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Our Vision for Improving Public Education

AFT Pres. Randi Weingarten (photo: Molly Theobald)

[Ed. note: Please join me in welcoming American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, who is with us live in the comments section.]

At the AFT convention last week in Seattle, I outlined a vision to save public education. Our vision is:

  • That every neighborhood school should be an excellent school that all families know they can count on, every year, for all of their children.
  • To build on what works, and replicate it for all kids, in all schools, in all communities.
  • Of schools where good teachers can work together to meet each child’s individual needs, where students develop their unique talents through a well-rounded curriculum, where all children have the support they need to reach their full potential.
  • For teachers to get the necessary support to constantly improve, in an environment in which students have what they need to succeed.

That’s in sharp contract to the vision of what I call the blame the teacher” crowd, which has made some inroads among politicians and the mainstream media. Their proposed solutions inevitably come down to affixing blame – usually on teachers – rather than fixing schools. Their vision is:

  • Constantly hiring tens of thousands of new teachers, leaving them to sink or swim, and then losing many of them within the first three years.
  • Shutting down schools, firing all the teachers—particularly if they’re veterans—and relocating kids regardless of how it affects them or their neighborhoods.
  • Constantly opening new charter schools with the hope that those that the minority of charter schools (see here and here) that succeed will somehow rub off on the many.

Here are three foundations upon which we can build a system of public education as it ought to be—and a quick guide to tell whether people talking about education reform are serious and thoughtful, or just ideological and bombastic.

1.  A systemic focus on good teaching, including better induction and evaluation procedures. Teacher evaluations should include measures of student learning, but there’s a huge difference between using multiple indicators of student learning as part of a teacher’s evaluation, and requiring that students’ standardized test scores essentially dictate a teacher’s hiring, firing and promotion. We should be assessing whether or not students are learning, but we’re going to assess it the right way.

If people proclaim themselves education reformers and propose a fix for teacher quality, you can put them in the “blame the teacher” crowd if they fail to address the sorry state of teacher evaluations.

2.  Great curriculum and conditions that promote learning and provide kids the opportunity to learn. All students need curricula that ground them in areas ranging from foreign languages to phys ed, civics to the sciences, history to health, as well as literature, mathematics and the arts. Right now, those curricula aren’t routinely in place—a lot of teachers are forced to make it up every single day.

If someone proposes silver-bullet fixes for schools without addressing what gets taught in the nation’s classrooms, you can put them in the “blame the teacher” crowd. [cont’d.]

3.  Shared responsibility and mutual accountability. Accountability is important, but it must be designed to help fix schools and hold everyone responsible for doing their share. The AFT is working hard to eliminate barriers to student success, and we’ve called for wraparound services—such as after-school, nutrition, health and early childhood programs—to be available not only in some celebrated charter schools, but in traditional public schools, as well. Our goal is creating good neighborhood schools so every child, in every community, can succeed.

Poverty is surmountable, but it is not trivial. If a proposal would serve only a few students, or if a reformer pretends that poverty doesn’t matter, put them in the “blame the teacher” crowd as well. School improvement efforts should address the harmful effects of poverty, not ignore them.

We have given these issues a lot of thought, and we have fully developed polices to address each of them. But we also know that teachers can’t do it alone. We have to make common cause with communities—defined not only as the geographical neighborhoods around our schools but also as groups of people who share our goal of providing all children an education that will prepare them to succeed in college, work and life.

I’m grateful to the FDL community for giving me the chance to chat with you, and I hope you’ll join us in our efforts and share your ideas about how we can work together to improve public education.

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Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten

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