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Randi Weingarten calls on superintendents: Listen to your teachers

“This de-professionalization is killing the soul of teaching,” she said.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten spoke Thursday in Washington, D.C., about how teachers are leaving the profession at record-breaking rates and how the AFT can help. She wants to create partnerships between local unions and superintendents so that decisions are made based on feedback from teachers — not dictated by the whims of national foundations. That requires reversing a trend to standardize teaching and learning.

“The disinvestment in education and the failure of many states to make teaching a viable career go hand-in-hand with another major crisis,” Weingarten said. “The de-professionalization of teaching.”

Weingarten’s address at the National Press Club, billed as “Freedom to Teach,” was followed by a panel discussion with education and union leaders from states and districts that have moved toward this approach.

In the early 20th century, the principles of Taylorism — a factory philosophy of achieving profit through labor efficiency — were used to creates standard school practices so that lessons could be taught by any literate person without training or experience, reducing the role of the teacher “to an unskilled laborer,” Weingarten said.

That began to change for the better in the mid-20th century, but now teachers face “prepackaged corporate curriculum, intended to standardize teaching to conform with the standardized assessments.”

“Scripted curriculum, a.k.a. teacher proofing, took this to the extreme,” she said, “not only denying teachers’ creativity and expertise, but assuming their incompetence.”

This year, the country has 110,000 empty teaching positions. That’s nearly double the number in 2015, according to Weingarten. And there are shortages in every state. Enrollment in teaching programs has dropped 38 percent between 2008 and 2015.

“More than 100,000 classrooms across the country have an instructor who is not credentialed,” she said. “How many operating rooms do you think are staffed with people who don’t have the necessary qualifications? How many airplane cockpits?”

The American Federation of Teachers has been conducting focus groups with teachers to find out why they have left or are considering leaving. It’s one thing that led the AFT to begin its Fund Our Future campaign.

“Teachers spoke about entering the profession excited,” Weingarten said. “But they soon spoke with equally deep emotion about the stress and the disrespect they experienced. This de-professionalization is killing the soul of teaching. They are being micromanaged — told things like the only declarations allowed in your classroom are the posters from a testing company… getting in trouble for allowing students to conduct a science experiment or continue a debate over two days instead of just one.

“Standardized testing can dictate practically every decision about student promotion, graduation, and accountability. Teachers are treated as test-prep managers.”

Public education has entered a new period of “top-down control,” which is “not the case in higher-achieving countries like Finland, Singapore, or Canada, where teachers are rightly considered nation-builders and their working conditions reflect that.”

Combined with decades of slashing public school funding, Weingarten said, these trends are fueling “teacher uprisings” all over the country. Poor minority communities have had their school budgets slashed the worst, and poor minority communities also have the highest teacher turnover. Meanwhile, America’s already largely white teaching force is becoming even whiter.

“Too often, resources are so limited that we are grateful for the part-time school nurse, the overloaded counselors, and the cast-off athletic equipment and musical instruments,” she said. “Ask teachers what they need to do their jobs so that students succeed. Take the answers teachers provide, and use them as an audit of teaching and learning decisions, and integrate the result of that audit into the assessment of a school district.”

Instead of investing in curriculum packages and standardized test prep, Weingarten said, school districts should be investing in wraparound services like social workers, nurses, and counselors. The Fund Our Futures campaign calls for policy changes that are identified by teachers and written with their input, as well as “proper teaching and learning conditions,” ranging from competitive salaries to smaller class sizes and repairs to the nation’s crumbling schools, which received a failing grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Weingarten mentioned a survey that found half the country’s teachers have never visited a colleague’s classroom — a practice that is far more common in some of the most academically successful countries where teacher collaboration is the norm.

“Collaboration reduces teacher turnover, particularly in high-poverty schools,” she said. “Our teachers spend more time teaching in a classroom than educators in higher-performing countries and they average an hour less per day for planning and collaboration.”

She said that union contracts can be used to secure additional time for preparation and collaboration, a practice she said would help keep teachers from leaving the profession.

To illustrate her point, Weingarten invited a panel of union leaders and their superintendents from places that have already done this: New York City; Meriden, Connecticut; and the Artesia, Bloomfield, and Carmenita (ABC) Unified School District outside Los Angeles.

“People will tell you [running a school district] is all about labor management and you have to carve out your space,” said Richard Carranza, the chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education. He added that the philosophy amounts to “dominating” your staff.

“It’s ridiculous. Exert your dominance, and see how long that’s going to last,” he said to laughs from the crowd. “It’s not going to last.”

Carranza said he worked with the union in the last contract negotiations to create a process for micro-grants to individual teachers so they become a driving force behind changes within their school.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, worked with Carranza to develop new systems for collaboration and assessment. Under previous superintendents, Mulgrew said the city gave schools a grade, 85 percent of which was determined by standardized test scores. Now, much more of the assessment is based on anonymous surveys from teachers, students, and parents. Mulgrew said that together the two built “true trust, collaboration, and teacher voice.”

“Let’s just own the fact that we have schools that have been neglected for decades,” Mulgrew said. “And they usually align with communities that don’t have political power — money — to get what they need.”

So the two began meeting with school staff and asking them what it was their schools needed.

“I said, ‘no, really, you can tell us what you want to do here,’” Mulgrew said of the first meetings.

Carranza chuckled when he said: “Their reaction was kind of like the IRS just said, ‘we’re here to help you with your taxes.’”

Mulgrew said the reaction was due to the old philosophy in New York City, which has become increasingly common with superintendents around the country.

“There’s a group of people trying to privatize public education. It’s a scheme and an attack. They will spin and lie to get their agenda,” which creates mistrust, Mulgrew said. “Then there are others who are well-meaning, but their lack of understanding about what goes on inside a classroom means they create policies that are actually harmful to the classroom.

“When the adults are actually listening to each other in a trusting way, that’s how you start achieving what we want.”

In Meriden, Connecticut, teachers wanted more time to collaborate among themselves. They began by experimenting in a willing magnet school, where they added an extra hour to teachers’ weeks at the end of one day. They took the hour away from more traditional professional development time that was already built into the contract but not popular with teachers.

“All that time teachers were sitting there was not useful time, so we swapped that hour out and put it into extended-day Thursdays,” said Erin Benham, president of the Federation of Teachers in Meriden. “They can determine what they need as a school to spend time on in that hour, and not have it dictated by the central office.”

The school district has since expanded the policy to all schools. Meriden’s school board president said that their biggest barrier is still inadequate state funding. Benham said the District has been able to raise some philanthropic dollars, but that’s not necessarily sustainable.

“We’re very afraid of losing that,” she said. “I don’t know what would happen if that dwindled.”

The ABC Unified School District has been working with various “stakeholders,” including teachers, homeless students, and those in foster care — large populations for the school district. Based on that feedback, they put a social worker in every school and hired wellness coordinators to manage the counselors, social workers, and school psychologists. They are still trying to add more nurses.

All this has contributed to another goal: reducing the use of suspension and expulsion to discipline students.

“The suspension level is 1.9 percent — that’s very low,” said Mary Sieu, superintendent of ABC Unified. “We have not expelled a single student for seven years.

“But to do that we had to have these structures and systems in place to support our students.”