weingarten exposed how disinvestment in public education, with 25 states spending less on public education than they did a decade ago, makes it harder to attract and retain teachers and hurts students. In 38 states, teachers’ salaries are lower than before the Great Recession. Teachers are paid 24 percent less than other college graduates. And teachers are getting hit by soaring healthcare costs and the burden of student loans. Disinvestment has also led to worsening conditions, with the American Society of Civil Engineers giving public school facilities a D+.
“That means thousands of schools are outdated, unsafe and unfit, and are literally making people sick,” said Weingarten. “What does that look like? Rodent infestations in too many schools to count. What does that smell like? Toxic mold throughout schools in Puerto Rico. What does that feel like? Freezing classrooms in Baltimore, when patching up old boilers didn’t work anymore. Don’t tell these kids and their teachers that investment doesn’t matter.”
And disinvestment has made it harder to address the well-being of children.
“How can officials close neighborhood schools when we should be making them centers of the community—wrapping medical and mental health services around students; offering AP classes and art, music and other enriching activities that kids love and thrive in; and supporting families with training and other programs for parents,” said Weingarten.
She continued, “Inadequate funding for education is sometimes the result of weak economies. But more often, it is a deliberate choice—to cut funds for the public schools 90 percent of our students attend—in order to finance tax cuts for corporations and the super-rich.”
To address disinvestment, Weingarten highlighted the AFT’s Fund Our Future campaign to increase investment at the local, state and national levels. And she discussed states like New Mexico, which has just boosted funding for public schools, and Illinois and Michigan, where their new governors have pledged to increase investments.
“The disinvestment in public education and the failure of many states to make teaching a financially viable career go hand in hand with another major cause of the crisis we face—the deprofessionalization of teaching,” said Weingarten.
Teachers who participated in the AFT’s online focus groups across the country spoke about both the excitement and optimism they felt when they entered teaching, and the stress and disrespect they soon experienced in their work.
“This deprofessionalization is killing the soul of teaching,” said Weingarten.
Deprofessionalization comes in many forms, from being told to teach according to a set pacing calendar, even if students need more time, to getting in trouble for allowing students to continue a debate over two days, instead of one. The systemic fixation on standardized testing and excessive paperwork have also driven teacher deprofessionalization. But Weingarten made clear there are “no halcyon days of teacher professionalism to return to,” noting how a century ago, the principles of Taylorism used in factory work were applied to the classroom, and how during the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top eras, prepackaged, corporate curricula were intended to “standardize teaching to conform to standardized assessments.”
In contrast, high-achieving countries like Finland, Singapore and Canada have followed a different path, rightly considering teachers “nation builders,” with their pay, time for collaboration, and involvement in decision-making reflecting that.
“It’s not rocket science to see that the United States has gone in the wrong direction and that we need to reverse course,” said Weingarten. “Teachers need the freedom to teach.”
Developing a culture of collaboration
Collaboration is embedded in what high-achieving countries do—where teachers have more time for working together and planning each day, and for visiting each other’s classrooms.
Researchers John McCarthy and Saul Rubinstein studied 400 schools in 21 districts in six states and concluded that formal labor-management partnerships at the district level lead to greater collaboration at the school level; greater school-level collaboration improves student performance; and collaboration reduces voluntary teacher turnover—particularly in high poverty schools. Another study showed that the most effective schools have high degrees of trust.
Creating and maintaining proper teaching and learning conditions
Weingarten noted that, today, too many schools lack the proper conditions for teaching and learning, with overcrowded classes, outdated technology, and inadequate numbers of nurses and counselors.
“For teachers,” she said, “creating and maintaining proper teaching and learning conditions starts with a simple question: What do I need to do my job, so that my students have what they need?”
Ensuring teachers have voice and agency befitting their profession
According to Weingarten, “Educators need the benefit of the doubt—the freedom to teach. The classroom teacher is the only person who has knowledge of the students she is teaching, the content she is teaching, and the context in which she is teaching. What gets taught is determined by district guidelines and curriculum. But how it gets taught is best determined by teachers using their professional expertise and judgment. Teachers meet students where they are, and teachers should have the freedom to find ways to get them to where they need to go.”
“Too often,” she continued, “top-down control trumps all else. That hurts students. And it demoralizes teachers.”
Research, like that by Richard Ingersoll and his colleagues, makes clear that greater teacher leadership and influence in school decision-making significantly improve student achievement. But research also shows that teachers in most schools report having little involvement in school decision-making.
“The assumption should be that teachers, like other professionals, know what they are doing. Teachers should be able to be creative, take risks and let students run with an idea. … Teachers should have the latitude to ask two fundamental questions: What is the purpose of what I am being told to do? And how does this contribute to teaching and learning?” said Weingarten.
“You might wonder why I haven’t mentioned the secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, particularly because she invokes the word freedom at every turn,” Weingarten said at the end of the speech. “But what she calls freedom is just a rebranding of her agenda of defunding and destabilizing public education. For example, she makes the ludicrous claim that larger class sizes could be good for students as a pretext to slash funding. But even if we had a well-intentioned secretary of education who believed in public education and supported teachers, we would still have to do this work, school by school, and district by district.”
Weingarten concluded by saying, “Teachers are drawn to this profession because of their love for children and their passion for teaching. Let’s reignite that passion, not extinguish it. … The AFT commits everything we’ve got to combat this disinvestment, deprofessionalization and disrespect by fighting to fund our future and to secure the freedom to teach.”
The speech was followed by two panel discussions featuring union, district and state leaders: Learning Policy Institute Director of Federal Policy Jessica Cardichon, New York City Department of Education Chancellor Richard A. Carranza, Arkansas state Sen. Joyce Elliott, New Mexico Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, UFT President Michael Mulgrew, New York State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, Meriden (Conn.) Board of Education President Mark Hughes, Meriden (Conn.) Federation of Teachers President Erin Benham, ABC Unified School District Superintendent Mary Sieu, and ABC Federation of Teachers President Ray Gaer. Detroit English teacher and Detroit Federation of Teachers member Corinne Lyons introduced Weingarten. Full text of the speech can be found at www.aft.org/freedomtoteach and it will be live streamed at www.facebook.com/AFTunion.