Four Pillars to Achieve Powerful, Purposeful Public Education ... Or Reigniting the Education Wars

Remarks by AFT President Randi Weingarten
National Press Club
Washington, DC
January 9, 2017


Remarks by Randi Weingarten
AFT 2016 Convention
Minneapolis, MN
July 18, 2016 - See more at:

Introduction: Then and Now

Eight years ago, I spoke at the Press Club as the newly elected AFT president. At that time, President Obama was inheriting the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. America was losing 750,000 jobs a month.

Next week, President-elect Trump will inherit a different economy, one that has added an average of 200,000 jobs every month for a record 75 straight months. While we still have a long way to go to combat social and economic inequality—and to address the effects of deindustrialization, globalization and automation—it’s wrong not to acknowledge the real progress of the last eight years.

Today, we face a very different crisis. Voters have lost confidence in our institutions, and that confidence is lowered still by the distorted reality created by fake news. Our country is intensely polarized. And for the second time this century, more Americans—nearly 3 million more, in the case of Secretary Clinton—voted for a candidate who will not be their president.

So what can we do to address, head on, the deep anger and distrust so many Americans feel?

I believe that whether one wants a less polarized environment, or a skilled workforce and more middle-class jobs, or pluralism and democracy, or diversity and tolerance, or just for children to thrive and be joyful, the answer always starts with a powerful, purposeful public education.

The End of the Education Wars

And we have the opportunity to provide that education. After years of education being a battleground, after No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top and the tyranny of testing, Congress and the country, Republicans and Democrats alike, took on and moved past the education wars.

I was in the Senate gallery in December 2015 listening to Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Patty Murray—two folks who don’t often agree—agree about what was needed: to pass the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Sen. Alexander, who marveled at the remarkable consensus around ESSA, said at the time: “We have created an environment that I believe will unleash a flood of excellence in student achievement, state by state and community by community.”

Eighty-five senators, 359 representatives, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the School Superintendents Association, civil rights groups, many parents and parent groups across the country including the PTA, our brothers and sisters in the National Education Association, and the people I represent in the AFT, cheered what President Obama called a Christmas miracle.

So, despite the extraordinary political divisions in the country, and after the damaging failures of policies like NCLB, we finally reached a strong bipartisan consensus on a way forward to improve public education in America. The AFT worked hard to shift the focus away from testing back to teaching, to push school decision-making back to states and communities, and to continue to direct federal funds to the public schools that educate the kids who need the most.

That consensus—that fundamental reform of education policy—is why K-12 education, as important as it is, wasn’t a major issue in the presidential campaign; it was the subject of not one debate question.

Well, it’s becoming an issue now. On Wednesday, the Senate education committee will hold its first hearing to consider Betsy DeVos’ nomination.

Instead of nominating an education secretary who sees her mission as strengthening public schools and implementing the blueprint Democrats and Republicans crafted and cheered, Donald Trump dismissed the will of the people, choosing instead the most anti-public education nominee in the history of the department. Betsy DeVos lacks the qualifications and experience to serve as secretary of education. Her drive to privatize education is demonstrably destructive to public schools and to the educational success of all of our children.

If DeVos is confirmed—if she shatters this hard-won consensus, if she reignites the education wars—she will demonstrate that her ultimate goal is to undermine public schools, the schools that 90 percent of American children attend. It should come as no surprise that we are steadfast in opposing her nomination, and equally steadfast in our continuing work to advance reforms that will make a positive difference in the lives and success of children.

The Purpose of Public Education

Obviously, not all schools work as well as we’d like. Many “failing” schools have themselves been failed—by flawed policies, budget cuts and a tacit acceptance of inequality. When parents send their children somewhere other than the local public school, it’s not because they believe that the private market is the best way to deliver education or that their child will benefit from a longer bus ride. It’s most often because their local school is underresourced, is not safe enough or is otherwise struggling.

It’s our obligation, as a society, to provide all families with access to great neighborhood public schools—in every neighborhood in America. This must be a viable choice.

So how do we accomplish this?

In a world with more bullying and less tolerance, it starts by providing a safe, welcoming environment. This is not just a nice sentiment; there is a growing body of research showing the connection between a supportive school environment and student achievement.

And instead of fixating on tests, we must fixate on the whole child. Educating the whole child is not based on sanctions, it’s rooted in joy. And while technology is important, the goal of education is not digital, it’s personal. It’s not for profit—it’s equitably funded. And it’s not one-size-fits-all—it meets students’ individual needs and aspirations.

Just as we came together to transform federal education policy, it’s time—guided by our innovation, our experience and our collective wisdom of what works—to work together to build that system of great neighborhood public schools. That rests on four pillars: promoting children’s well-being, supporting powerful learning, building teacher capacity, and fostering cultures of collaboration.

Promoting Children’s Well-Being

Let’s start with children’s well-being. We need to meet kids where they are, and that means recognizing that fully half of all public school students live in poverty. The many effects of poverty—hunger, toxic stress, and untreated medical conditions—are terrible in and of themselves, but they also hurt children’s ability to learn and thrive. Poverty is not an excuse for low expectations; it is a reality that must be acknowledged and confronted.

Educators and community partners are taking steps to meaningfully address the effects of poverty.

Community schools, like the Community Health Academy of the Heights (CHAH), help meet students’ physical, emotional and social needs—needs that, left unmet, are barriers to learning. CHAH is located in northern Manhattan. Nearly all of its 650 students live in poverty. Nearly one-third are English language learners.

CHAH provides vision screening for every student and free glasses to the nearly 200 who need them. Think about that. Kids were struggling to learn because they had headaches or couldn’t see the board. What they needed were glasses.

CHAH stays open until 9:30 at night to offer adults GED and English as a second language classes, as well physical fitness and health classes. CHAH has a food pantry and a parent resource center. And it offers a full-service community health clinic, with more than 6,000 enrolled members. All 245 middle schoolers receive annual mental health screenings. Students also have access to social workers and a full-time psychologist.

All of this bolsters student achievement. CHAH reduced the number students reading at level 1, the lowest level, by 37 percent between 2013 and 2016. During that same period, the percentage of students reading at the highest levels rose 24 percent.

CHAH proves that great results are possible when you focus on the well-being of the child, the child’s family and the child’s community. And this is not an isolated example; schools in Austin, Cincinnati and dozens of other communities have taken similar approaches with similar results. And that allows teachers and their kids to focus on the second pillar: powerful learning.

Supporting Powerful Learning

We set high expectations for our public schools, as we should—to develop students academically, prepare young people for work, equip them to be good citizens, and enable them to lead fulfilling lives. None of this is accomplished by requiring students to memorize information and regurgitate it on standardized tests.

It’s about powerful learning; learning that engages students and inspires them to tackle complex concepts and difficult material. Students learn when they collaborate in teams on innovative projects. They learn when they are interested and excited, when they are exposed to music and art, theater and robotics. They learn in environments that are safe and welcoming, with restorative justice practices that encourage responsibility and reduce discriminatory discipline. They learn in environments that cultivate critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and joy. They learn when class sizes are small enough to do all this.

The effects of powerful learning aren’t revealed by a test score. They’re evident in student engagement and confidence. They’re evident in the skills and knowledge students demonstrate on real-world assessments. They’re evident in how well students are prepared to thrive in a challenging, changing world.

Powerful learning is achievable and sustainable. One way is through project-based instruction. That’s when kids take on a long-term, real-life problem. They investigate. They strategize. They share responsibility. And they build resilience, initiative and agility.

In Corpus Christi, Texas, when Jenna Ruiz-Ortiz teaches about the possibility of human habitation on planets other than earth, her students put on their lab coats. They work in teams to investigate the potential for humans to live on other planets. That’s the kind of powerful learning that prepares students for today’s economy.

That’s also what happens in David Sherrin’s international law class at Harvest Collegiate High School, in New York City. Students don’t just memorize facts. They select defendants, choose witnesses, write affidavits and create exhibits. And the grand finale: They go to a Brooklyn courthouse and hold a mock trial of a perpetrator of the Rwanda genocide. That’s powerful learning.

Another area where we see such powerful learning is in career and technical education (CTE).

While campaigning, Donald Trump said, “vocational training is a great thing—we don’t do it anymore!”[i]

Actually, Donald, we do. And we’ve been fighting for over a decade to do even more.

Take the Toledo Technology Academy, in Ohio, where students are offered a chance to develop their STEM skills with local businesses, including a little outfit called General Motors. The director of manufacturing at GM said of TTA students, “They do as well as interns we bring in from places like Purdue and the University of Michigan.”

The AFT has devoted resources to incubate even more CTE programs across the country. Whether it’s connecting students with Peoria, Ill., businesses to secure internships, or partnering with Pittsburgh’s fire, police and EMS services to train high school students, CTE is part of the DNA of the AFT.

We’re glad the president-elect shares our desire to expand this work.

Building Capacity

Focusing on well-being and powerful learning gives our kids what they need most. But we can’t achieve powerful learning without a powerful conduit—their teacher.

We know how much teachers do to help children reach their potential. But what about helping teachers reach their full potential? That’s why building capacity is our third pillar.

Becoming an accomplished teacher takes time and support, and dignity and respect. Building teachers’ capacity begins long before they take charge of their own classrooms, and it should never end.

Take the San Francisco Teacher Residency program. Teachers in San Francisco’s highest-need schools start with a yearlong residency alongside an accomplished teacher. The program has led to higher teacher retention and a diverse teaching corps reflective of the community it serves. 

In Meriden, Conn., support never stops. They’ve got everything from a New Teacher Induction Program for the rookies to the Meriden Teachers Sharing Success program for veterans. Students benefit from this investment in their teachers. The district has seen a 62 percent decline in suspensions and an 89 percent decline in expulsions. And Meriden beat Connecticut’s average growth on the state English and math tests.

Building capacity is a shared responsibility. And unions are a crucial partner. AFT locals use their advocacy and collective bargaining to help teachers continuously hone their craft and build our profession. And a recent study found that highly unionized districts have more rigorous and robust tenure processes.[ii]

Speaking of tenure, the AFT has worked with willing partners to ensure it is neither a cloak for incompetence nor an excuse for principals not to manage—but a guarantee of fairness and due process. With the recent surge in bigotry and hate, a teacher’s ability to stand up for his or her students and him- or herself is more important than ever.

Far from being against evaluations, the AFT has fought for evaluation systems that support both teacher growth and student learning. With our Innovation Fund and a federal grant, 11 AFT locals and their districts took a hard look at evaluation. We learned that evaluation systems built through labor-management partnerships, that center on growth and improvement instead of punishment and testing, consistently benefit students. That’s why we fought for ESSA to end federally mandated, test-driven evaluation. And that’s why we support locally driven evaluations with multiple, meaningful measures.

Fostering Collaboration

And the glue that binds everything else together is the fourth pillar: collaboration.

Rather than fix and fund struggling schools, too often in the last two decades, the response has been to privatize, to pauperize, to disrupt. Let’s be clear: In the wealthiest country in the world, 23 states still spend less on K-12 education than they did before the 2008 recession. “Disruption” may be in vogue in business schools, but disrupting—rather than fixing—struggling schools has come to mean mass firings, school closures, and district or state takeovers.

These approaches are disruptive all right, but they are not effective–especially when it comes to improving student outcomes. As the president of a teachers union and the former president of the largest local union in the world, I can attest that, in education, if you set out looking for a fight, you’ll find one. But you probably won’t find a solution.

You don’t hear as much about the many quiet successes that result from educators and administrators working together to improve student achievement and well-being.

In the southern suburbs of Los Angeles, the ABC Unified School District and its teachers union have an intentional and purposeful collaboration to improve their schools. District personnel are paired with a union counterpart. They meet frequently, attend trainings together and hold an annual retreat. When there is a decision to be made, they make it collaboratively.

The results speak for themselves. ABC Unified performed better than California as a whole, with Latino students, African-American students and students from low-income families performing much better than their counterparts in the state. Again, this is not isolated. A 2015 study of more than 300 Miami-Dade public schools found that high-quality teacher collaboration—giving teachers the time and space to work with each other—increased student achievement.[iii]

And we need to collaborate more broadly: within the entire school community, among teachers, paraprofessionals, school counselors, bus drivers, school nurses and administrators; schools with parents; schools with community partners. Parents and students must see neighborhood public schools as their schools. That means creating environments that respect and value their voice and input rather than discourage them.

A great example is Chicago’s Parent Mentor Program, through which parents are trained to help out in overcrowded classrooms to work with struggling students one-on-one. Parents learn how to help not only their child but all the children in the community.

Another great example is parent-teacher home visit programs, such as those in Baltimore and St. Paul, Minn. Teachers visit students’ families at the beginning of the school year and again later on, to talk about the family’s hopes and dreams for their child, and share any concerns or questions. Results include increased parent involvement in school life, more positive behavioral outcomes, and increased student achievement. And teachers report greater job satisfaction.

Encouraging this kind of partnership is why the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS) was formed. AROS is a national alliance of parents, young people, community and labor organizations including the AFT and many of our locals, fighting to reclaim the promise of public education as the gateway to a strong democracy and racial and economic justice.

On Jan. 19, AROS will mobilize tens of thousands of people in hundreds of communities to protect our students from the bigotry and hatred that have been unleashed in this incendiary period. We will stand up for our Dreamers and other youth threatened with deportation. And we will stand up for strong public schools and the very institution of public education.

ESSA: The New Education Federalism

When you see a neighborhood public school that’s working anywhere in the country, you see these four pillars I’ve described. They’re not one-size-fits-all; they’re tailored to different communities and needs. And they’re not a magic elixir; they need to be funded and supported. One thing they don’t need is a change in federal law. That already happened with ESSA. ESSA creates the potential to put these pillars in place, although it doesn’t guarantee it.

The frontier in education has moved from Washington, D.C., to state capitols, districts and school communities. This doesn’t mean that the federal government has no role. We still need it to promote equity by funding schools that serve disadvantaged children and protecting the civil rights of all children, including LGBTQ students, still vitally important 60 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

But ESSA quelled the education wars and enabled our shared attention to turn to what works: collaboration, and capacity building, and powerful learning, and the well-being of all children. Practical concepts that are scalable and sustainable; that Republicans and Democrats can support; and that red states and blue states, and rural, suburban and urban schools, can implement with the right investment and management.

One speech cannot encompass everything we need to do for children, families and communities. We need to fight for a living wage, for retirement security, for affordable and accessible healthcare and college, and for universal pre-K, to name a few. And you can be sure we’ll continue to fight for those.

But the passage of ESSA has created a moment of opportunity to use these four pillars to help make every neighborhood public school a place that parents want to send their kids, educators want to work and kids want to be.

Betsy DeVos and the Attack on Public Education

So as Republicans and Democrats, parents and teachers, all came together around ESSA, where was Betsy DeVos? She was working in Michigan to undermine public schools and divide communities. And now, she’s poised to swing her Michigan wrecking ball all across America.

If Donald Trump wanted an ideologue, he found one. DeVos’ involvement in education has been to bankroll efforts to destabilize, defund and privatize public schools. She hasn’t taught in a public school. She hasn’t served on a school board. She never attended public school—nor did she send her kids to one. She’s a lobbyist—but she is not an educator.

One wonders why she was nominated. Well, like a lot of Donald Trump’s Cabinet choices, she’s a billionaire with an agenda. As she herself boasted: “My family is the single biggest contributor to the Republican National Committee. … We expect a return on our investment.” By the way, those investments do not exempt her from the ethics disclosures required of all Cabinet nominees. Frankly, her failure to disclose should delay her hearing.

In 2000, DeVos and her husband bankrolled a multimillion-dollar ballot initiative to create private school vouchers in Michigan. Voters rejected it by more than a 2-to-1 margin. No surprise, as the evidence over a quarter century shows that vouchers have failed to improve student achievement significantly or consistently.[iv]

After this defeat, she shifted her focus to diverting taxpayer dollars from neighborhood public schools to for-profit charter schools. And let’s give her her due. Over the last 15 years, Michigan has become America’s Wild Wild West of for-profit charter schools. Eighty percent of Michigan’s charter schools are for-profit.

Yes, give her her due, but don’t give her responsibility. Here’s why: When the option was to bolster underfunded public schools, she fought instead for a tax cut for the rich. When the option was to support neighborhood public schools, she disparaged public education and fought to divert taxpayer dollars to for-profit charters. When the option was to strengthen charter schools with real accountability, she fought for no accountability. No accountability, even in cases like the Detroit charter schools that closed just days after the deadline to get state funding, leaving students scrambling to find a new school, but the charter operators still profiting.

She’s devoted millions to elect her friends and punish her enemies, and, at every critical moment, she has tried to take the public out of public education.

What is the result of all this? Student performance has declined across Michigan. Nearly half of all its charter schools ranked among the bottom of American schools. Just look at the yearlong investigation by the Detroit Free Press,[v] which revealed rampant problems in the state’s for-profit charter schools—corruption, cronyism, poor performance and lack of accountability.

That’s Ms. DeVos’ legacy.

Walk the Walk

Back when I taught Tamika and her classmates at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, they would say, “You can’t just talk the talk; you’ve got to walk the walk.” For a secretary of education, that means doing all you can to strengthen and improve public education. To do that, you have to first experience it—and be willing to walk the walk.

To that end, I extend both a challenge and an invitation to Ms. DeVos. Spend some time in public schools. There is no substitute for seeing firsthand what works in our public schools, or for seeing the indefensible conditions too many students, teachers and school staff endure.

Come to some of the places AFT members are working their hearts out for our students. Come to rural McDowell County, W.Va., the eighth-poorest county in America, where many voted for Donald Trump. This is a county where the AFT is leading a public-private partnership to improve the public schools and health outcomes. Join me at Harvest or CHAH, or Toledo Technology Academy or in Meriden, Corpus Christi, California’s ABC district or Miami. Spend a day or two in a class for severely disabled students. Before you try to do what you did in Michigan to the rest of the country, see firsthand the potential and promise of public education.

The Trump administration can follow the will of the people, and walk the path laid out by Congress a year ago. Or they can follow the destructive dogmas of the past and reignite the education wars.

Let’s be clear, if they do the latter, communities across this country will stand up and defend their public schools and our children—like hundreds of thousands have done so far in open letters and petitions, and like AROS will on Jan. 19.

Whatever this new administration does, we will be walking the walk for great neighborhood schools by investing and supporting the four pillars I’ve described today. We’ll be using the AFT Innovation Fund to kick-start community school projects and investments in CTE literally from coast to coast. We’ll be building the capacity of educators through the AFT’s Share My Lesson, the largest free website of teaching resources in America, with more than 1 million users. We’ll be fostering collaboration through collective bargaining and labor-management partnerships, and working with parents, civil rights and community groups.

We are walking the walk. Across America, we are living our values and protecting our kids.

Donald Trump’s choice to head the Department of Education is the antithesis of public education and what it represents; it is the antithesis of the bipartisan educational consensus forged by last year’s federal education reform. And it is the antithesis of what our kids need.

So I ask you to join with us as we stand up for the well-being of all children. For powerful learning. For capacity building for teachers. For community collaboration. Please join with us as we stand up for the promise of public education, and for the public schools all children deserve. Thank you.


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[i] Dana Goldstein, “Will Trump Overhaul Public Education?” (Dec. 1, 2016),

[ii] Jeff Bryant, “Study Finds Unions Improve Teacher Quality, Lead To Lower Dropout Rates” (Dec. 8, 2015),

[iii] Joellen Killion, “High-Quality Collaboration Benefits Teachers and Students” (October 2015), .