Last week in the Washington Post, a group of school superintendents -- two of whom, Chicago Public Schools chief executive Ron Huberman and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, have just announced their resignations -- laid out a "manifesto" for fixing America's schools. Although lofty in its stated aim to set a course for improving public education, the manifesto offered few concrete solutions, with one notable exception: shifting the sole responsibility to teachers. Sadly, such a view ignores both the full extent of the superintendents' own responsibilities and the reality that many factors affect children's success.
We at the American Federation of Teachers would suggest a different approach. Let's come together -- teachers, superintendents, principals, parents and community members -- and develop a joint manifesto about how to best educate all of our kids. After all, superintendents have a responsibility not only to demand excellence and accountability from others, but also to ensure that teachers have the resources to help their students succeed.
Educating children is complex work. No one approach will provide all children with the first-rate education they deserve. So we must simultaneously build on what works and fix what's broken, much as high-performing school districts and nations with high student-achievement rankings already do.
In that spirit, here is our vision for how to create great schools for all children.
Earlier this month, the AFT brought superintendents, elected officials and teachers union leaders from 35 districts across the country to Washington to compare notes on successful reform efforts. Although such teamwork and shared responsibility rarely make headlines, they are the essential ingredients for lasting change.
In Lowell, Mass., for example, collaboration between teachers and management has significantly raised student achievement. In Hillsborough County, Fla., district and union leaders worked together to overhaul teacher development, mentoring and evaluation practices, also leading to significant achievement gains. While the tactics vary from district to district, these success stories share a common approach rooted in collaboration, or what one union president and her district superintendent call "solving problems, not winning arguments."
Great teachers can be developed
Not everyone is cut out for the classroom, as the superintendents' manifesto rightly noted. But the manifesto missed key points: It can take new teachers time to reach their full potential, and it can take other teachers time to adjust to changing demands. The AFT 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 ones and to identify those who should not be in the profession. Effective evaluation systems can provide the feedback necessary to spur improvement, as well as an objective standard for high-stakes decisions about which teachers just shouldn't teach, rendering moot the issue of whether tenure protects bad teachers (as some people claim).
In focusing so intently on what we ourselves have decried as the "glacial" process for teacher disciplinary proceedings, the superintendents ignored another serious problem that has a dramatic effect on educational quality: turnover. Nearly half of new teachers leave in their first 5 years, a churning that costs American school systems $7 billion annually. Turnover has a steep educational price tag, as well. Research shows that teachers are most effective after they have 3 to 5 years' experience. While more must be done to prepare teachers before they step into a classroom, supporting and retaining good teachers is both an educational and an economic imperative.
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. The AFT and other unions try to do our part, but we are ultimately negotiating with others to secure what teachers need. That's where superintendents and principals come in. They have a responsibility to ensure that teachers have the tools to help students achieve excellence.
High standards are important, but they're just a start
The AFT supports the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an effort coordinated by the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Thirty-six states plan to adopt this initiative. If implemented properly (no sure thing, in this time of austerity), these standards can help correct the serious problems that are a legacy of No Child Left Behind, including a narrowing of the curriculum and an overemphasis on preparation for standardized tests.
But such standards are meaningless without training and assessments aligned to them and, crucially, without time for teachers to prepare for them and for students to achieve them.
We must innovate -- and imitate
It is essential that we explore promising new approaches. At the same time, we must replicate and expand established, proven programs. Because there are endless ideas about how to improve teaching and learning, it is crucial that we look to the evidence. Where we see success, whether in public, private or charter schools, we should learn from it. And we must follow the lead of top-performing countries, such as Finland, replicating their best approaches.
We accept and expect accountability, but we also demand shared responsibility
Accountability is a tool, not an endpoint. Our aim should be to help all children succeed. But when accountability, rather than shared responsibility, becomes the goal, the focus shifts to how to do better on tests. In its recurring emphasis on "performance," the superintendents' manifesto missed this crucial point. 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 to succeed, educators need help. Consider the District, where 3 out of 10 children were living in poverty last year.
That's why "wraparound services," such as safe and enriching after-school programs, health services and tutoring, are so essential.
As Jonathan P. Raymond, the superintendent of the Sacramento public schools, wrote recently: "We have to stop blaming teachers for problems that have multiple causes, ranging from poor administrative oversight and accountability to a lack of parent engagement. I know how hard teachers work to educate every child and challenge students at their ability level. We need to work equally hard to give our teachers the tools and supports they need to be successful. Let's stop scapegoating and come together to find solutions that work."
We must keep the public in public schools
Strong schools help create vibrant communities, and engaged communities in turn help our schools thrive. Our children's educations should not be the sole provenance of any one group, whether administrators or teachers. Parents, faith communities, business leaders and others are critical to a successful public school system. All must be partners in ensuring that every child gets a great education.
No one, least of all those of us whose life's work is public education, will be satisfied until we have helped all students prepare for the demands of our ever-changing knowledge economy. Getting to that point, particularly during one of the toughest downturns of our lifetimes, will require that we all do more -- and do it together.
Update: On Oct. 16, Philadelphia superintendent Arlene Ackerman issued a statement on why she disagrees with the manifesto, check out the Valerie Strauss column in the Washington Post.