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AFT: Education must change to move forward

Schools must aim for 21st century education, Weingarten said.
Schools must aim for 21st century education, AFT President Randi Weingarten said.

Moving public education to a model that will better prepare students for today’s knowledge economy, and one that will strengthen teacher development and evaluation, is critical to the nation’s ability to compete on a global scale, said American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten in a Jan. 12 speech at the National Press Club.

The AFT president outlined her vision for what teachers need to help their students succeed, and she discussed how to promote productive labor-management relationships, seeking out governors, mayors, school boards, and superintendents to join in this effort. Weingarten also unveiled a reform plan to ensure superior teaching and improve systems that have been ingrained in public education for more than a decade.

“In a global knowledge economy, filling in the bubbles on a standardized test isn’t going to prepare our children to succeed in life,” she said. “If we are going to thrive in the 21st century, our entire approach to education must change—from what goes on in the classroom, to how we care for children’s well-being, to how labor and management work together.”

In her speech, called “A New Path Forward: Four Approaches to Quality Teaching and Better Schools,” Weingarten said improving schools, ensuring high-quality teaching, and raising student achievement takes a much more comprehensive approach than merely doing away with “bad teachers.”

“The problem with the so-called ‘bad teacher’ refrain isn’t just that it’s too harsh or too unforgiving, or that it obscures the fact that ineffective teachers are far outnumbered by their effective peers. The problem is that it’s too limited. It fails to recognize that we face a systems problem,” she said.

Weingarten said a comprehensive and robust evaluation system is the necessary predicate for developing high-quality teachers, and for a fair, expedient process to remove ineffective teachers from the classroom. An effective teacher development and evaluation system “is essential for a fair and efficient due-process system,” she said.

“For too long and too often, teacher evaluation—in both design and implementation—has failed to achieve what must be our goal: continuously improving and informing teaching so as to better educate all students,” Weingarten said, adding that the AFT’s proposed evaluation system is intended to inform tenure, employment decisions, and due-process proceedings.

Currently, Weingarten said, evaluations typically involve perfunctory observations and a “rating” at the end of the school year. “That’s like a football team watching game tape once the season is over,” she said.

“We need to put … time and effort into developing and evaluating teachers. And we need to ensure that the women and men who teach our children are participants in every stage of the process. That’s what we mean when we say do these things ‘with us, not to us.'”

Using meaningful data can show educators what is working and should be replicated, as well as what isn’t working and should be halted, Weingarten added.

Rigorous, periodic reviews, conducted by trained experts and peer evaluators and principals, would help lift whole schools and systems, she said: They would help promising teachers improve, enable good teachers to become great, and identify those teachers who shouldn’t be in the classroom at all.

Weingarten proposed four initiatives that she said will help pave the way for progress in schools:

• Basic professional teaching standards. Every state should adopt standards that spell out what teachers should know and be able to do. Districts could augment these standards to meet specific community needs.

• Standards for assessing teachers’ practice. These standards should be based on multiple measures, including student test scores based on valid and reliable assessments that show students’ real growth while in the teacher’s classroom. Classroom observations, self-evaluations, portfolio reviews, appraisal of lesson plans, students’ written work, and other projects also should be considered.

• Implementation benchmarks. These must be established so professional standards don’t gather dust, she said. Principals and superintendents charged with putting this new evaluation system into practice need to take responsibility—and be held responsible—for making it work.

• Support for teachers. Teacher evaluation needs to be a continuous process throughout teachers’ careers. Ways to support and nurture teacher growth should include solid induction, mentoring, ongoing professional development, and career opportunities that keep great teachers in the classroom.

The framework was developed by union leaders with input from top teacher evaluation experts and is already under way in several school districts, including Pittsburgh and Hillsborough County, Fla.

“Imagine a system in which teachers have time to come together to resolve student issues, share lesson plans, analyze student work, discuss successes and failures, and learn through high-quality professional development,” Weingarten said.

She said teachers and students would thrive in an environment that is conducive to teaching and learning. She implored schools to provide teachers and students with an environment that sets everyone up for success: small classes in safe schools; healthy and adequate facilities; opportunities for parental involvement; basic classroom supplies; common standards that are deeper, clearer, and fewer; and a solid curriculum.

“Teachers must be treated as partners in reform, with a real voice,” she concluded.


A New Path Forward: Four Approaches to Quality Teaching and Better Schools

Text of Randi Weingarten’s speech (PDF)

American Federation of Teachers

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