SOUTH BEND, Ind.—American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten today urged all those involved in improving public schools to keep their focus on quality.
"If we can't keep quality front and center, most of the other things we worry about won't matter," Weingarten said. "Too often, would-be reformers get caught up in the latest fad, rather than lasting systemic improvements."
Weingarten, a national leader in efforts to improve public schools, spoke during a University of Notre Dame forum on issues and opportunities in K-12 education. The program, "Developing the Schools Our Children Deserve," was part of an ongoing series of events organized on the Notre Dame campus through the current academic year that will examine educational reform and innovation.
For today's panel discussion, Weingarten was joined by Bishop Gerald Kicanas, chair of the Catholic Relief Services board of directors; Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach for America; and Juan Rangel, CEO of Chicago's United Neighborhood Organization, a community action group and charter school operator. Moderating the conversation were professor David Campbell, director of Notre Dame's Rooney Center for American Democracy; and the Rev. Timothy R. Scully, director of the university's Institute for Educational Initiatives.
Weingarten emphasized that effective, sustainable reforms are built on trust and collaboration. "Change seldom, if ever, works if it originates from top-down policy pronouncements implemented through sanctions and penalties," she said. "Successful innovation is developed and implemented collaboratively, with input from those on the frontlines of public education—the teachers in the classrooms."
The United States could take some cues from nations with top-performing school systems, Weingarten said. In places such as Finland and Singapore, teaching is a highly respected calling. "By contrast," Weingarten said, "U.S. teachers in recent years have been attacked and blamed for anything wrong in our public schools."
The lingering economic problems continue to wreak havoc on education budgets, Weingarten said. Drastic budget cuts over the last three years have eliminated 300,000 education jobs. "Congress must pass President Obama's jobs plan to prevent another 280,000 layoffs," she said. "Reform and higher student achievement are not possible without teachers in our classrooms."