Randi Weingarten: Don't scapegoat America's teachers

By Randi Weingarten
Sunday, October 17, 2010

Last week in these pages, a group of school superintendents -- two of whom, Chicago Public Schools chief executive Ron Huberman and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, have just announced their resignations -- laid out a "manifesto" for fixing America's schools. Although lofty in its stated aim to set a course for improving public education, the manifesto offered few concrete solutions, with one notable exception: shifting the sole responsibility to teachers. Sadly, such a view ignores both the full extent of the superintendents' own responsibilities and the reality that many factors affect children's success.

We at the American Federation of Teachers would suggest a different approach. Let's come together -- teachers, superintendents, principals, parents and community members -- and develop a joint manifesto about how to best educate all of our kids. After all, superintendents have a responsibility not only to demand excellence and accountability from others, but also to ensure that teachers have the resources to help their students succeed.

Educating children is complex work. No one approach will provide all children with the first-rate education they deserve. So we must simultaneously build on what works and fix what's broken, much as high-performing school districts and nations with high student-achievement rankings already do.

In that spirit, here is our vision for how to create great schools for all children.

Collaboration matters.

Earlier this month, the AFT brought superintendents, elected officials and teachers union leaders from 35 districts across the country to Washington to compare notes on successful reform efforts. Although such teamwork and shared responsibility rarely make headlines, they are the essential ingredients for lasting change.

In Lowell, Mass., for example, collaboration between teachers and management has significantly raised student achievement. In Hillsborough County, Fla., district and union leaders worked together to overhaul teacher development, mentoring and evaluation practices, also leading to significant achievement gains. While the tactics vary from district to district, these success stories share a common approach rooted in collaboration, or what one union president and her district superintendent call "solving problems, not winning arguments."

Great teachers can be developed.

Not everyone is cut out for the classroom, as the superintendents' manifesto rightly noted. But the manifesto missed key points: It can take new teachers time to reach their full potential, and it can take other teachers time to adjust to changing demands. The AFT has worked with experts and educators to create a framework for teacher development and evaluation that is being implemented in more than 50 school districts. Its purpose is to enable new and struggling teachers to improve, to help good teachers become great ones and to identify those who should not be in the profession. Effective evaluation systems can provide the feedback necessary to spur improvement, as well as an objective standard for high-stakes decisions about which teachers just shouldn't teach, rendering moot the issue of whether tenure protects bad teachers (as some people claim).

In focusing so intently on what we ourselves have decried as the "glacial" process for teacher disciplinary proceedings, the superintendents ignored another serious problem that has a dramatic effect on educational quality: turnover. Nearly half of new teachers leave in their first five years, a churning that costs American school systems $7 billion annually. Turnover has a steep educational price tag, as well. Research shows that teachers are most effective after they have three to five years' experience. While more must be done to prepare teachers before they step into a classroom, supporting and retaining good teachers is both an educational and an economic imperative.

Teachers need tools and support.

Educators can't do their jobs well without opportunities for meaningful professional development, an effective curriculum and adequate working conditions. The AFT and other unions try to do our part, but we are ultimately negotiating with others to secure what teachers need. That's where superintendents and principals come in. They have a responsibility to ensure that teachers have the tools to help students achieve excellence.

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