A Quality Agenda: How to Build Enduring Education Reform

Remarks of AFT President Randi Weingarten
TEACH Conference
July 11, 2011

Welcome to the American Federation of Teachers’ TEACH conference—the conference formerly known as QuEST.

This is still the place to discover fresh approaches to everything we do—from classroom management to education policy. This conference is an affirmation—that teachers are professionals, are committed to our craft, are devoted to the success of our students.

To any doubter who wants to denigrate our profession, I invite you: Come to TEACH!

Come to TEACH. Because as you well know, there are challenges aplenty that need to be overcome: The challenge of helping every child reach his or her own potential. The challenge of helping a child who is having a bad day because of a problem at home. The challenge of helping a student who is struggling to read difficult material, or one who is eager to move beyond the material.

And the challenges outside of the classroom have intensified as well: Challenges to our right to have a voice in the decisions that affect our profession and our lives. Challenges from those who blame teachers for everything that goes wrong in our schools (strike that—who blame us for everything) but do nothing to support us in our work.

And add to that an economic and budgetary environment that exacerbates many of the challenges both inside and outside the classroom.

Inside the classroom, we see the challenges, and we confront them with creativity and zeal, by working to strengthen the quality of the education we provide, and by pushing for better tools and training to provide it. We don’t shrink from these challenges, we go on the offensive to overcome them, and we help our students succeed. We call that professionalism.

Outside the classroom, something different often happens. The barrage of attacks on our profession understandably leads us to circle the wagons. But here’s the thing: It’s a good defense, but it can never take you where you want to go. And there’s an added risk that in circling the wagons, we cut ourselves off from the very people we should be reaching out to; we cut ourselves off from community.

As strong as we are together, we are exponentially stronger when we truly connect with community—with parents, faith-based organizations, businesses and others. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. And it takes a community to educate all our children.

By standing for quality and standing with community, we build the foundation of educational opportunity that all our students deserve. And so, on top of all the other challenges, I’m here to offer one of my own: Let’s refuse to be defined by people who are happy to lecture us about the state of public education but wouldn’t last 10 minutes in a classroom. Let’s instead harness our voice, our experience and our expertise in the name of improving the quality of what we teach and how we prepare ourselves to teach. Let’s strengthen and deepen the bonds of community. Let’s embrace an agenda based on quality.

That’s the only path forward for our children, our country’s future and, yes, our union. And we have the heart, the mind and the muscle to blaze this path.

Heart. Mind. Muscle. Three elements that allow us to pursue quality and forge bonds with community. Three elements that we all possess and that are strengthened collectively through the AFT.

What do I mean by each?

Our work is born in the heart. We do this work because we care, deeply, about children. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The greatest gift is a portion of thyself.” That is who we are and what we do.

What begins with the heart is given shape by the mind—to make sure that we give our students the best knowledge, the most useful tools and a clear trajectory for success. Mind is what allows our union to learn from experience and evidence, to develop a true quality agenda for providing all children with access to an excellent education.

This work of the mind is buttressed by the muscle—to fight for what is right for the children we serve and the profession we love. And we do so with the strength that comes from solidarity, by summoning the might to advance good ideas and to fight bad ones, and by reaching out to community and growing stronger through those bonds.

I’d like to share with you some of the work we’re doing—and the work we need to be doing—to ensure that the goodness of our hearts, the soundness of our minds, and the strength of our muscle are brought to bear in engaging the community and enhancing the quality of our work.

When I think about heart, I think about people like Mary Mitchell, a teacher in Ft. Pierce, Fla. Mary has a student in her second-grade class whose mom is struggling to make ends meet. She buys lunch for this student every day.

And C.J. Johnson, who handles security at North Dallas High School. Over the course of his time there, he has taken in 38 homeless students. He’s been a father figure, provided the basic necessities, required these students to do their schoolwork and community service—and helped make sure they graduated.

And Karen King, a fifth-grade teacher from Connecticut, who left her insurance company job to become a teacher. Now, she’s combining her passion for teaching with her passion for volunteering. For example, she established a pen pal program for Liberian refugees living in Ghana—and engaged her students in the process.

Karen is with us today, and will be honored tomorrow for her work.

How many of you have stayed after school to help a child who was struggling with her work? Or stayed up late into the night when you were beyond tired, to grade papers or prepare for the next day? Or dug into your own pocket for supplies for a child who didn’t have them? Or brought a snack or a winter coat for a student who looked hungry or cold?

Uncommon dedication is, in fact, quite common in our profession.

Beyond our own hearts, our schools are at the heart of the community. They’re not just the bricks-and-mortar structures where communities come together to vote, or meet, or seek shelter when tragedy strikes. It’s the way that educators make the school a hub, bringing community members into the school and moving students out into the community. The bond between teacher and student forms the foundation for so many other bonds: parent to teacher, teacher to school, school to community, and community back to school. The strength and primacy of all of these connections—that is the heart.

The content underlying that connection, the understanding we bring to it—that’s the mind.

While our quality agenda has some very specific proposals, everything we have proposed is guided by four fundamental principles:

Evidence—because evidence about what works, and not ideology about what should work, must always be our guide;

Equity—because all children deserve a great education;

Scalability—because we are not satisfied to provide that great education to only some children in only some schools; we must provide a quality educational opportunity to every child in every school; and

Sustainability—because school improvement needs to withstand budget cycles and political shifts, and must outlast changes in school, district and union leadership.

There have been countless efforts to change education from on-high, and we all know how likely that is to succeed. We’re working with administrators and with community partners to make sure that, this time, it’s done right.

We’ve taken major steps toward strengthening the teaching profession from within. For example, we’ve developed a comprehensive development and evaluation system for teachers, one that is about supporting, not just sorting—providing a means of continuous improvement that will ensure all kids are taught by the skilled and knowledgeable teachers they deserve.

Recently, we’ve built on that by joining with the American Association of School Administrators to lay out a quality agenda, collaboratively done, to help overcome the challenges our schools and our students face. We’ve set a collective goal: to rank among the top five countries in the world in terms of teacher development and student achievement by the year 2020. Our agenda for reaching this goal will require that all students have access not only to great educators, but also to rich and meaningful curriculum, health and social services, and an array of supports and experiences in their local communities and beyond.

The AASA, under the direction of Dan Domenech, joined the AFT to challenge the structural impediments to achievement, such as disrespect for educators, an unacceptable level of childhood poverty, and a schooling model based on a bygone industrial era.

Another component of our quality agenda is our ongoing involvement in the writing and rollout of the Common Core State Standards. Our teachers were involved in writing the standards from the very beginning, and in vetting them at the end. I can’t tell you how many times leaders from the standards project would come up to me and tell me that they were just blown away by our members.

But we need to do more than write standards. Now those standards need to be put into effect, not sit on a shelf. Again, we’re leading the way.

This past May, the AFT introduced 38 recommendations to improve the standards rollout, with rich and meaningful curriculum as the centerpiece of these recommendations. And we’re already working with national organizations, foundations, parent groups—even the people who design the assessments—to advance these recommendations.

Through the AFT Innovation Fund, our members are doing some of the most progressive thinking on implementing the standards. For example, at the Clarence R. Edwards Middle School in Boston, Ted Chambers and his colleagues are developing lesson plans that are aligned with the Common Core standards and are available online, free, for all to use.

We want to make sure teachers have the resources, materials and tools they need to meet, and exceed, the standards. The main plenary session on Tuesday is devoted to this work.

And as we focus on quality, we’re learning from the success of others. Many people talk about American exceptionalism. America is an exceptional country. But American exceptionalism doesn’t justify American exemption from what works elsewhere in the world. Why would we deny American children the best ideas the world has to offer?

We need to study what works, as I recently had a chance to do in Ontario, Canada—which has a school system as diverse as many American urban school districts. For a while, Ontario suffered from the divisiveness we are all too familiar with, and it lagged behind the United States in achievement. In 2003, a new government was elected and immediately moved to change the tone. They focused on collaboration and building the capacity of the teaching force. They created a Partnership Table that brings everyone together around policy development; teachers have a voice right from the start. Funding is from the province and is distributed equitably to the local boards. Ontario did this throughout the province; they created an effective system—not a handful of successful schools. They focused on educating all kids—not just some. Teachers unions are full partners—in fact, leaders—in this work. In this short time, Ontario has dramatically raised student achievement and greatly narrowed the achievement gap.

Other countries that have summoned the political will also have seen dramatic, nationwide turnarounds in a relatively short period of time. We heard many similar success stories back in March, at an international summit in New York. What became immediately clear was that the top-performing countries all put a strong emphasis on teacher preparation, continuous development, and mentoring and collaboration—and in each of these countries, teaching is a highly respected profession.

Take Finland, which I visited last fall. Teacher training is demanding, rigorous and extensive, with ample clinical experience. Finnish teachers are esteemed and are compensated fairly, and their training is fully paid for by the government. And they’re virtually 100 percent unionized, as teachers are in most of the top-performing countries.

I am delighted that a leading Finnish educator is with us today. Pasi Sahlberg is, to use his term, a school improvement activist. Pasi has generously shared many of Finland’s lessons about improving education with us over the years. Thank you, Pasi!

Look, I know America isn’t Finland. It doesn’t take a breakfast of herring to realize that. But even though we’re not them, we can learn from them. After all, they readily admit that they learned from us. But they took the best ideas, scaled them up, supported and sustained them.

I can’t talk about the international comparisons without noting how the so-called reformers have distorted them: They use international comparisons to denigrate American schools. But they ignore their lessons. Worse, they pursue policies that are completely antithetical to the successful strategies used in high-achieving countries. It just doesn’t make sense.

While other countries were setting a course, one that was supported by investment and political will, what was the United States doing? A series of stop-start experiments: Stop-start on curriculum. Stop-start on standards. Experimenting with vouchers, merit pay, tour-of-duty teaching, and the latest experiment—Race to the Top. And many have started denigrating public schools and public educators, putting ideology over effectiveness, and experimenting without regard to evidence. And that must stop.

The problem with all of these experiments is that our children are not lab rats. This is not about navigating through a maze. It’s about navigating through life. And we have to help them do that.

That is why the AFT has put forward this powerful quality agenda. And that is why you are all here—on your own time and, in many cases, your own dime—to learn about new ways to enhance quality in your classrooms.

But, without muscle behind it, no agenda will ever lead to a new reality.

And make no mistake, a new reality is what we’re fighting for, one in which teaching really becomes a profession and leads to genuine advances in student learning. And by improving student learning, we’re improving the prospects of our nation.

A quality agenda unites educators and the broader community. The current discussion around education has been hijacked by a group of self-styled “reformers” who believe that public education in America should consist of islands of excellence staffed by passers-through, instead of dynamic school systems staffed by professionals. Islands versus systems. Passers-through versus professionals. Let’s really look at what these two different views mean in practice.

Let me start with the first distinction: islands versus systems. We have all seen—and many of us are lucky enough to work in—extraordinary schools, schools that demonstrate what can be accomplished when students take advantage of great teaching, complete with the resources, services and support they need. Some of these schools, charters included, achieve their success by cherry-picking students and soliciting outside funding. Their success should be celebrated. But simply dotting the landscape with schools like these will inevitably leave many children out. One or two or even two dozen schools like these is still an island chain of individual schools.

But a school system assumes a responsibility for educating all children, not simply launching a select few and leaving the rest. Neighborhood schools shouldn’t be drained of resources to give great schools an extra boost; neighborhood schools must also be great schools. We believe in strengthening school systems, not as systems where one size fits all, but as systems that work for all.

And this gets to the second distinction between world views. In our opponents’ view, teachers are, in effect, an itinerant sweatshop workforce. In their view of the world, the goal is for teachers to parachute in for a couple of years, work to the point of burnout, and then go on with their lives elsewhere.

Look, I’m not advocating for a bygone era, when most people took a job and kept it for life. But how many of you are better teachers now than you were on your first day? Better in your third year than you were in your first? Beyond the representative sample that I’ve just surveyed, a whole lot of other evidence backs this up.

In a field where everyone quarrels about everything, no one quarrels with the finding that teachers gain effectiveness over their first five years of teaching. And the newest research goes even further—showing that teachers improve throughout their careers. The bottom line: Too many teachers are leaving before they get really good at their jobs.

Unless we move teaching from a service project to a sustainable profession, it will exact a huge cost on our schools, our children’s achievement and our progress as a nation. The price tag for this churn is $7.3 billion a year, because this drop-in, sink-or-swim model puts American schools in a constant and costly cycle of recruiting, hiring, inducting and training.

High-performing countries I’ve visited are shocked at the turnover in American public schools. It is shocking: One-third of new teachers leave teaching within the first three years, and nearly half leave the profession within five years of being hired.

 Is there any other profession you could say this about? Can you imagine if half of all physicians left the profession after five years? Airline pilots? Engineers?

In many ways, the passers-through crowd wants that churn. They believe the only way of getting the brightest young professionals into the classroom is for a brief, temporary stay.

That approach is, at its core, disdainful of the profession and the people who have dedicated their lives to this calling. It’s based on the assumption that we can’t recruit the best, can’t develop the best, and can’t keep the best—and that there is not sufficient will to create the conditions to make teaching a respected, supported profession.

Give them credit for being consistent. They don’t just want “bad” teachers to leave. They want most teachers to leave.

It’s time to stop talking about the importance of teacher quality. It’s time to start building a high-quality education system by cultivating high-quality educators—from excellent teacher colleges, with ample clinical experience, focused induction, and ongoing professional support throughout a teacher’s career, in an environment that fosters respect. Yet, the itinerant worker model takes the United States in the exact opposite direction. Again, it costs a lot of dollars—and it’s totally centsless.

And speaking of budgets, the cuts to schools this past year have been devastating. Even with many of our own sisters and brothers making sacrifices, finding savings, digging deep into their own pockets to avert layoffs of their colleagues and mitigate some of the harm to their students, these cuts still hurt.

Across America, teachers are taking furlough days and sacrificing long-fought-for benefits. We’ve seen this in Toledo, Ohio; New York; Detroit; Los Angeles. I know all of you could add a lot more places to this list. This fall, we’ll shine a spotlight on the effects of the budget cuts, and on the heroic efforts of our members to make a difference in children’s lives every day despite these cuts.

We know the realities we must change, and it will require muscle to do that: Muscle to take back education from the people who would lay all responsibility at the foot of the teacher. Muscle to ensure that your voice is heard and our quality agenda moves forward. Muscle to ensure that public education remains the defining characteristic and crowning achievement of our democracy. That has been our goal for as long as we’ve been a union. We’ve never given up on our kids, and we never will.

Yes, we are being attacked with a greater ferocity, in more states and on more fronts, than I’ve ever seen before. We need to fight back with heart, mind and muscle—a combination they’ve never seen before. And we’re doing that.

If there’s a silver lining to be found from what happened this winter in Wisconsin, it’s the awareness of the meaning of our movement. For a long time, fretting about the labor movement only happened within the labor movement. What we’re seeing now is that more and more Americans are paying attention, because they’re realizing what it would mean to revoke workers’ rights and silence their voices, and it isn’t pretty.

We’ve turned that painful moment into a reinvigorated movement and a renewed understanding that elections matter. That is what led to an unlikely and inspired victory in New York’s 26th Congressional District. It led to a recall election this summer in Wisconsin. Its very existence sends a powerful message that those who take away people’s rights will be called to account. It led 7,000 new brothers and sisters to join our ranks in Florida, and propelled us to gather nearly 1.3 million signatures to put a referendum on the ballot in Ohio to repeal that state’s anti-worker, anti-democratic, anti-quality S.B. 5 (more than five times the number required!). It also led to seven union elections—and seven union election victories—in Wisconsin.

Those are all victories, but they are not ends in themselves. Even with new members, and new elected officials, if we simply say that the other guys are wrong, we lose. If we simply offer our ideas for change into a vacuum and don’t advance them, we lose. And losses like these are losses that will be felt by our children.

So, brothers and sisters, it’s time. It's time to stop talking about the importance of teacher quality. It's time to start building a high-quality education system by cultivating high-quality educators—whether from excellent teacher colleges or even alternative routes—with ample clinical experience, focused induction, and ongoing professional support throughout a teacher's career, in an environment that fosters respect.

After all, the heart is the strongest muscle of all.

The heart to care. The mind to lead. The muscle to make a difference every day. That will be a worthy—and noteworthy—body of work. And when we use them in concert, we’ll be able to improve the quality of teaching, the profession of teaching, the esteem in which teaching is held, and more important than all of those, the vitality of our communities, the lives of our children and the life of our nation.

Thank you.