- 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,”
- 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,” Weingarten said. “Right now, those curricula aren’t routinely in place—a lot of teachers are forced to make it up every single day.”
- Shared responsibility and mutual accountability.
Weingarten described a vision of accountability “that is meant to fix schools … and holds everyone responsible for doing their share.” She said that “shared responsibility should extend to the bargaining table,” and described the growing number of AFT affiliates that have used “collective bargaining as a creative tool to codify collaborative approaches that improve teaching and learning.”
Fixing Schools, Not Simply Affixing Blame
“We have looked at our practices and made changes when we needed to change,” Weingarten said. “We have lived up to our responsibility and asked others to do the same. When there have been problems, we have sought common ground to solve them.”
Yet, referring to what she called the “Blame the Teacher Crowd,” Weingarten observed, “Never before have I seen so few attack so many, so harshly, for doing so much, often with so little.”
She said the Blame the Teacher Crowd would rather “affix blame than fix schools.” These critics, she continued, “would have Americans believe that there is only one choice when it comes to public education: either you’re for students, or you’re for teachers,” which Weingarten called a “bogus choice.”
“When a school is good for the kids, it’s also good for the teachers,” she said.
A Vortex of Challenges
Public education faces some of the most severe threats and challenges in generations, Weingarten said, and complete responsibility for dealing with these crises is falling to “the individual teacher.” Weingarten identified three forces with significant consequences for public schools today:
- The economic recession.
School systems are “ ‘solving’ budget crises by cutting art, music and physical education, slashing pre kindergarten programs and help for students who fall behind.” Weingarten cited a recent study that found that the current recession will effectively wipe out 30 years of social progress in combating poverty.
- Out-of-school factors.
“As much as we wish it weren’t true, these factors matter—whether it’s poverty, or stressful experiences like a death in the family, or losing one’s home, or a parent losing a job,” Weingarten said. Yet, when we point them out, she continued, “It’s more likely that people confront us rather than join us in confronting the problem.”
- Our changing world, which requires education beyond a foundation in the basics.
“Today’s students need a strong foundation in the basics, but they need much more,” Weingarten said. “Students need to be able to engage in the creative problem solving and innovative thinking that are essential to success in today’s knowledge economy.”
“We are caught in the vortex—with recessionary forces, socioeconomic forces and global economic forces swirling around,” Weingarten continued. “Yet the Blame the Teacher Crowd says: ‘If only there were fewer bad teachers, all would be right in the world.’ ”
Weingarten challenged that claim. “It’s simply wrong to suggest that there is an epidemic of bad teachers and at the same time to ignore poverty, budget cuts, the absence of curriculum, the huge attrition of good teachers—all things we know truly hamper student success.”
“No teacher—myself included—wants a bad teacher in any classroom,” Weingarten said. “The AFT and our locals are taking real steps to solve the problem and to strengthen teaching.”
“Blaming individual teachers may make the deficit hawks feel better because it is ‘cheap,’ ” she continued. “In reality, though, it’s a cheap shot masquerading as a strategy.”
Weingarten was re-elected with 95% of the vote.
While we were in Seattle, the home of Microsoft and Bill Gates, it was still surprising that Gates was featured as a major speaker.
But he also called on teachers to continue to engage in what are some pretty new and scary changes to their profession.
“I believe these reforms can make a huge difference for students, as long as you keep pushing and bring all of America’s teachers along with you,” Gates said.
“You are driving the changes that will accelerate student gains,” Gates told the AFT. “No other union is doing what you are to make this happen.”
Near the end, he told the union that conversations about student achievement ultimately will need to include tenure.
“You owe it to your profession and your students to make sure that tenure reflects more than the number of years spent in the classroom. It should reflect the quality of the work in the classroom. And that means student achievement should be a factor in decisions about tenure,” Gates said.
Weingarten and Gates seemed to be talking to each other as well as to the assemblage. There were wide areas of agreement, and each seemed to be probing the other. The Measures of Effective Teaching program is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is exploring a simple question, what makes for good teaching? In New York City teachers have volunteered to participate in the videotaping of lessons, two years down the road, hopefully, the study will point to specific teaching techniques that are proven effective.
Will Gates become a cheerleader for teachers and teacher trade unionism? Will he become a counterpoint to the “blame the teacher” crowd? Or, is his appearance in Seattle a “one night stand”?
Or, as Leonie Haimson proffers in the Huffington Post, is he the most dangerous man in America?