The AFT calls for freedom to teach
AFT President Randi Weingarten today delivered a major address on the crisis hollowing out the teaching profession—massive disinvestment in public education and deprofessionalization. In her speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., she called for reinvestment and freedom to teach. It was followed by two panels featuring education leaders who laid out pragmatic solutions.
To start, Weingarten asked that Americans consider the motivations educators express about why they teach, such as “I teach because I want to change the world, one child at a time, and to show them to have passion and wonder in their learning.” Teachers understand the importance of their work, she said, as do parents and the public. But the disrespect of certain policymakers has taken a toll.
School employees are leaving the profession at the highest rate on record. Last year, schools employed 110,000 fewer teachers than were needed, almost doubling the shortage of 2015. The crisis has hit all 50 states, and it’s getting worse.
Enrollment in teacher preparation programs is plummeting—dropping 38 percent nationally between 2008 and 2015. More than 100,000 classrooms across the country have an instructor who is not credentialed.
“How many operating rooms do you think are staffed by people without the necessary qualifications? Or airplane cockpits?” Weingarten asked. “We should be strengthening teacher preparation programs, not weakening teacher licensure requirements. Why are we doing this to our kids?”
Teaching has become so devalued that, for the first time in 50 years, a majority of parents say they don’t want their kids to become teachers.
This crisis has two major roots, Weingarten said: deep disinvestment from public education and the deprofessionalization of teaching.
Schools are starved for funds
On disinvestment, Weingarten noted that the public school uprisings of the past two years have laid bare the frustration over insufficient resources, deplorable facilities, and inadequate pay and benefits. Today, 25 states still spend less on public education than they did a decade ago. In 38 states, teacher salaries are lower than before the Great Recession. Teachers rose up in Colorado when officials tried to justify a four-day school week as “good” for kids. Research from the Economic Policy Institute shows that teachers are paid 24 percent less than other college graduates. In addition to the soaring cost of healthcare, there is the burden of student loans.
And then there are the conditions in which students learn—especially the nation’s poorest children. Public school facilities got a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. That includes rat infestations, toxic mold and freezing classrooms in winter. AFT member Corinne Lyons, who introduced Weingarten before her address, told how the water has been shut off in her Detroit school because of dangerously high levels of lead and other contaminants.
“Everything I just described to you is a disgrace,” Weingarten said. “Students know it’s a disgrace. Parents know it’s a disgrace. Administrators know it’s a disgrace. Teachers know it’s a disgrace.”
Treat us as professionals
On the deprofessionalization of teaching, educators say they are frustrated, demoralized and deeply stressed, Weingarten said. The lack of classroom autonomy and discretion supercharge that dissatisfaction. She instructed doubters to Google “teachers’ resignation letters” to find anguished accounts of the ways teachers have been stripped of their freedom to teach in the ways they judge best.
Deprofessionalization, she said, is killing the soul of teaching.
This lack of respect takes many forms. It’s being micromanaged—told that the only decorations allowed in your classroom are motivational posters provided by a textbook publisher. It’s getting in trouble for allowing students to conduct a science experiment or continue a debate over two days, instead of one. It’s the continued fixation on standardized testing.
Just as the testing obsession makes teachers’ hair stand on end, so does excessive paperwork—data collection, data entry, data reporting. One member summed it up this way: “Teachers are drowning in a sea of paperwork; just let us do our jobs.”
More than 30 years ago, Weingarten said, two powerful ideas that advance teacher professionalism came from the AFT. Former President Al Shanker introduced the idea for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The concept of improving practice through peer assistance and review also originated in our ranks.
And for almost a decade, Weingarten said, holding up a copy of the latest American Educator, participants in the AFT’s Teacher Leaders Program have turned their ideas into practice and their advocacy into policy.
None of this has been enough. The deprofessionalization we’re facing is not the case in high-achieving countries like Finland, Singapore and Canada, where teachers are rightly considered “nation builders,” and their pay, time for collaboration, and involvement in decision-making reflect that.
“It’s not rocket science to see that the United States has gone in the wrong direction and that we need to reverse course,” the AFT president said. “Teachers need the freedom to teach. If we want our public schools to be all we hope, if we want to attract and retain a new generation of wonderful teachers, this cannot be solely a teacher issue or a teacher union issue. We must act, and we must act together.”
What we will do about it
Solving this crisis requires treating teachers as the professionals they are, Weingarten said. So the question is how to elevate teachers’ voice and judgment, and allow them to make learning rich and fulfilling.
There are ways we can legislate and negotiate, she added, starting by focusing on three essential areas:
1. Developing a culture of collaboration, which requires trust and leadership. She cited the ABC Unified School District in Los Angeles County, the Meriden, Conn., public schools and New York City, with its new Bronx Plan.
2. Creating and maintaining proper teaching and learning conditions. For teachers, this starts with a simple question: What do I need to do my job so that my students have what they need?
3. Ensuring teachers have real voice and agency befitting their profession. Too often, Weingarten said, educators essentially are told to check their ideas, imagination and initiative at the schoolhouse door. “The further away from the classroom, the more authority someone seems to have over teachers’ work,” she added. “That makes no sense.”
To develop a culture of collaboration, she said, we must:
- Build more teacher time into school schedules, in addition to individual prep periods, to observe colleagues’ lessons, look at student work and plan collaboratively.
- Trust teachers. Develop policies—from the school board to the principal’s office—with teachers, not to teachers.
To create and maintain proper teaching and learning conditions, we must:
- Ask teachers what they need to do their jobs so their students succeed, use their answers as the basis of an audit of teaching and learning conditions, and then integrate the results into assessments of the district. Ask principals, parents and students as well.
- Act on those audit results—through legislation, lobbying, collective bargaining and, if necessary, school finance lawsuits.
To empower real teacher voice and agency and the freedom to teach, we must:
- Give educators the latitude, when they are asked—or told—to do something, to ask two fundamental questions: What is the purpose of what I am being told to do? And how does that contribute to teaching and learning?
- Respect teachers by giving them the latitude to raise concerns and act in the best interests of their students without fear of retaliation, as New York City’s United Federation of Teachers negotiated in its latest contract.
America should be unleashing teachers’ talents, not stifling them, she said: “Educators need the benefit of the doubt.”
The problem comes down to who controls the decisions affecting teaching and learning. Here’s a telling example: Thousands of teachers rely on crowdfunding sites like Donors Choose to obtain educational games, classroom libraries and basic supplies. But some, like the Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee, are forbidding teachers from using Donors Choose because officials are upset that they don’t control what the donations are spent on.
At a telephone town hall with hundreds of members and leaders on the night before her speech, Weingarten embraced a member’s equation of the “freedom to teach” with the “freedom to care” in nursing. This translates into having the time to directly care for patients instead of charting. Weingarten noted that such respect for professionalism extends to our members in every profession. The assumption should be that teachers, like other professionals, know what they are doing.
Change is possible. Weingarten vowed that the AFT will commit everything it’s got—the resources and influence of 1.7 million members—to combat disinvestment, deprofessionalization and disrespect.
“Teachers are drawn to this profession because of their love for children and their passion for teaching,” she said. “Let’s reignite that passion, not extinguish it. So, to America’s teachers, my heroes, I say: Keep fighting. And keep caring. You are making a difference.”
Panels: Trust, collaboration, voice
Two panel discussions followed the speech. Ray Gaer, president of the ABC Federation of Teachers, struck the top note in calling for collaboration. Mary Sieu, ABC’s superintendent, spoke of including all stakeholders, including classified personnel, social workers and nurses, in finding student success. Over 20 years, ABC educators working in partnership raised reading achievement at six schools from “abysmal” to award-winning.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew agreed that what works is “true trust, collaboration and voice.” New York City’s schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, compared school leadership with a romantic partnership: “Exert your dominance and see how long that’s going to last.”
Instead, Mulgrew and Carranza asked each other: What drove you crazy as a teacher? Each had dozens of peeves, which they have decided to address through an initiative called the Bronx Plan that extends to other neighborhoods like Brooklyn and Far Rockaway. At each school, the principal and union leader both agree to collaborate. “Let’s just own the fact that these schools have been neglected for decades,” Mulgrew said. Yet, as if by magic, underachieving schools with the most mutual respect are rising to the top.
Erin Benham, president of the Meriden (Conn.) Federation of Teachers, described overcoming budget constraints by using a weekly extended day to add to teachers’ planning time and giving them the autonomy to decide what to do with that time.
“When educators are all working together in a position of trust,” Mulgrew said, “that’s when you can achieve the dream we have for kids.”
The second panel brought together policymakers who, in Weingarten’s words, see change from “different vantage points.”
Howie Morales, lieutenant governor of New Mexico, described the education “moonshot” his state is attempting under a new, education-friendly governor. “It’s not where you’re at,” he said, “it’s where you’re going.”
Arkansas state Sen. Joyce Elliott suggested finding whoever in your state legislature belongs to the National Conference of State Legislatures and working with them on education issues. “Everybody has something good to contribute,” she said. “You have to take on the burden. You can’t just sit back and say it’s not fair, because in the end, what it’s not fair for is our children.”
Betty Rosa, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, used collaboration at the state level to clean up the toxic environment that came with overtesting. She, too, credited finding common ground with unlikely allies.