WASHINGTON—American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten today called on elected and school officials to do school reform "with us, not to us," and urged teachers and their unions to "be the engines of real change in education, providing the ideas and the people that can get the job done."
Speaking at the AFT QuEST (Quality Educational Standards in Teaching) conference almost exactly one year after her election as president of the 1.4 million-member AFT, Weingarten emphasized the need for collaboration toward school improvement. She stressed that any reform must be "good for kids and fair to teachers."
Many in the audience of more than 2,500 educators wore buttons bearing the message "With us, not to us," a variation on the pledge Barack Obama made as a presidential candidate to enact education reforms "with teachers, not [do them] to teachers." U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has echoed that pledge.
"We have tried to find common ground on issues that often have been battlegrounds," Weingarten said, including advocating for common academic standards and the conditions necessary to reach them; developing incentives to attract the best teachers to schools with the greatest challenges; differentiating teacher compensation through so-called merit pay plans; and removing ineffective teachers in a "fair and appropriate" way.
The election of a United States president and a congressional majority with whom we can work, along with the federal stimulus they enacted, create conditions that could "fundamentally change public education," Weingarten said. "The question is how will we change public education?"
Noting that many teachers unions have developed a "good defense" necessary to counter educationally empty "so-called reforms," Weingarten employed a series of football analogies to urge educators to "play offense" just as aggressively and "move the ball forward." And she laid out a series of questions to determine whether the authorities who run schools and school systems are working in a collaborative, and therefore effective, manner.
Weingarten discussed several often controversial issues around which the AFT has sought to advance commonsense, collaborative approaches, such as teacher evaluation and charter schools.
She decried the too-common state of affairs in which evaluation consists of little more than a principal spending 15 minutes in a teacher's classroom, "checking off a grocery list of minimum competencies."
"One principal observation a year is not the way, and neither is basing evaluations solely on test scores," she said. "This process does not improve teaching, nor does it improve learning," Weingarten continued, adding that an AFT committee on teacher evaluation was working to develop fair and meaningful ways to evaluate and support teachers.
Noting that she has helped establish two charter schools and that the AFT represents educators in 80 such schools, Weingarten said charter schools should be held to the same standards as other public schools and they "should not be pitted against each other."
"Successful charter schools should be applauded and should share their lessons; troubled charter schools that fail their students should be held accountable and closed; and charter school teachers should be supported and given the right to union membership and voice," she said.
Weingarten cautioned elected leaders not to walk away from their responsibility to help all public schools succeed "by turning entire public school systems into charter schools."
"Our commitment must be to educate all students, not only those who submit an application or who are selected by lottery." More than 40 AFT-represented charter school teachers are attending QuEST.
Public School Successes
Weingarten described many of the school improvements she has seen firsthand on visits to AFT affiliates in the first year of her presidency.
- In the ABC Unified School District in Los Angeles County, the union and district officials have worked collaboratively to significantly raise achievement in the district.
- A number of urban school systems recently have posted significant achievement gains. Weingarten noted that students in Baltimore have posted their strongest improvement on record, including double-digit gains for African-American, special education and low-income students.
- In Detroit, 7,000 teachers union members attended a professional development day as part of a labor-management effort to work collaboratively on school improvement.
- Toledo's union-developed peer assistance and review program pairs experienced teachers with new and struggling teachers. Weingarten observed the union's efforts to help teachers improve their work, and to counsel out "in a fair, appropriate way those who do not meet their high standards of competence and commitment."
Teachers unions can bridge divides, Weingarten concluded, "because our feet are planted in two essential institutions. Our public schools, which at their best, are the great equalizer for young people. And our union movement, which at its best, is the great equalizer for working people."