Together We Can Reclaim the Promise of Public Education

AFT President Randi Weingarten, keynote address
American Association of School Administrators
Nashville, Tenn.
February 14, 2014

Thank you, Amy. It’s a pleasure and honor to be with this group. The people in this room, the educators I represent, and all those who dedicate their time and talents to lifting up America’s children represent our better angels.

I know your type—the care-about-kids type, that is. Like public school teachers, your days are grueling—there’s no doing this work halfway. You go to bed with scenes from the day still swirling through your mind. And you wake up ticking off—either in your head or on one of the gazillion devices we all now use—what the day will hold as you dedicate yourself to making things better and brighter for our children, and preparing them for life, college and career. And after this winter, the term “weathering the storm” will take on a whole new meaning.

Some people assume that teachers and their bosses are adversaries. And some want us to be adversaries, because when we are driven apart, it absorbs our energy—energy that could be devoted to moving forward.

But in my experience, there is far more that binds us than divides us. First and foremost, we are both in the family of believers in public education. Believers in reclaiming the promise of public education. And, yes, family members don’t always see eye to eye, but we are bound together in that important work—in the mission to help all children in all of our communities.

And my experience is that we’ve been able to be solution-driven together. Dan and I asked a number of superintendents and local union leaders to develop a framework to continuously improve the nation’s teaching force. We worked closely and intensively together and suggested ways to revamp our teacher development and evaluation systems, and to fairly and effectively address teachers whose work is unsatisfactory. We agreed that due process is vital, but that it can’t be a shield for ineffective teachers or an excuse for managers not to fulfill their responsibilities.

This turned some heads, because we took on the thorny issues. But because our top priority is strengthening teaching and learning, we found common ground and learned a lot about each other. We were surprised at how understanding the superintendents were about the need for teachers to have tools, supports and voice, and the superintendents were surprised at how understanding we were that it was our responsibility as well to deal with teachers who, for whatever reason, couldn’t do their jobs.

And we both understood that none of us could do this work alone.

The document we created put quality, equity and fairness at the center, and is and was at the time a sharp contrast to the ideology-driven efforts to deprofessionalize teachers and strip them of resources, voice and rights.

I don’t need to tell you how many factors and challenges you face in your quest to make a difference in the lives of all children. Some result because of the very real issues of poverty, which is growing in America, or because of austerity and budget cuts, which have become an enduring fact of life even in states that are now showing some surpluses. Some result from our proud tradition of local control of public education or local financing of education, and some result from the increasing intervention from Washington or state capitals or private philanthropists or others who believe they just know better.

And then there is the pro-privatization, anti-public education crowd. Top-down mandates and test fixation with sanctions instead of support. Mass school closures. Trash talk disparaging public schools coming from people who are trying to starve or dismantle public education, and who then argue, regardless of the facts, that public education is failing and that market solutions like vouchers, charters and cyber-everything are the path to salvation. And before someone starts writing that we are anti-charter, let me say we are not. Al Shanker was one of the first charter school proponents, and I helped start two charter schools in New York City—one of which is doing extraordinarily well. But the evidence about charter schools and voucher programs is that, overall, they do not outperform traditional public schools—and even when they do, they create winners and losers, when all kids have to be winners. 

We need to change the conversation. But that won’t happen unless we work together. And that is why the AFT has embarked on a multi-year initiative to reclaim the promise of public education—not as it is today or was in the past, but as it needs to be for us to fulfill our collective obligation to each child’s individual success. And if you believe as we do that public education is an anchor of our democracy, a propeller of the economy and a vehicle through which we help all children achieve their dreams, then public education really comes down to three things.

We want students to build trusting relationships with other students and with adults. We want them to acquire deep knowledge and learn how to apply it. We want to allow room for students to make mistakes and keep trying, because doing so develops persistence and grit and character. I would add a fourth: We want children to experience joy as they learn.

Through this lens, it’s easy to see why, personally, I am in favor of the Common Core State Standards while opposing the fixation on standardized testing in education. The question is as revealing as the answer. Unfortunately, the standards have come to be almost completely associated with testing rather than the deeper learning they were intended to promote. But you know as well as I that rather than fixating on the whole child, we are fixating on data distilling everything about teaching and learning to a data point or an algorithm. Data is important, as is technology, but reducing everything to a number is not. As Albert Einstein, who was an AFT member, said, not everything that counts can be counted and not everything we count, counts.

So, yes, if we are going to reclaim the promise of public education, then we need to change the conversation. And we need to do that together, along with parents, students and community allies.

We’ve got a number of important things on our side. We’ve got parents and we’ve got the facts.

The AFT polled a broad array of public school parents last summer, and the results should be encouraging to everyone in this room.

The poll found that parents want approaches that are vastly different from prevailing policies they believe hurt schools and students. Parents overwhelmingly choose strong neighborhood public schools over everything else, including charters and vouchers. The majority of parents are concerned about over-testing. Parents soundly reject the austerity-driven policies so many of us are suffering through: gutting schools with teacher and staff layoffs, increased class sizes, school closings, and slashing art, music, libraries and physical education. And the poll found that parents strongly support wraparound services in their schools to mitigate the effects of poverty.

And the evidence is on our side, as well. Look at the last 10 to 20 years of PISA results. As you know from all the Sturm und Drang whenever these results come out, the United States occupied the same spots on the rankings it has in the past. Is that because administrators and teachers in the United States are not doing their jobs? Far from it. Those results show that two decades of policies grounded in hyper-testing above all else was not a silver bullet, and they speak to the inequities in our country—you see a very different result when schools with less than 20 percent of poverty are pulled out.

And according to the OECD, the countries that have enacted voucher systems, such as Chile, have not seen the improvements in achievement predicted by advocates. Chile, in fact, is the most socioeconomically segregated country regarding education opportunities.

So the PISA results give us some evidence about changing the conversation. About how important both teacher preparation and equity are—and also how important standards are. We believe in the Common Core—done right. “Done right” is the operative phrase. But implementation of the Common Core has been botched in many places.

Educators and parents have been ignored. There’s been a rush to test and measure students on these standards before educators have had the time or tools to make the transition in their classrooms. These standards will be meaningless if policymakers keep reducing them to a test score. We need to learn from our international colleagues who top those international rankings. Many have standards, but none tests every student every year.

This leads to the call for a new accountability system, and I saw that the AASA has a proposal to do just that as part of its call to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

I was so glad to see what the AASA is proposing: that Congress should redefine accountability from a top-down, one-size-fits-all, compliance model to a model that is focused on shared responsibility and trust, and that builds the collective capacity of educators and districts to meet the learning needs of all students. The AFT is likewise working with educators and experts on a new vision for accountability, and I hope we can partner on this, just like we did around teacher development and evaluation.

This can’t just be a policy discussion. Education is a shared responsibility. It requires collaboration among everyone in the family of believers in public education. We have to work together and lift up the places that are both working together and working for children. We have to embark on new ways to work together.

I know that when some people hear words like “collaboration,” what they actually hear is “cede (c-e-d-e) control.” But the kind of collaboration I practice is about “seeding (s-e-e-d) control.” Sharing responsibility. Expanding the group that is rowing in the same direction for our schools and kids.

Because if we are simply protecting turf, and someone else is worried about being usurped, we are never going to reclaim the promise of public education.

And that’s not an option. We care too much about our kids. We care too much about the future of our country. We fight too hard against threats to providing kids a high-quality public education not to fight for the things we know kids need.

So that’s why we need the Common Core to be done right—with the time, resources, support and commonsense implementation that will get us there. That’s why we need to help students build positive relationships with their peers and with adults. That’s why we want students to not only acquire knowledge but to think critically and be able to apply what they’ve learned. That’s why we want to help kids develop persistence and grit—because they’re going to need it. And we want them to experience joy as they learn—because they need joy, too.

Which leads to working together for the resources to ensure that schools have the positive behavioral strategies necessary to move from the zero-tolerance plans many districts had previously adopted. Our job is to help kids who get into trouble have their needs met—which includes continuing to get an education—without depriving other students of their rights to an education. And that’s why we will fight like hell for school counselors, librarians and clinics. And why we will go to the mat when extracurricular activities are cut, and when art, music, drama and dance are squeezed. Every child deserves a well-rounded education, and every child deserves to experience the joy of learning and discovery.  

We can’t reclaim the promise of public education without investing in strong neighborhood public schools that are safe, collaborative and welcoming environments for students, parents, educators and the broader community. Schools where teachers and school staff are well-prepared and well-supported, with manageable class sizes and time to collaborate. Schools with rigorous standards aligned to an engaging curriculum that focuses on teaching and learning, not testing, and that includes art, music, civics and the sciences—and where all kids’ instructional needs are met. Schools with evaluation systems that are not about sorting and firing but about improving teaching and learning. And schools with wraparound services to address our children’s social, emotional and health needs.

The AFT executive council just concluded meetings in New Orleans. At our meeting, the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association told us how they have joined forces against austerity, privatization and misguided education policies, and to advance a shared, proactive agenda.

They both used the same phrase: “You can’t have enough friends.” Isn’t that the truth? “You can’t have enough friends.”

I’m not talking about friendships of convenience. And I’m not talking about on-again, off-again relationships. I’m talking about people who can fight back against threats to high-quality public schools and fight forward to ensure all children have access to a great public education.

I’m talking about an army of advocates for public education. And they are there—I saw it on Dec. 9 during the largest coordinated pro-public education action across the country in anyone’s memory.

I’m talking about allies who believe in public education as the great uniter, and who stand up against those who would use public education to divide communities.

So, my friends, I thank you for all you do for our children and our country. And I ask you to join us in reclaiming the promise of public education for each and every child.

Thank you.