AFT aims to 'reclaim the promise of public education'

Remarks of AFT President Randi Weingarten
TEACH Conference
July 22, 2013

I. Introduction: The year that was

This year, there were many reminders of the role that educators play in the lives of America’s children.

Take Rhonda Crosswhite, a sixth-grade teacher at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla. When the tornado hit, Rhonda gathered her students in a bathroom stall, and threw her body on top of the children to shield them from the storm. As the twister ripped the roof off the school, one child began crying, saying, “I love you, I love you, please don’t die with me.” Over the howl of the wind, Rhonda calmed her students, telling them, “Quit worrying, we’re fine, I’m protecting you.” And she was. And she did.

“I love you. I love you. Don’t die with me.”

Six educators from Newtown, Conn., were unable to fulfill that plea this year: Principal Dawn Hochsprung. Therapist Rachel D’Avino. First-year teacher Lauren Rousseau. Anne Marie Murphy, a special education paraprofessional who died protecting a 6-year-old who loved her so much he had a picture of her on his refrigerator at home. Victoria Soto, who told the attacker that her students had left for the gym, while hiding the children behind her in a closet, shielding them with her body and saving several of their lives. I ask you to join me in a moment of silence to remember them, and to remember the students who perished.

Their sacrifice was rare, and heroic. Their commitment was anything but rare. I see it in this room, and in our colleagues throughout this nation. And it is heroic, too.

II. The power of public education

And that’s because we know the power of education to change lives, communities and nations.

We see that in the bravery of a young girl named Malala, who the Taliban tried to assassinate because she dared attend school and campaigned for the right for other girls to be able to do so.

Here at home, we recognize that public education is how we fulfill our collective responsibility to enable individual opportunity for each and every child. And we fulfill that responsibility through a system of great neighborhood public schools, where educators have the tools and resources to meet the needs of each and every child.

We believe in public education because it is the means by which we help all children dream their dreams and achieve them. And I mean all children—those who have abundant advantages, and those for whom every day is a struggle; those who worry about getting into a good college, and those who worry about their parents getting deported.

Educators like you help students build lives of great purpose and potential, by instilling essential knowledge and skills, including critical reasoning, problem-solving and working with others, and by promoting civic participation. We believe in high-quality public education because it is an economic necessity, an anchor of democracy, a moral imperative and a fundamental civil right, without which none of our other rights can be fully realized. And I believe that promise, that hope, that accomplishment, is a direct result of the work you do every day, the most important work in America. Let’s hear it for all of you.

For generations, parents’ aspirations for their children were matched and mirrored by the commitment we made as a nation to public education. But we need to be honest: That aspiration of a great public education for every child has never been totally fulfilled. And some are using the nation’s failure to achieve that goal as an excuse to abandon it—to deep-six the entire franchise.

But the goal of a great public education for every child is absolutely right. And today, I want to talk about the work we must do, and have been doing, to reclaim that promise—the promise of a great public education for all children.

III. Under pressure and under assault

That promise is under pressure and under assault.

It’s under pressure from economic and societal factors outside the schoolhouse that make it much more difficult to achieve success within the classroom. Nearly 1 out of every 2 students in public schools lives in poverty. Children from these households come to school with one-fourth the vocabulary of children from wealthier families—a disadvantage that could be overcome if our nation would invest in high-quality early learning opportunities for all children.

It’s not just vocabulary. Three out of every 5 teachers in America report they have children who regularly come to school hungry. There are more homeless families than at any time since the Great Depression. Think of the stress that’s putting on children. It’s not hard to see why out-of-school factors have twice the effect on student learning as in-school factors. And the reality is, when it comes to poverty, we have become the first responders.

This is not to absolve us of our vital role and responsibility. These factors don’t keep us from teaching, they keep us up at night. And they only heighten our commitment to safe, welcoming, collaborative public schools where children’s instructional, physical, social and emotional needs are met.

We’ve made real progress—though you don’t often hear about it. Once again, Diane Ravitch has stepped up, and, in her new book, she shows that, despite all the challenges, our schools are more successful. NAEP scores are improving. High school graduation rates are higher than they’ve ever been. And the work you’ve been assigning is more difficult than it’s ever been. Ask any parent—which, by the way, we have. And we’ll be releasing those poll results today. College attendance is higher than it’s ever been, although crushing student debt threatens that achievement.

And yet public education is under assault by those who want, for ideological reasons, to call one of America’s great accomplishments—public education for all—a failure. These are the people who aren’t in education to make a difference, but to make a buck—and who don’t want you to have the ability to stand together as a union and have a voice in the work you do. These are the people who demand and pursue austerity, polarization, privatization and de-professionalization. They say you can cut, cut, cut—not invest in—public education, and then they argue that public education is failing. Maybe they just never learned the difference between cause and effect.

They fixate on test-based accountability, which makes the bubble test the almighty, rather than enabling us to teach in a way that enriches and engages students and brings joy to learning. They emphasize sanctions instead of support, and shift responsibility—including their own—almost solely onto the backs of teachers. They promote vouchers and charters, gussied up as “choice.” They promote the “escape hatch” theory of education: Only a few will make it out. They believe in a market system. But a market system says, “There will be winners and losers.”

We need all students to have a pathway—and a chance—to become winners. That’s what a public education system is: the embodiment of the community’s belief that all children are important.

Which is why it infuriates me that some claim schools are run for adults, not children. It’s not adults versus kids; it’s adults doing everything in our power to help our kids, working to create strong neighborhood public schools.

The other side may have more money. They may have some big-city mayors and big-name foundations on their side. But they are lacking two very important things: They don’t have you. And they don’t have results.

People are beginning to see that the emperors of reform have no clothes. And as recent polling shows, parents are seeing this too.

Years of top-down edicts, mass school closures, privatization, and test fixation with sanctions instead of support haven’t moved the needle—not in the right direction, at least. You’ve heard their refrain: competition, closings, choice. Underlying that is a belief that disruption is good and stability is bad. Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg calls it GERM—the Global Education Reform Movement. And it is a germ that has been spreading. But we’ve got a prescription, even a cure.

IV. A continuation, not a commemoration

At this pivotal moment, a moment when we are reaffirming our commitment to all children, we are also preparing to mark an anniversary that reminds us of who we are, what we stand for and who we stand with.

Next month, we’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march was a powerful expression of the desire to achieve long-overdue demands: passage of a comprehensive civil rights bill, jobs programs for the unemployed, and de-segregation of all public schools.

And the AFT was there. Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, John Lewis—who will speak to us tomorrow—and the other leaders of the march, were aided by the AFT, including a foot soldier for justice you may have heard of, the late AFT president Sandy Feldman.

The march embodied many ideas, and a key one was evident in the name of the march itself: the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. You don’t have real freedom unless you have a good job.

True then, and truer now. There are a lot of elements to getting a good job; a strong economy would certainly help. But a critical factor is preparation, which means a great education. As Dr. King said in accepting the John Dewey Award from the United Federation of Teachers in 1964, denying people a first-class education submerges them in second-class status.

Denying anyone—anyone—a first-class education is something we didn’t accept then. And it’s something we don’t accept now. So when we gather on Aug. 24 here in Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary of that march, our role is not about commemoration. It’s about continuation.

Yet for all the progress we’ve made in the last 50 years, we see many troubling signs. The right to vote, as we saw in a Supreme Court decision last month, is not as secure as it must be. Nor, sadly, is the right to walk your neighborhood without the fear of being killed—at least if you’re a young black man. Poverty continues to hollow out communities and families. The attacks on the labor movement haven’t just hurt the labor movement, they’ve hollowed out the middle class.

V. Common Core State Standards

To strengthen the middle class, to give children a path out of poverty, to give all children the tools they need to succeed—that is why we’re so committed to the success of the Common Core State Standards.

Yet, too many officials, by design or by default, have blown past the standards, and moved right to standardized testing. The tests are not the reforms. And we must fight that mistaken conflation because, if done right, and it’s a big if, the Common Core standards have huge potential.

They’re not the only thing kids need; we still have to press for the arts, libraries, manageable class sizes, wraparound services and other things we know benefit our students. The promise of the Common Core standards, however, is that they help all kids become problem solvers and critical thinkers—regardless of whether they’re from Bed-Stuy or Beverly Hills.

The standards offer a concrete way to address huge inequalities in educational opportunities. People intuitively get that kids can’t learn when they come to school hungry. People get that kids can’t become technologically literate if there’s no computer in the classroom. But many people don’t seem to get it when we say that kids—especially poor kids—aren’t going to acquire essential knowledge and skills unless there is a considered effort, complete with the appropriate investment and support, to bring those things into classrooms.

Without an effort to create common standards such as the Common Core, children’s access to the knowledge and skills they need will continue to be unequally distributed. Our support of the standards is an effort to break this cycle.

But I’ll bet that most of you haven’t had nearly enough time or support to translate these standards into classroom practice. Am I right?

That’s why we’re standing up to the officials who are rushing to make them count before they make them work. We’re standing up to those who talk the talk of standards without walking the walk of actually getting them into the classroom.

And that is why I recently called for a moratorium on the stakes associated with Common Core assessments. You intensified that call by sending tens of thousands of letters to Secretary Duncan and state chiefs, supporting the moratorium. And last month, citing the voices of teachers across the country, Secretary Duncan gave states an extra year to get the Common Core right, before making Common Core-aligned tests count.

But the standards are just one ingredient. High expectations for all students must be matched with high levels of support, especially for our high-needs students, our English language learners and our students with special needs. We have an obligation to ensure that every child has real opportunities and supports to achieve them—at every point in their education.

VI. Solution-driven unionism

That is why we are solution-driven unionists. Because we know we can’t just call out what doesn’t work—although God knows we’ve had to do that a lot this year—we have to demand and demonstrate what does.

For example, we have extended the reach of Share My Lesson. Nearly 300,000 educators have registered to access these fantastic teaching tools, and that number is growing.

We have proposed a way for all prospective teachers to get ample experience in real class-rooms alongside practicing teachers, and to meet a high standard—like the bar exam or medical boards—so they are ready from day one, not left to sink or swim.

We’ve created a mechanism to make teacher evaluations a serious and constructive process that provides for continuous improvement and feedback. It recasts tenure as a guarantee of fairness and due process, not as an excuse for managers not to manage and not as a cloak for incompetence. And speaking of tenure, it enables professional judgment, creativity and risk tak-ing. At the same time, if someone can’t teach after they’ve been prepared and supported, they shouldn’t be in our profession.

But I have a plea for those who fixate on how to dismiss teachers: Fixate instead on how we nurture, support and keep them. Put a dent in our far too high teacher attrition rates, and start valuing the great teachers and the great teaching we see every day in classrooms.

It galls me that ours is the only profession where experience is disparaged, not valued. It doesn’t happen in medicine, in law, in architecture or in engineering. And it shouldn’t happen in teaching. Our insight and our experience matter!

We have joined with community in meaningful ways. The AFT and community partners from 12 cities throughout the country have organized a series of town hall community conversations aimed at developing “bottom-up” solutions for struggling schools. In several cities, we’re working together to fix, not close, struggling schools and to wrap services around those schools—because we know this helps kids and ensures that neighborhoods are not hollowed out.

Take Philadelphia, where, with our community partners, we are fighting draconian cuts that starve the schools to the point that they can no longer function. The fantastic band from the Andrew Jackson School that we just heard will no longer exist when school starts this fall. That’s a tragedy, and that’s why, together, we’ve developed alternatives to the cuts, layoffs and school closings. By fighting against what doesn’t work, by advocating for what does, and by raising our voices, we are solution-driven.

But it often feels like an uphill battle. How often have you had to carry out a policy, administer an assessment, or follow yet another command from on high, and thought: “They just don’t get it. The people passing the laws and calling the shots are totally out of touch with what my students need and what it’s like in my classroom.

Like last week in the House of Representatives, where the Republican leadership pushed a successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, which they’re calling the Student Success Act—which turns out to be quite the Orwellian title. This bill would starve schools and children of resources and supports, and does nothing to address the pervasive overtesting that is draining the joy from teaching and learning.

This bill represents a historic abandonment of disadvantaged children. It reminds us that we need to be out there in a big way, making clear to every parent, every community member and every member of Congress that this agenda hurts our kids and our schools. And we are: on the ground, on the phones, on air, online and in the voting booth.

When you raise your voice, it will be joined by more voices than ever before. Today, I am proud to report to you that the AFT has more members than we have had at any point in our history—K-12 teachers, higher education faculty and staff, PSRPs, public employees and healthcare workers. We are on the move.

VII. Reclaiming the promise of public education

Even with more members than ever before, even being solution-driven, it’s not enough. But by uniting our voices, particularly in concert with parents and community, we can’t be ignored.

We need to do that, brothers and sisters, because we are at a crucial moment when we must reclaim the promise of public education—not as it is today or as it was in the past, but as what public education can be to fulfill our collective obligation, our community’s obligation, to help all children succeed.

Reclaiming the promise of public education is about fighting for neighborhood public schools that are safe, welcoming places for teaching and learning. Reclaiming the promise is about ensuring that teachers are well-prepared, are supported and have time to collaborate.

Reclaiming the promise is about enabling them to teach an engaging curriculum that includes art and music and the sciences. And reclaiming the promise is about ensuring that kids have access to wraparound services to meet their emotional, social and health needs.

Taken together, all these things reflect our prescription for ensuring that all kids have the opportunities they need and deserve. This vision may look different community by community. But it has a few common elements. Reclaiming the promise will bring back the joy of teaching and learning. It’s the way to make every public school a place where parents want to send their kids, teachers want to teach and children are engaged. It makes our public schools the center of the community and fulfills their purpose as an anchor of our democracy and a propeller of our economy.

This is not a campaign. This is our core. And it must be the focus of our work going forward. Ours is a vision that works. It’s a vision of what parents want for their kids. And it’s a movement that can stop the privatizers, profiteers and austerity hawks in their tracks.

But they’re not going to roll over and go away. We need your help. None of us can be bystanders. We need to reach out to parents, the community and civic leaders. We need to open their eyes to the good things happening in our schools—as well as the challenges we face. We need to open their minds to our vision for great neighborhood public schools. We need to open their hearts to joining with us in the effort to ensure all our children get the great education they need and deserve.

And to do this, we need to open our schools—inviting parents, neighbors, civic, business, faith and community leaders to see what we do, to see what our kids need. It simply makes sense to bring together people with shared priorities and concerns in the very place we care about so much, the public schools where our children are nurtured and educated.

Only by working together can we reclaim the promise of public education.

VIII. Call to action—don't look to me, look to us

That work to reclaim the promise is already underway. Just look at what some of our members are doing.

We talk about political action being essential. Take Los Angeles, where, after years of scape-goating by the former mayor and corporate “philanthropists,” three teachers have won seats on the school board. Steve Zimmer was the first, then Bennett Kayser, and just recently Monica Ratliff. Her biggest expense against her opponent’s $2.2 million war chest? Refrigerator mag-nets. L.A., stand up.

Look at Sylvia Wilson, from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Sylvia and two other retired Pittsburgh educators ran for school board and won. They’re already working with parents and the community on alternatives to closing schools and firing teachers. Sylvia, stand up.

We talk about how to use politics to get the programs and resources kids need. AFT St. Louis worked to pass a levy to put pre-K classrooms in every public school in the city, and an AFT In-novation Fund grant is helping train teachers and paraprofessionals who will be working in the-se classrooms. This will give thousands of students the opportunity to have a strong start on their educational journeys. A labor-management team from St. Louis is here today. Stand up, St. Louis!

We talk about being professionals whose voices should be valued. Yes, the AFT provided the platform for Share My Lesson. But look at what the teachers at the Edwards Middle School in Boston have done to fill this “digital filing cabinet” with amazing, rich content. In the five months that their Common Core math and social studies lessons have been on Share My Les-son, these resources have been downloaded more than 40,000 times. Stand up, Boston!

And, by the way, resources on Share My Lesson have been downloaded 2.8 million times!

Look at Kalebra Jacobs-Reed, a high school French teacher in Broward County, Fla., who has led an effort to introduce more teachers and paraprofessionals to Share My Lesson, and to connect community partners, as well: from parents to librarians to the school board to police officers who help with anti-bullying efforts. Stand up, Kalebra!

We talk about safe schools and healthy environments. Look at what Julie Holbrook, the food service manager in Keene Valley, N.Y., is doing. She created a school garden for students to grow fruits and vegetables. She found a way to make all the bread in-house, and to use local farms for eggs and produce—providing students with fresh, healthy and delicious meals. Stand up, Julie!

We talk about connection with parents and community. Look at Nick Faber, a Saint Paul Federation of Teachers officer and elementary school science teacher. Nick helped start a project at his school, where teachers visit parents in their homes twice each year to talk about parents’ hopes for their children, teachers’ expectations, and how they can work together. The union has helped expand the project to other high-needs schools in the district.

That’s connection with community. Stand up, Nick!

Or what about Katie Walker, who now calls McDowell County, W.Va., home? McDowell is the eighth-poorest county in the United States. And yet, Katie and her fiance, after seeing a video about the AFT’s work to reconnect McDowell, moved there to make a difference. That’s commitment to community. Stand up, Katie!

And because of the work they’re doing to create community schools—and because, hey, I’m a New York gal—here comes the shoutout to the United Federation of Teachers in New York City. This upcoming school year, the UFT will have 16 schools that serve as hubs for students, families and communities. I recently visited one of those schools—P.S. 188 in Coney Island, a school hard-hit by Superstorm Sandy. They have adult education programs, a food bank and other supports for the community. Along with UFT president Michael Mulgrew, Karen Alford is leading the charge to create and support community schools in New York City. Karen, stand up!

And Cincinnati, since you have led the way on wraparound services and community schools, you stand up, as well!

Like a number of you, UFT members are putting books in the hands of low-income kids through First Book. Jose Vargas, Hector Ruiz and Nick Cruz arranged a book distribution in the Bronx that distributed 40,000 books. Stand up, Jose, Hector and Nick!

How about Jillian Ahrens, from Cleveland? When she won a prize for excellence in teaching, she donated it to First Book, to advance her work to use reading to help prevent bullying. Stand up, Jillian! All together, AFT members have put more than half a million books in the hands of kids who need them.

Even when we have to fight, it brings us closer to community—because we fight FOR our kids and our communities. In Chicago, where Karen Lewis led tens of thousands of people into the streets, the community saw we were fighting for strong neighborhood schools with the enrichment and support kids need. And that relationship with the community is our strength as we fight the closing of 49 schools there and layoffs of thousands of school employees. Stand up, Chicago!

And then there’s Philadelphia, where leaders like Jerry Jordan and Dee Phillips led the charge against school closures. And I was happy to lend a hand—even when that hand ended up hand-cuffed. Let’s see you, Philadelphia!

If you’ve registered voters, or knocked on doors, or made calls on behalf of a candidate or an issue, stand up and be recognized. If you’ve used Share My Lesson, stand up! If you’ve taught another teacher about the Common Core, or lent a helping hand in any professional way, stand up! If you’ve given kids books through First Book, stand up! If you’ve stayed up late at night worrying about a student, stand up. If you’ve worked to bring community into schools or to make our public schools the best they can be, stand up. If you will reclaim the promise of public education, stand up!

This is how we will ensure that all children have a gateway to opportunity, and reclaim the promise of public education. That’s our prescription. That’s your work. That’s our work. This is who we are. And that’s why I couldn’t be prouder to stand with you.

Thank you.

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