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Chartering Educational Excellence: Why Teachers Matter Most

[Editor’s note: UFT President Randi Weingarten is guest blogging this week at Eduwonk, where this post originally appeared.]

In 1988, Al Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, launched the country’s charter school movement. While there were many founding contributors to this school reform that now educates over 1 million students in 4,000 schools, no one was more influential in developing the charter school concept and promoting it nationwide than Al.

In 2005, the AFT’s local affiliate in New York City, the United Federation of Teachers, opened the first of its two charter schools in East New York, Brooklyn, becoming the first teacher union to operate its own charter school. And in 2007, the UFT announced a partnership with Green Dot, a non-profit California-based charter school operator to open a unionized charter high school in the Bronx.

All this may come as a surprise to some readers, given the relentless anti-union animus from some of the loudest charter school advocates. The problem is, their motivation is ideological not educational. In their alternate universe, unions are to blame with all that’s wrong in public education. They grossly misrepresent collective bargaining agreements as rigid rulebooks drafted unilaterally by the union instead of what they are: evolving tools, developed jointly with management, to establish salaries, benefits, and a work environment that is both fair and that supports academic achievement. As perverse as it sounds, these ideologues believe that stripping teachers of their rights to fair treatment and a voice in the workplace will somehow accomplish high levels of student achievement.

Such reasoning flies in the face of what we know. We know that a quality teacher is the most important school factor in a student’s success. We know that teachers—like any professional—are at their best when they are treated with respect, when their opinion is sought out, when their skills are developed, and when they are treated fairly as members of a collaborative team. These are the working conditions that teacher unions have fought hard to establish in school districts across the country where not too long ago discrimination and arbitrary treatment were the norm.

The strain of the charter movement’s anti-union animus promoted by the ideologues is beginning to show. In New York, charters have difficulty recruiting from among the ranks of expert public school teachers who expect to have a voice in the direction of their school and a commitment of fair pay and good benefits. Charter schools’ insistence on “at-will” employment is a growing turn-off to teachers accustomed to basic workplace fairness, and turnover is high.

One has to wonder, how relevant or sustainable is an anti-teacher school reform? Already, careful studies of charter school achievement data indicate that charter school achievement is about the same as the school district, sometimes better and sometimes worse, but nothing close to charter schools’ original promise, as even charter booster Checker Finn concedes. Part of the explanation of these results lies in the charter movement’s recalcitrant attitude toward the rights and working conditions of teachers.

For Shanker, charter schools meant something quite different. In the 1980’s, with the release of A Nation At Risk, school reform took on a new and national urgency. The American Federation of Teachers led the way in its embrace of numerous reforms including peer review, public school choice, national board certification for teachers, career ladders for teacher advancement with differentiated pay and rigorous promotional and academic standards. But Shanker grew increasingly frustrated with a spate of top-down reforms that ignored the expertise of teachers, replaced their professional judgment with “teacher-proof” methodologies, and, in his estimation, missed 80% of the students they were intended to help.

Shanker believed that a different, bottom-up approach was necessary to reach all students and to unleash the expertise found within the teaching ranks. He developed the ideas of educator Ray Budde (who first coined the term “charter”) and proposed in a landmark 1988 National Press Club speech the idea of education by charter. Shanker described an arrangement where groups of teachers and parents would be given significant autonomy to implement a research-based proposal for a new school. The school would be publicly funded, accountable for its results and closed if a failure. He thought of charter schools as laboratories for innovation with their successful practices adopted by school systems throughout nation.

Shanker’s charter proposal, which he advocated across the country, is deeply professional. It believes that expert teachers have the judgment to develop the right learning strategies necessary to reach all students. It’s an empowering vision that grants professional autonomy to educators who will be accountable for results. It connects practitioners to their practice in a meaningful way. And it rests on a foundation of fairness guaranteed by union membership.

In many ways, the UFT’s charter schools try to embody Shanker’s original charter vision. Respect and collaboration define our school culture. Intensive support and development have bolstered our teachers’ expertise. And as union members with a collectively negotiated contract, teachers have a guarantee of fair treatment, fair pay, and workplace voice.

Our educational approach includes team teaching and an extended school day for students. We work hard to engage parents in their child’s learning. Classes are small and personalized. We use a rich curriculum, differentiated instruction, and numerous indicators of learning to adjust instruction as needed. The union’s affiliation—and imprimatur—has encouraged hundreds of teachers from across the city to apply for a handful of positions. And early evidence of student achievement suggests that our approach is working.

As the charter school movement enters its third decade, its leaders face a fundamental choice between ideology and quality. If the choice is to remain on the road laid by political conservatives and free-market ideologues, then we can expect more of the same politics and results. But frankly, the million-plus students in these schools deserve better.

Alternatively, a return to the ideas first presented by Shanker would be a clear signal that quality is paramount and can be achieved only through collaboration, pragmatism, and a belief that teachers should have the rights and responsibilities befitting true professionals. This is the progressive charter school movement that we’re helping to build with our two charter schools in New York. Our colleague Steve Barr is doing the same at his unionized Green Dot Schools in Los Angeles. And across the country, charter school teachers and progressive charter school leaders are recognizing that they can have both the freedom and reforms that charter schools foster and the respect and fairness that teacher unions ensure.

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3 Comments:

  • 1 Schoolgal
    · Aug 26, 2007 at 10:12 am

    “These are the working conditions that teacher unions have fought hard to establish in school districts across the country where not too long ago discrimination and arbitrary treatment were the norm.”

    Unfortunately, the above statement has not applied to the UFT. Our recent givebacks have made it possible for principals to rule with an iron fist.
    Senior teachers are no longer valued and are put on “ATR” status. The new reorganization will make it impossible for teachers with 5-10 years in the system to transfer because their salaries will be too high for another school to carry.

    I am all for any school that allows collaboration. How sad the UFT had to find a source outside of the teachers you serve.

  • 2 Teacher News of the Day | Edwize
    · Aug 27, 2007 at 5:55 pm

    [...] the print edition of the New York Sun covers UFT President Randi Weingarten [...]

  • 3 phyllis c. murray
    · Aug 28, 2007 at 10:06 am

    Re. Chartering Educational Excellence: Why Teachers Matter Most

    Surely, what we seem to have today is a test-centered curriculum. And even though we have a blitz of mandated standardized tests, there are additional test-instruments used in the classroom which assess information taught on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. And lest we forget, the extended day comes complete with workbooks and computer programs which provide more test practice.

    Yes, I agree with Randi Weingarten “The problem is the excessive testing and the inappropriate linking of the results to important decisions about a student’s or school’s future, without regard to other evidence that might give a more accurate picture of the situation and lead to more productive remedies. This constant focus on testing narrows the curriculum by concentrating only on the skills and knowledge needed to pass the tests.”

    Perhaps what is needed is an Individualized Educational Plan(IEP) for each school and a balanced program of instruction. Hence, a well planned prescription for improvement must fit the child and the school. There must be funds available to provide for adequate resources as well as a cadre of professionals who are highly qualified teachers.

    These educators must be supported by paraprofessionals whose training, like that of any competent educator, is cumulative and continuing. Therefore, educators must have access to meaningful staff development as well as affordable courses of study through accredited colleges and universities. In addition to the aforementioned, teachers must be treated as professionals, rewarded as professionals and held accountable to the standards of their profession. They must be allowed and, in fact, encouraged to be involved in the decisions that affect their work and the academic performance of their students.

    Twenty-first Century schools must have reduced class size which is any teacher’s dream. Once there is reduced class size, individualized and small group instruction will be possible. And research has proven the following:

    1. There will be fewer student disruptions, enabling teachers to offer more effective instruction without interruption.
    2. There will be improved student achievement and graduation rates will be enhanced.
    3. There will be more opportunities for the retention of qualified teachers,
    4. There will be more student engagement and less anonymity in the classroom.
    5. And last but not least, there will be better teacher ability to keep in touch with parents

    In 1993 I was present when Albert Shanker spoke at the QuEST Conference in Washington, DC. Like many educators, he was advocating the creation of a set of national education standards. These standards would tell schools what students at different grade levels would be expected to learn, and they would tell parents how well their child, and their child’s school, performed compared with others. The standards themselves would force schools to remain focused on their primary mission–teaching children.

    “NCLB should be funded at the level promised in the 2001 reauthorization. Since the law’s passage, the gap between the amount that Congress promised for NCLB programs and what it has actually provided for NCLB programs has grown to $55.7 billion. Current funding is not enough to serve all eligible students, and many of the students who are being served are not being served sufficiently–particularly in districts with the greatest concentrations of poverty.” AFT

    Once again, we note that the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) still leaves much to be desired. And although well-intentioned, there is an urgent need today, for legislators to go back to the drawing board with educators and fine tune the NCLB Act

    And as stated by Leo Casey: “Educational research affirms the absolute centrality of experienced, accomplished teachers to the education of young people, especially for students living in poverty and at academic risk. But while we are looking for the pot of gold at the end of the standardized testing rainbow, the real work of placing highly qualified teachers in every classroom — and especially in the classes of students living in poverty and at risk for academic failure — will be dealt a serious body blow by this diversion.”

    Phyllis C. Murray
    UFT Chapter Leader
    District 8