Steps to Fix Our Schools
If you dropped into the education debate by watching “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” you would think America’s public school system is hopelessly broken. As a teacher, the former president of the New York City teachers union and, now, a national union president, I have spent thousands of hours in schools across the country and around the globe. I’ve seen countless success stories that rarely make headlines, and that too often are eclipsed by sensational stories of school failure or by the alluring but empty promise of the latest educational fad.
No one—certainly no one whose life’s work is in education—is satisfied with the current state of the American system of public education. And, while great things are happening in many public schools, often in places where you would least expect it, there is no doubt that we have to replicate and scale up such successes to ensure that every child, in every public school, has access to the kind of education that prepares him or her for life, college and career in today’s global knowledge economy.
The question is how do we do this? In my years of looking at best practices around the country and in the nations that outperform us, it has become very clear what the foundations are for building a system of public education that provides all children with the great education they need and deserve.
Collaboration matters. The American Federation of Teachers regularly brings together teams—comprised of administrators, teachers, union leaders and elected officials—to work together on pressing education issues and to learn from effective districts. While the focus in these successful districts varies, the characteristic they have in common is that their work is rooted in collaboration.
Great teachers can be developed. Most teachers don’t hit their stride until long after day one. The American Federation of Teachers 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, and to identify those who should not be in the profession. Nearly half of all teachers leave teaching in their first five years, a churning that costs American school systems $7 billion annually. Turnover has a steep educational price tag as well. The countries that consistently outperform the United States understand this, and invest in training and retaining teachers.
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. Similarly, high standards are important, but they are just a start. The American Federation of Teachers supports the Common Core State Standards, which more than 30 states either have adopted or plan to adopt. If implemented properly (no sure thing in this time of austerity), these standards can help correct the legacies of No Child Left Behind—a narrowing of the curriculum and an overemphasis on standardized tests. But such standards are meaningless without training and assessments aligned to them and, crucially, without time for teachers to prepare and for students to achieve them.
We must demand 360-degree accountability and responsibility. Everyone with responsibility for our children’s education and well-being, including teachers, administrators, elected officials, parents and students, should be held accountable.
Teachers can’t do this alone. Public schools have an obligation to help all children learn, regardless of parental engagement, native language or family income. But teachers can’t do it all, especially in this time of economic crisis. That’s why a safe and secure environment, and “wraparound services” to ensure kids have access to after-school programs, health services and tutoring, are so essential.
We must keep the public in public schools. Strong schools help create vibrant communities, and engaged communities in turn help our schools thrive. Parents, faith communities, business leaders and others are crucial to a successful public school system. All must be partners in ensuring that every child gets a great education.
No one who works in education will be satisfied until all students are prepared for the demands of our ever-changing knowledge economy. Getting there, particularly during one of the toughest economic downturns of our time, will require that we all do more—and do it together .#
Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.