WASHINGTON—A new report released today shows the “bet” the AFT made in 2009, when it created the AFT Innovation Fund to support collaborative-based and educator-led solutions to strengthen schooling for students, has paid off.
AFT Innovation Fund grantees have tackled important challenges, from combating inequity head-on by creating community schools with wraparound services for students, to making that critical link between school and career for students through career and technical education, to designing new systems for teacher development and evaluation, to confronting disparate treatment of students of color with solutions like restorative practices.
“We started the AFT Innovation Fund because we believed listening to the wisdom of educators, and putting their ideas, ingenuity, and passion to work for their students and communities, would help our students and strengthen public education,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, who started the Innovation Fund shortly after she was elected to her national post. “Our idea was to make grants directly to local affiliates to not only elevate practitioner ideas, but to build partnerships with school districts, local government, community-based organizations and even industry, to scale and sustain solutions for some of the greatest challenges facing schools today.”
In the first seven years, the AFT Innovation Fund has awarded more than 45 grants totaling $16 million, $7 million of which was from the AFT’s own resources. These investments have included:
Career and Technical Education
- In Peoria, Ill., a network including the Peoria Public Schools District 150, the city of Peoria, Illinois Central College, the local chamber of commerce and the Peoria Federation of Teachers jump-started a program to create career pathways from local schools to the healthcare sector and other regional industries.
- Results include the rollout of an online platform, Career Cruising, with support from school counselors and career coaches, to help students apply for, interview for and secure jobs. The network has increased its partnerships with employers from 11 to more than 100 and has placed more than 70 students since the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.
- In Daly City, Calif., the Jefferson Federation of Teachers and the Jefferson Elementary Federation of Teachers kick-started a community school and restorative justice program, paving the way for three community schools and a training program on using restorative practices to transform schools for students and teachers.
- In New Haven, Conn., the New Haven Federation of Teachers worked with school and city administrators to shift school discipline away from traditional punishments like suspensions and move toward restorative justice strategies; they used a “train the trainer” approach to train teachers to help students discuss problems and repair relationship with teachers and peers.
- Since then, disciplinary incidents are down 26 percent, which is attributed to the systematic implementation of restorative practices.
Supporting Strong Standards
- The MEA-MFT (Montana Education Association and Montana Federation of Teachers) created the Montana Digital Professional Learning Network, a statewide online learning platform for educators.
- This network was designed to give educators, regardless where they were working in the state, access to professional learning opportunities at a time when new curriculum and learning standards for students were being adopted. Rebranded in 2015 as the statewide Teacher Learning Hub, it currently enjoys thousands of users statewide.
These investments of the AFT Innovation Fund—which represent the use of membership dues for real educational reform—were made in a very hostile education environment. Seven years ago, the country was in a deep recession, and schools were facing deep budget cuts and austerity, while philanthropic groups and the federal Department of Education used their grants to impose top-down, test-fixated strategies on cash-strapped districts.
Unfortunately, even after the recession ended and the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act—which put states and districts, not tests, back in charge of public education—was enacted, public schools have continued to face more challenges, including budget cuts; the loss of even more resources if the GOP Congress gets rid of the state and local tax deduction, which helps fund public schools; and a fixation by Secretary Betsy DeVos, the Kochs and others to privatize and commoditize public education.
The AFT’s commitment though all of this is not simply to fight back, as important as that is, but to innovate and sustain and scale educational best practices that help educators teach and students learn.
“As we celebrate American Education Week this week, this report shows that strong communities and strong public schools are created when educators and their unions join with community partners to fight for all people, and when public education is valued as a common good, not a commodity,” said Weingarten.
The report notes that educators and the AFT learned as much from setbacks as we did from successes. For example, for community schools, initially we underestimated the importance of site-based, district-level and partner coordination to help everyone from mental and physical health providers to school staff to community-based groups understand their roles and responsibilities. Also, we hoped that our teacher evaluation grants with multiple measures and an improvement-focused approach would thrive, but the test-and-punish, high-stakes environment of the federal Race to the Top program sabotaged and undermined implementation. And, over time, we continued to increase our focus on children’s well-being, which more and more must be addressed first, even before students’ instructional needs.
“As we continue to deepen and expand our work, we look forward to welcoming others to work with us through the AFT Innovation Fund to continue our vision of helping educators realize their ideas for the high-quality public education our students, families and communities deserve,” said AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker, who oversees Innovation Fund activities. “As we continue to invest in new grantees, we will focus on projects that embody the four pillars of powerful, purposeful public schools: promoting children’s well-being, supporting powerful learning, building teacher capacity and fostering cultures of collaboration.”
For more information on the AFT Innovation Fund and to read the report online, visit www.aft.org/bigbet.