I had the pleasure of speaking to 2,500 educators on July 13, 2009, at the AFT's educational issues conference in Washington, D.C. Here's a portion of my speech:
Some of the best-kept secrets regarding American public education are the success stories. Teachers have lots of know-how when it comes to improving teaching and learning, but we don't hear nearly enough about the many schools where this know-how and hard work are producing dramatic improvements. Few media outlets highlight the many success stories taking place in America's public schools, particularly in urban school systems where students are excelling despite being confronted by countless challenges.
I want to share some of those "secret" success stories, as well as my thoughts on the kinds of collaborative efforts that result in school improvement and could bring about many more successes.
In Baltimore, a place that often is assailed by policymakers and pundits, not to mention has been made notorious by "The Wire," recent assessments show their students doing better in reading and math than ever before. The greatest gains have been among English language learners, African-Americans, and special education and low-income students. Those students posted double-digit gains, surpassing districtwide improvements. And test scores scheduled to be released next week show that students in every grade in Baltimore City advanced in reading and math. First- and second-grade students exceed or match the national average for math and reading scores. And for high schoolers, graduation rates are at a record high, dropout rates are at an all-time low, and the High School Assessment scores also are higher than ever.
In Toledo recently, I saw a shining example of what we have always known: Good teachers are not born--they are nurtured and supported. Through the highly regarded teacher evaluation system--known as peer assistance and review--that the union developed, experienced teachers coach, support and evaluate their colleagues. They have helped many teachers--both new and struggling--identify and address their weaknesses, and become effective. They have also counseled out of the profession some teachers who, even after receiving help, didn't measure up. This initiative--another collaborative venture agreed to through contract negotiations--put the union in the forefront of improving teacher quality and has been adopted by many other local unions.
In the ABC Unified School District, a small urban school district in Los Angeles County, the ABC Federation of Teachers and its superintendent have turned a struggling district into one with greatly improving quality. They now have solid, ongoing professional support where it never existed before, and teachers and administrators work together hand in glove on behalf of their students. The glue that pulls everything together is collaboration. I was there recently, and what a pleasure--the superintendent and the union president spoke with one voice. And who benefits from that? You got it--their students.
Despite its very real financial pressures, Detroit is poised for an educational renaissance with new district and union leadership. Local union presidents Keith Johnson, Ruby Newbold, Lenora Starks and state federation president David Hecker, together with the district, hosted a districtwide professional development day in May, at which I had the pleasure of speaking, with 7,000 members, all ready to roll up their sleeves. They're looking at adopting research-based curricula; high-quality, job-embedded professional development; and extra support for students and schools most in need.
This is just a sampling. New York public schools' test scores are on the rise. Washington, D.C., public schools just announced significant achievement gains. Yet, many commentators and even superintendents continue to badmouth teachers. Unfortunately, you're still far more likely to hear teachers being blamed for all the shortcomings in education than praised when things go well.
The common denominator among many of these can-do schools is that teachers are respected and treated as partners in reform. In other words, we see Collaboration with a capital C.
Teachers and their unions can be the engine of real change in education, providing the ideas, the guidance and the people who can get the job done. But we can't do it alone. Public education must be a shared responsibility for parents, teachers, school administrators, the business community, and every citizen and taxpayer--all of us working together for the greater good.
President Obama is leading by example in this area. He has said that reforms must be done with teachers, not to teachers. He chose a U.S. Secretary of Education who has echoed that pledge.
We are asking the same of the broader community, whether parents, policymakers or principals: When it comes to making the changes that will make our schools better, do it with us--not to us.
And because everyone loves "data," we're figuring out how to measure whether reforms are being done with us or to us. I call it the collaboration meter. We have a series of questions that determine if the meter moves from "kumbaya" hot to "I-never-want-to-speak-to-you-again" cold. The collaboration meter is a gauge of whether the people who run our school systems and schools are working with teachers and their unions to improve teaching and learning.
Nobody goes into teaching to feather his or her own nest. And the AFT, which proudly works on its members' behalf, has always been about something bigger. Teachers are the first to say that there is no excuse for failing schools and teachers who can't teach. But there is also no excuse for a society where 13 million kids lack access to regular medical checkups and dental care. And there is no excuse that, 55 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the resources and the quality of our nation's public schools for the haves and the have-nots are still vastly unequal. And there also is no excuse for doing things to us, rather than working with us.
Our public schools, at their best, are the great equalizer for young people. And our union movement, at its best, is the great equalizer for working people. Public education is a uniquely American idea and an audaciously American experiment. Over the years, America has broadened our democracy, built our economy, and brought waves of immigrants into the mainstream--and leadership--of our society. Public schools have made that possible. By working in an atmosphere of shared responsibility, mutual respect and genuine partnership, we can improve all our schools in all our communities for all our children.