The power of collective voice

Remarks by AFT President Randi Weingarten
AFT TEACH Conference
Washington, DC
July 13, 2015

Look at this formula. I mean, isn’t it just obvious what makes a quality teacher? Certainly, some in Houston and New Mexico and other places where value-added methodology has taken hold think it’s obvious.  

I’m sorry, it’s not obvious to you? Let me make it clearer.

While this may be a good data point, it fundamentally misses the point. Does it tell you how your kids are doing? How you’re doing? How you need to grow as a professional? Does it tell you anything about what your students need? 

Think about it. When the data we get from standardized tests aren’t available to teachers until after the school year is over—and testing companies like Pearson won’t disclose the test questions anyway—then what do these tests do to help us address student needs? 

Sadly, we know what they really do: These tests take time away from enriching and joyful learning, and they cause a lot of stress. And what about all the other negative effects you know so well after teaching through more than a decade of high-stakes testing? Worse, it’s not like this testing fixation has lived up to the promises made when No Child Left Behind was passed.

But don’t blame statisticians for this formula. It was the privatizers, polarizers, austerity mongers and deprofessionalizers—and even some public officials, who will remain nameless for the moment—that pushed a false narrative, a narrative that said you can improve education by starving public schools, criticizing them relentlessly and peddling private alternatives, and then demonizing those who do the work and marginalizing those who fight back.

As if that wasn’t enough, they’re using the courts, too: First, they tried to eliminate more than a century of educators’ basic due process rights. And now, this summer, they’ve gone to the Supreme Court, trying to eliminate 40 years of legal precedent that grants teachers the right to organize and bargain.

Perhaps more pernicious is the myth they tell that effectively takes everyone but individual teachers off the hook for student success. They say there’s a perfect, straight-line correlation between the effort of one teacher and the success of her students. Success that’s measured each year only by one standardized test score in reading and one standardized test score in math.

Remember that horrible movie “Waiting for ‘Superman’”? [Clip of “Waiting for ‘Superman’”]

We know much more goes into teaching and much more has an impact on student success. Poverty, segregation, addiction, violence—the challenges facing our students and their families have a real impact. And not just the hard stuff. Social mobility, family income and education, healthcare and nutrition, early childhood education, diversity, time to play—all of these factors have an impact.

That’s why even the economists tell us that teachers account for 10 percent of the variance in student achievement. (That’s, of course, if you define student achievement by test scores.)

But don’t get me wrong. Of course teachers are important—none of us would be doing what we do if that weren’t the case. And there wouldn’t be education, much less public education, if teachers didn’t matter.

I became a teacher because of the teachers who inspired me, starting with my mom. Growing up, I loved visiting her classroom and watching her teach. Over the years, her former students have come up to me and said, “Your mom was a great teacher.” I couldn’t be prouder.

And I loved teaching at Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights, N.Y. I was scared to death my first day of teaching. But I kept hearing my mom’s words: “Randi, this is the most important work you can do. Be real. Be prepared. And prepare the next generation.”

I loved my students—all of them—those who were angels and those who made me earn their respect. Failure wasn’t an option for them or for me. And yet, in my government classes, how many times did I hear, “I can’t freaking do this. I have no idea what this Constitution, much less this amendment, is about.”  

And then, just like all of you, I started drawing them out. And engaging them. I saw them starting to care, even as they resisted my pushing and prodding. And I saw them embrace learning. And when they started getting so into it, they wanted to show everyone what they knew. And I was so proud when they went on to win a statewide debate competition—on the Bill of Rights.

Every one of you has a story like this. Teaching is our heart. Our students are our soul. That’s why we set our alarm clocks for 4 a.m. so we can put the finishing touches on lesson plans; or take hundreds of dollars out of our pockets to buy classroom supplies; or toss and turn, unable to sleep as we worry about a student who is struggling.

Teachers do what it takes to support our students. But instead of offering teachers support, the prevalent attitude for far too long—based on that myth of the straight line—has been to scare and sanction.

I’ll give the “reformers” credit—it’s gotten results. But not the results we should ever want.

Look at some of the responses to a survey of educators that we collaborated on with the Badass Teachers Association: Enthusiasm for the profession is down by nearly half. Almost 80 percent feel disrespected by elected officials. And the biggest everyday stressors? Mandated curriculum. Large class sizes. Standardized tests. And adoption of new initiatives without proper training or professional development.

They are worn down and fed up. But there’s another response from that survey that’s equally powerful: More than 85 percent want to stay in this profession and fight to make it better, fight for a different way.

And we know there’s another way, a better way, one that has always been our way—treating teachers as professionals. From those who founded this union 100 years ago to those who lead it today, professionalism has always been our way. We are a union of professionals.

Al Shanker once said, “The very nature of professionalism is to have expertise in a given field and to have the power to exercise judgment.” But we can go back further, to Webster’s: “Professionalism: the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.”

Well, I’m still working on the polite behavior, but you get my point. 

Professionalism is making the decision that you need more than 15 minutes to teach your kids fractions—and having the latitude to do so. Or taking the time to talk with your students about what happened recently in Charleston, instead of doing test prep or even teaching your scheduled lesson on the Vietnam War.

Professionals are well-trained and maintain deep knowledge. They set the standards for their profession. They work together to meet them. They share. They’re paid fairly. And they speak up together about needs and aspirations of the profession, and the needs and aspirations of the people they serve.   

Let’s be frank, in our line of work, no one is giving us the tools and conditions we need without a fight. No one is handing professionalism to us without a fight.

That’s why we need voice.

Our individual voices, yes. When you have knowledge and skill—as you do—voice empowers you to apply that knowledge and skill with the autonomy and respect you deserve, respect you have earned.

But even more important is our collective voice, because collective voice is our power. It’s the way we make our neighborhood schools places where parents want to send their kids, where students are engaged, and where educators want to work. 

Of course, it is important to get policy right on paper. We work very hard on that, devoting blood and sweat to bargain good contracts and lobby for good district, state and federal policy. And in an economic era of austerity, and a political environment of divide-and-conquer, it takes a whole heck of a lot just to hold on to what we have.

But professional voice—collective voice—is about demanding what our students, our communities and we deserve.

I’m talking about voice in our contracts, voice in our schools, voice in our communities, and voice in the Statehouse and on Capitol Hill. All that power, in all those places, might seem like a big ask. But we don’t have to look to the heavens and simply pray (as important as that is to me and others) to achieve voice in those places. We just have to look around and build on what’s already happening.

Take our contracts. Among other things, they give voice to educators to contest factory-like schooling. 

Look no further than New York City’s PROSE [Progressive Redesign Opportunity for Schools of Excellence] schools. They have voice newly envisioned, housed right within the teachers’ contract. These schools provide flexibility and foster collaboration. Educators have used their collective voice to make decisions they believe work better for their students: team teaching in classrooms; seminar-style classes that reflect what these students will see in college; teachers teaching the same students for consecutive years, so they can get to know their students even better.

PROSE may be the best kept secret in American education—but not for long. This year, there were 62 PROSE schools in New York City. Next year, there will be 126. And while charters may get a lot of ink, next year there will be about as many PROSE schools as there are charters in New York. But unlike most charters, the PROSE schools are sharing their best practices—so all schools can grown and improve, not fight and compete.

And speaking of charters, charter educators want a voice too. Look at how the teachers at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans have achieved it. From the day it opened in 1957, Ben Franklin was a high-performing public school, producing surgeons and state legislators, attorneys and artists, including a trumpeter by the name of Wynton Marsalis. And it’s located on the beautiful shores of Lake Pontchartrain. 

You know the rest of the story: The waters rose; 7,000 teachers were fired, termination notices arriving where houses once stood. But instead of cauterizing the city’s educational wound, education reformers seized on the trauma to charterize it. 

After the flood, Ben Franklin’s struggle to reopen became national news, but something didn’t return: the union, educators’ collective voice. And it took a while, but folks began to realize that in many ways, teachers having a voice was part of what made Franklin, Franklin. 

And so last fall—nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina—the teachers at Ben Franklin collectively bargained the first charter school contract in the history of Louisiana. And that contract says new teachers will get extra coaching and feedback. They will have committees that will meet monthly to address school leadership and labor management. They will have a real planning period every day. Every staff member gets a desk and lockable storage cabinet. And they’ll get 80 percent of the premium covered for medical, dental and vision insurance.

That’s the power of collective voice.

But it’s not just New York City and New Orleans; look at what happened this year in Los Angeles. A new contract was won, fueled by the activism of our members and the support of the community. After years of growing classes, we won caps on class size. After an evaluation system was imposed on us, we won a process to create a new system with our input. After eight years of flat salaries, we won raises.  

And let’s be clear, America’s educators deserve a raise—a real raise. It’s not right when CEO pay skyrockets while teacher pay remains stagnant. And it’s not right when 25 hedge fund managers make more than every single kindergarten teacher in the United States combined.

Fair pay—that’s something that unions have gotten pretty good at fighting for. It’s no coincidence that when unions were at our strongest, the middle class was at its height. Today, even with the sharp decline in union density, union members make 28 percent more than nonunion workers. And when workers get a raise, quality goes up too.

The Scott Walkers, the Koch brothers, the hedge funders, and the backers of the Friedrichs case: They all want to preserve today’s status quo—a rigged, trickle-down economic system. And to do it, they need to eviscerate unions.

Why? Because we get in their way. Because unions give working people power at the bargaining table and the ballot box.

Look at what happened in Philly. Our members hit the streets to say enough—enough of the billionaires and the unelected School Reform Commission demonizing teachers, cutting guidance counselors and school nurses, and closing neighborhood schools.

And so with our members and our allies and, yes, our funds, we helped win the nominations of Jim Kenney for mayor and Helen Gym for city council, and sent a powerful message that the future of Philadelphia’s schools should be in the hands of people who live in the City of Brotherly Love.

In community after community, the tide is turning. No, let me be a grammar teacher here. “The tide is turning” uses the passive voice. Let’s use the active voice: We are turning the tide. And that extends beyond our neighborhoods, cities and counties. It extends to statehouses.

Nowhere have we seen that more clearly than in Texas. Everything is bigger in Texas, even the bad ideas. Earlier this year, in the dead of night, privatizers took a school-turnaround bill and inserted the entire ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] playbook: letting low-performing charters expand; outsourcing struggling schools; and stripping not just due process, but basic health and safety regulations too.

Well, the cover of darkness was not enough to hide this effort from Texas AFT. They got out, got mobilized, got to Austin, and they got these amendments stripped from the bill.

And that wasn’t all. Some in the Legislature wanted to expand privatized online learning, despite its huge failings. We stopped it. Some wanted to create a voucher system. We stopped it. And after more Texas educators than ever before joined our union, they tried to make it impossible for educators to use payroll deduction to pay their union dues. And they tried to keep school boards from working with our unions. And we stopped those bills too.

Bad bill after bad bill after bad bill met defeat after defeat after defeat. In their place, we’ve sent to the governor’s desk bills that reduced time on testing, strengthened transparency for test developers, and ended mandatory teacher firing at low-performing schools. That’s collective action, that’s collective voice.

This year we lost Linda Bridges, the president of Texas AFT. She laid the groundwork for these victories and would have been so proud.

And just yesterday, we lost Tim Murphy, our former local president from Hartford, Conn. For all those we have lost—may their memories be for a blessing.

We’re making our voices heard in the way policy gets made.

That’s the philosophy behind the AFT Teacher Leaders Program. The AFT started this program three years ago to tap into what we knew existed within teachers, empowering them to seize their leadership potential, to bust down the doors that too often are shut on them, and to play leadership roles outside the classroom, evaluating and shaping the local and national education policies that govern our schools.

We started with five locals. Fifteen have now participated, and we keep adding more. We put in place a structure, a network and trainings—eight Saturdays a year—and now our teacher leaders are advancing our profession and transforming our schools.

Take Afra Khan and Lily Holland, two of our teacher leaders from Boston. When their district reworked how it counted the number of students in poverty, whole neighborhoods were dropped from the free lunch program that is a literal lifeline for so many children. So, Afra and Lily are digging into the research, trying to discover how the student poverty rate went from 92 percent to 68 percent overnight. They are determined to get their students the services they need.

Or listen to Alicia Hunter, an AFT teacher leader from Washington, D.C. [Clip of Alicia Hunter]

Education policy has been dictated to us for far too long. We’re the experts and on the front lines. It should be determined with us!

That’s what we’ve done in fighting for an overhaul of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Since January, nearly 100,000 AFT members have spoken up, alongside business leaders, community partners and parents. We lobbied hard to make schools places of learning and joy, not stressing and testing. We asked Congress to give teachers and paraprofessionals the latitude, supports and resources necessary to do their jobs well.

Then in April, in this Senate, something unheard of happened: A unanimous vote. A bipartisan vote in committee to overhaul NCLB. The new bill maintains the original intent of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—to address poverty and educational inequality with targeted funding for poor children. It resets accountability measures to focus on teaching and learning, not high-stakes testing. It gets away from this counterproductive focus on scores, sanctions and school closings. And it stops the Department of Education from federalizing teacher evaluations, essentially from being the human resources office in every school district in America.

While the Senate is debating this bill this week, last week, the House pushed through a divisive and partisan bill that takes money out of communities and away from the kids who need it most. Yes, it takes on high stakes, but unfortunately it rolls back any requirements that states and districts help struggling schools and students.

As every civics teacher and every activist in this hall knows, the Senate committee vote is not enough. We need the current Senate bill to pass. And we need that bill to be the basis for the conference and the bill the president signs.

We need this reset. And we’re going to keep the pressure on until we get it. That’s what we can do with collective voice—in our contracts, in our schools, in our communities, in our statehouses and on Capitol Hill. Oh yeah, I’m forgetting one—the White House. 

Our voice will help determine who becomes the next president of the United States. Our endorsement is decided in two phases. For the primaries, the AFT executive council, which is elected by the convention, makes endorsement recommendations. For the general election, our convention chooses our candidate. 

That’s why, in advance of the primaries, we’ve held town halls with our members, elicited input on our “You Decide” website, conducted polls to assess member sentiment, and invited every declared candidate to be interviewed by our executive council. None of the Republican contenders (and the list seems to grow every day) even responded to our invitation. That’s not respect. These candidates are free to disagree with us. But rather than state their case and hear our side, they opted to ignore us. Apparently Wall Street billionaires are worthy of their time, but not the hardworking educators that mold the next generation.

But there are candidates who respect the vital work we do. Sen. Sanders, Gov. O’Malley and Secretary Clinton joined us for what were essentially group job interviews. Your vice presidents asked them questions, as did our rank-and-file members. The candidates didn’t flinch, nor did they flounder. And each of them said—in no uncertain terms—that elected leaders must respect educators and work with their unions. 

One said: “It is just dead wrong to make teachers the scapegoats for all of society’s problems. Where I come from, teachers are the solution. And I strongly believe that unions are part of the solution, too.”

That was Hillary Clinton. She stood above—in vision, in experience and in leadership. When we polled our members who can vote in Democratic primaries, they told us two things: Seventy-nine percent said we should endorse, and by more than a 3-to-1 margin, our members said, “We want Hillary!”

And so, on Saturday, our executive council overwhelmingly voted to endorse Hillary Rodham Clinton for president of the United States of America! 

I’m not saying that voice trumps everything else. We need good policy. We need good contracts. But voice breathes life into all of our efforts. We’ve fought for language in contracts that covers everything from class size to peer assistance programs to making sure that when a teacher is sick, a substitute is called and those students aren’t just dumped into the class of the person who’s least likely to say “no” to the principal. We’ve even fought for time for bathroom breaks.

But a contract is a piece of paper. Those of you from the United Federation of Teachers may remember what I’m about to do. This is a contract I had the honor of negotiating. I used to call it our little white book. Take Article 21, Section A, Part 6, which says, “The following issues shall not be the basis for discipline of pedagogues: a) the format of bulletin boards; b) the arrangement of classroom furniture; and c) the exact duration of lesson units.”

Okay contract, get up and walk into the principal’s office and tell him to back off. I have the right to choose the color of the background of my bulletin board. And if he’s not listening, contract, go tell the superintendent that.

See my point? A contract lays out hard-won, hard-earned rights. But unless we stand up and infuse it with voice, it’s just a little white (or blue or red or green) book.

Voice breathes life into our efforts. Sometimes educators have to file grievances when principals cross the line. Sometimes you have to argue at a labor-management meeting for less paperwork or more time to implement new curriculum. Sometimes you have to force a superintendent to hear you out about how your professional development feels like detention, or how your students who are English language learners need better resources. Sometimes you have to ask the local NAACP or church or synagogue or mosque to stand with you as you advocate for wraparound services, or art or music or physical education. Sometimes you have to knock on doors and make phone calls so that we elect policymakers who are going to work with us, or demonstrate and lobby these policymakers so they remember they are elected by the people and working for the people. It is our voices—our shared voices and our combined involvement—that bring the contract to life, and that secure policy that helps, not hinders, teaching and learning.

And if you live in a state without collective bargaining, you can still leverage that voice with the district or school board. Just ask our members in Jefferson Parish, La., whose school board eliminated collective bargaining three years ago. Our members joined with community partners to elect a new school board and now collective bargaining is again within reach.

This is possible—but only when we speak up together. When we unite our voices, we take back some control over our own lives and we make the lives of others—our students—better. Being treated like a professional, paid like a professional, respected like a professional with the ability to collaborate with other professionals—with collective voice, this is possible. Through the union, the engagement of one becomes the power of many.

This year, our 100th year, the AFT has set an ambitious goal to have 1.6 million conversations. A conversation with every member of our union to engage, to empower, to make all our voices heard and to have each other’s backs.

In the words of the great civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph: “At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.”

Remember that algorithm I showed you earlier? Well, teachers are not algorithms, and students are not test scores. Frankly, there’s no formula, except for one: Our voices, combined, equal power—the power to improve our schools, our communities and our nation; the power to act and act collectively.

It’s time for us to take back our profession, to hold our elected leaders to a higher standard, and to reclaim the promise of public education and, indeed, the promise of America. Because if we don’t do it, no one else will.

So when public education is demonized and denigrated, raise your voice. When corporate-backed politicians starve our schools and sell them off, raise your voice. When they try to pin the blame on teachers, raise your voice. When our students don’t get the supports they need or leave college saddled with debt, raise your voice. When racism rears its ugly head and nine churchgoers are gunned down in Charleston, raise your voice. When growing income inequality and wage stagnation threaten the ability of people to climb the ladder of opportunity, raise your voice.

Brothers and sisters, we must raise our voices— for our kids, for our families, for our communities. Collective voice is power. So let’s get out there and raise our voices, and raise hell.

Thank you.