THE BLOG
12/19/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Making the Right Choices for Education and the Economy

Yesterday, I spoke at the National Press Club in Washington. The following are excerpts from my speech. The full transcript can be found at www.aft.org.

Neither the economy nor public education can be strong when the other is weak. Growing the economy and creating a shared prosperity requires a well-educated, well-prepared workforce. And we can't do that unless all our children have access to a well-rounded and rigorous education.

The financial crisis, the deepening recession, and their destructive consequences all threaten state and local governments' most essential investment--educating the next generation. Many have already started to disinvest in education. That may help their bottom lines in the short-term, but it places our economy in a race to the bottom for years to come.

I propose that the nation reinvest--not disinvest--in education. We must provide more funding, but we also must commit to policies and programs that both challenge our schools and help all children succeed.

I'm asking all of us to accept a pledge of shared responsibility for our schools. I'll take the first step. With the exception of vouchers, which siphon scarce resources from public schools, no issue should be off the table, provided it is good for children and fair to teachers.

Every child deserves a world-class, well-rounded education; schools that are safe, clean and well-equipped; a rich and broad curriculum that feeds the mind and stirs the imagination; and teachers who are well-prepared in every school, in every classroom, every day.

But the new spirit of shared responsibility I propose means that we must be willing to confront what seemingly divides us. And I will start by tackling tough issues like teacher assignments, tenure and differentiated pay.

First, the schools with children who have the greatest needs must not be staffed by teachers with the least experience. We have some ideas about how to do this. First, money does matter. In New York we negotiated a 43 percent across-the-board increase for teachers from 2002 through 2008. But we also focused on making every school safe and orderly and on giving teachers the supports they need to succeed.

Now, through the combination of the salary increases, the attention to safety and the professional support, schools with 80-plus percent poverty levels now have the same proportion of experienced teachers as other schools. That goes a long way to evening the odds for kids who often start out with the deck stacked against them.

Then there's tenure, which some people think guarantees a job for life. It doesn't, and it shouldn't. It is, instead, a simple promise to our teachers: First, you go through induction, certification and probation--after which administrators decide whether to grant you tenure. Then dismissals can't be arbitrary; there needs to be just cause.

Teachers are the first to say, "Let's get incompetent teachers out of the classroom." So let's talk about creating a tenure process that both promotes excellence and ensures fairness. The AFT has policy to make the tenure process more rigorous through peer assistance and review (PAR). Through PAR programs, master teachers help new colleagues learn their jobs, help struggling colleagues to do better, and counsel unsuccessful colleagues out of the profession. PAR works well in Toledo, Cincinnati, Rochester and other districts, and we want to put it to work in many more.

Finally, let's talk about differentiated pay, which is sometimes called merit pay or performance pay. First, we have to pay all our teachers salaries befitting their great responsibilities. Then, we should pay teachers more for taking on additional responsibilities, for working in hard-to-staff schools or in subjects with shortages of qualified teachers, and for working with their fellow teachers for schoolwide excellence.

Yes, the AFT is prepared to take on these tough issues. But improving our schools will take much more--an approach to successful school improvement I call the three C's: collaboration, capacity and community.

Collaboration means administrators, teachers and parents working together toward goals on which they all agree and with methods they all accept. Without the buy-in of teachers, student success is unlikely. With teachers' buy-in, student success is unstoppable.

Capacity means recruiting and retaining great teachers, and providing the resources and support they need, such as ongoing high-quality professional development. We need to build up--not tear down--the people and places our students depend on to learn.

And community means that, when parents, and business, labor, religious, civic, and neighborhood groups and their leaders, fully commit to our public schools with their deeds and their dollars--they are set for success, not set up for failure.

So far, I haven't mentioned four controversial words--No Child Left Behind. Unfortunately, NCLB has become a stand-in for real discussions at the state and national levels about a robust education policy that prepares our children for the 21st century.

Yes, we need strong and common standards. Yes, we need real and workable accountability. Yes, we need much more to help all our students and all our schools do their best. And, yes, we need Congress to pass and fully fund a bill that does all of that.

So let me go back to where I started: This is a rare moment when--for better or for worse--Americans will make choices that will shape our children's and grandchildren's futures for decades to come.

Will we disinvest in our schools, demean our teachers, and deny our young people the educational opportunities that they deserve and the new economy demands? Or will we make the investments to recruit and retain great teachers, rebuild and rewire our schools, and inform and inspire our young people to aim higher and achieve more than any generation in history?

Regrettably, the tumbling economy is taking a terrible toll on the revenues that provide the majority of support for our public schools. School systems across the country are cutting back on the proven and promising programs that are improving student achievement.

I know these are tough times, requiring tough choices. But no cutbacks are as harmful as cutting back on our children's futures. Our young people are coming of age in an economy that demands ever-increasing levels of knowledge, skill and adaptability. They will spend their lives competing with workers from economies the world over. If America continues to cut back education and training, there will be cheers of joy from our economic rivals, from Beijing to Bangalore. Quality education can't be achieved on the cheap. But disinvesting in education in the long term is far more costly.

Now, let me conclude with something that runs deep in my heart and soul. In the weeks before the election, I visited with AFT members in 17 states. I heard teachers speak of their commitment to their kids, but also their anxiety-- that budget cutbacks will increase class sizes to unmanageable levels, put the brakes on initiatives that are improving their schools, and eliminate programs that help disruptive kids get a second chance.

I heard teachers' despair about their work being demeaned by politicians, the press and even the people who run their school systems. Even though teachers give their all for their students, too often they get blamed when--for whatever reason--our children slip, or trip, or don't succeed.

And what are the costs of this disrespect? When education reform is done without teachers' input, it is doomed to failure. When education reform is done with teachers, it is destined for success. President-elect Obama understands this. He has said repeatedly that education reform must be done with teachers, not done to teachers.

Some people say, "We love teachers. But we need to take on the teachers' unions." This blame game won't improve one more school, educate one more child, or recruit and retain one more outstanding teacher. So let me say to anyone who would "take on the teachers' unions," think of whom you're taking on.

Think of a teacher who is staying up past midnight to prepare her lesson plan. She deserves your support, not your scorn.

Think of a teacher who is paying for equipment out of his own pocket so his students can conduct science experiments that they otherwise couldn't do. He needs more resources, not more red tape.

Think of a teacher who takes her students to a "We the People" debating competition over the weekend, instead of spending time with her own family. She doesn't need to be lectured about teaching being more than a job--she lives it.

And think of a teacher who is spending his evening marching in the rain to protest budget cuts. He isn't your adversary. He is your ally.

These are the people the AFT represents. Make no mistake about it--when you attack us, you attack them.

We stand at a turning point in the American journey. For the sake of our children, let's choose to advance, not retreat; to promote collaboration, not conflict; and to build a better future for our young people, not blame each other for our failure to fulfill the responsibility that history has handed us.

These are the tests of our times. Together, we can pass these tests with flying colors. The nation's teachers stand ready. Are you?