Our Union: Fostering Reform To Improve Schools

10/17/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Good teachers usually have good ideas about what it would take to better their schools, help other teachers, or improve education across their communities.

But turning those good ideas into reality isn't easy. Here's how it usually goes:

One teacher, who has years of experience and a knack for turning theory into effective classroom practice, has become an excellent reading teacher. So, she wants to design a course that will help other teachers use the best research to help kids read better. But she has her hands full with classroom duties (and teaches summer school to help make ends meet), leaving her little time to work on the course.

The course never gets designed. Other teachers do a good job of teaching reading -- but not as good as they would have if they'd taken her course. That means some students in the school district don't have the opportunity to learn to read as well as they could.

Another teacher remembers -- painfully, and in great detail -- the struggles of her first few years. Since then, in the classrooms next door and down the hall, she has seen new teachers come and go, often repeating her mistakes. So, she asks to serve as a mentor to first-year teachers and help them learn what she wishes she had known when she was starting out.

But her principal says that it was "sink or swim" when he was a teacher. It was good enough then, says the principal, and it's good enough now. In her school, new teachers and their students continue to pay the price.

Still another teacher recognizes that his students are beset by problems that his school just isn't designed to address. So, he wants his school to become a "community school" that focuses on academics, health services and social services, and is open evenings, weekends and all summer long.

He takes his idea to the school board, which is caught up in a debate over the latest hot-button issue. The board ignores his idea, but he is persistent. He approaches his school about the community school concept, where his colleagues love the idea, but the school has no room in its budget. The union rep thinks the idea is promising and has seen it work elsewhere, but the union doesn't have the funds to make it happen either. Teachers in his school continue to do their best, but students still walk through the door with problems that could be addressed at school.

Sadly, this is often the way things work in our schools. Teachers and their unions come up with good ideas, and, while some lead to innovations that help students learn, far too many wither on the vine because of a lack of funding, time or technical expertise, or because someone in power just couldn't let go of the status quo.

Last week, the American Federation of Teachers did something about this problem. To help turn good ideas into good teaching and learning, we launched the AFT Innovation Fund, investing in our own members and our own locals -- in their energy, creativity and experience -- so they can develop their own reform initiatives. These are initiatives that bubble up from real classroom experience, not plans that rely on a top-down corporate model that fails to appreciate the realities of teaching and learning.

Nationwide, successful efforts have shown that when teachers unions are engaged as partners in reform, there is greater ability to take risks, scale projects, and generate and sustain real results that help children. With the Innovation Fund, we are providing our local and state affiliates the mechanism to harness the power of collaborative, union-supported innovation; a vehicle to create a voice for good ideas and then share those ideas with other educators across the nation; and a laser-like focus on how to sustain those reforms and gains. What we bring to the table with this initiative is built-in voice and built-in buy-in.

The Innovation Fund has three major goals -- to build capacity to provide consistent, high-quality instruction; to help close the achievement gap by addressing out-of-school factors directly affecting student achievement; and to foster collaborative relationships among educators, their unions, management, parents and communities.

It's long past time we started tapping into the creativity, intelligence and dedication of our teachers to develop the kind of reforms that can actually work -- and be sustained -- in the classroom. If we truly want to prepare our children for the challenges they will face, we must take ourselves off the shortsighted, standardized-test-obsessed path we have been on. The Innovation Fund is an important step in changing this paradigm. With educators and their unions leading the way, we can bring new meaning to reform and new opportunities for our children to succeed.

Visit for more information about the AFT Innovation Fund. And please watch this spot for more union-led ideas about how to improve our schools and strengthen our communities.