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Winter Issue of the American Educator

The winter issue of American Educator from the AFT hits on a whole slew of issues regarding teaching and unions. It’s certainly one of the best education magazines in publication anywhere.

The Skills Commission released a report yesterday on recommendations for changes to the American Education system. AFT Vice-President Antionia Cortese released a statement in response to the report.

(The Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce proposes universal early childhood education, a system that streams students into different tracks based on a 10th-grade exam, independent contractors to run public schools, and a career ladder for teachers that includes higher salaries but lower pension benefits.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – While the commission’s proposal supports several key steps to improve our education system, it also includes some seriously flawed ideas with faddish allure that won’t produce better academic results.  If taken seriously, they would distract us from pursuing the pragmatic strategies that have the greatest chance for traction.

We don’t need more experiments in governance.  We need to implement programs that have shown solid results–early  childhood education; excellent early reading instruction; massive early intervention to assure reading and math mastery; small classes in the early grades, especially in high-poverty schools; a rich curriculum; recruitment, training and retention of a strong teaching force; and effective principals.

On the proposal’s plus side, AFT strongly agrees that universal early childhood education is an absolute necessity.  A good start provides an important foundation, especially for disadvantaged students.  The report recognizes the need for rigorous high school exams that can motivate students and help teachers focus on important academic priorities.  Also, the report identifies the importance of making teaching an attractive career choice that will require more pay and a career ladder that enables teachers to grow professionally.

However, there are some seriously flawed ideas.  The proposal to dismantle school districts and sub-contract education to private entities is antithetical to school accountability and would create a haphazard policy of ‘letting 1,000 flowers bloom.’  Voucher and charter schools haven’t shown consistent evidence of enhanced performance because greater autonomy is not the magic bullet to better results.

The commission proposes to move students out of high school after 10th grade and into technical schools and colleges based on new 10th-grade exam.  This would create an enormous upheaval that would disadvantage low-income students. We don’t need a distracting, massive restructuring to help high schoolers reach high standards.  We do endorse, though, a high-quality, high-standards technical education program for non-college-bound students.  The nugget worth keeping is the need for a system of rigorous high school exams based on a rich curriculum.

Funding higher beginning-teacher salaries by reducing retirement benefits is an unacceptable shell game and not a serious way to attract and retain people who want to make teaching their life’s career.

Happy holidays to our Jewish readers celebrating Chanukah.

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1 Comment:

  • 1 Jackie Bennett
    · Dec 15, 2006 at 11:24 pm

    Diane Ravitch writes an eloquent lead article in this issue of “American Educator” that ought to remind everyone interested in education of the important role our unions play. As she says, “..we need independent teacher unions to assure that teachers’ rights are protected, to sound the alarm against unwise policies, and to advocate on behalf of sound education policies…”

    That’s true. I have always believed that protecting teachers voices protects children as well — in fact that is how a lot of us got involved in union activism to begin with — we were outraged about something that undermined our effectiveness as teachers. Of all the battles I fought with a bully principal, the one that mattered most was his insistence that ANY student could take an AP course, and would be guaranteed an 85, with an additional 10 percent curve. Go figure.

    (Though, now that I think of it, all the battles with him — the dumping of third graders into larger fourth grade classes, for example — were about our kids. )

    The article that follows Ravitch’s article in American Educator perfectly illustrates the importance of protected teacher voice that Ravitch highlights. In it, a DC teacher named Erich Martel describes how he spoke up — and got results — when his principal changed course grades from pass to fail by altering transcripts and “giving credit for clearly bogus “independent studies” courses.”

    Martel tells us, “Quite a few students received a diploma despite never having passed or even taken a required course.” The grade changes violated the teacher contract, and the teacher contract gave Martel the voice to speak up.

    Most of our advocacy is not about grades (though as Martel’s article illustrates, there are few aspects of administrative bullying that will anger teachers more). Mostly we advocate for safe and clean schools where the classes are small enough to learn. We speak on behalf of our children, and often we are their only voice.

    And that is what teacher unions are about.