Randi Weingarten's Spring Conference Address

Good afternoon. I always look forward to our annual spring conference – as I know many of you do. We come here to learn, to honor those who have been friends to public education, to celebrate what we have accomplished and just to catch up with friends and colleagues.

But it’s also true that every year this conference coincides with the budget negotiations for our city and our schools. So there’s always some uncertainty, as well.

This year, with the economy in a deep recession, that uncertainty has escalated to high anxiety. But in the midst of this crisis, we have managed, so far, to salvage our core priorities.

Our budgets are dented, but not decimated. We have not seen a repeat of the devastating effects of the 70s fiscal crisis.

How have we managed that?

Well, first, we have in the White House a President who is deeply committed to education. And together with leaders in Congress, they dedicated $100 billion to back that up.

President Obama knows from his own experience that you can’t build hope unless people believe they have opportunity.

And the key to opportunity is public education.

Sure we don’t agree with the President on everything. But when we needed him, he was there. As were our other champions in Congress: our Dewey award winner, Senator Ted Kennedy, and our own Senator Schumer and Representative Rangel, to name just three.

But the fight to insulate our kids from harm didn’t end with the passage of the historic stimulus bill. That was just the beginning. And you – the people in this room – took on that fight with a laser-like focus.

Even as the economic clouds gathered, you rallied around our children to shield them from the storm. You sent letters and faxes; you called and made personal visits, you volunteered for phone banks and contributed to COPE. You talked to your friends and neighbors, and you would not let up.

Like the folks in the storm-drenched Midwest who piled the sandbags higher and higher as the rivers rose, every time the word went out for more hands on deck, you responded. I am so proud of the work you did.

And as you know, we have a terrific group of allies in this fight. Parents, community groups and our union stood together, rallying at City Hall in March with more than 50,000 people on the street, contacting their legislators time and again, traveling to Albany and Washington. Even the Mayor joined us to lobby down in DC and up in Albany.

If the old adage is true, that by your friends you will be judged, then the verdict on our union will never be in doubt.

(By the same token, if we are to be judged by our enemies, the NY Post editorials are our best testimonials.)

As a union, we have worked hard to forge these bonds with the community. And we’ve been able to do that because we all share a simple goal: to help our children succeed. All our children, of course, but especially those that need us the most.

To that purpose, we must bring the same laser-like strength and determination we demonstrated this year in the Presidential race and in the budget battle. It will take nothing less.

From the beginning, this union has been devoted to the goal of all children succeeding -- yet its realization continues to elude us. Yes, as this week’s scores demonstrated on average our students are performing at higher levels – and that’s something that you deserve great credit for.

Still, let’s not close our eyes to the truth. Despite our best efforts, too many of our kids aren’t making it.

Eleven years ago, in 1998, I made my first spring conference speech. The topic? Turning around low-performing schools. With the bravado born of naiveté, I proposed that the union and board of education undertake a joint venture to redesign and jointly operate a struggling school. I suggested we could dramatically improve student achievement by bringing in the resources and instructional approaches that we knew were needed for all students to succeed.

Right idea. Wrong strategy. The proposal went nowhere.

And I’ll be completely frank about telling you why.

It was because we went out on our own, without talking first to parents and community members. I hadn’t yet learned what should be quite obvious here in New York: What makes this city great is its tightly knit communities.

New Yorkers care deeply about their neighborhoods, and many think of their schools as the anchor of their community. Even in a big, mobile city like ours, as many of you know, children often attend the same schools their parents went to. And in that atmosphere, just like teachers in a school community, you can’t just drop change on them from above and expect everyone to embrace you for it.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised that my so-called “offer” was not welcomed with open arms.

A year later, still trying to turn around low performing schools, we did it a little differently. We built on an existing small but successful model. In June of 1999, Chancellor Crew and we, with financial help from Mayor Giuliani (yes, I know, strange bedfellows) negotiated the expansion of what was called “the chancellor’s district.” Together we turned 40 struggling schools into 40 laboratories for an all-out assault on school failure.

The agreement was a tremendous breakthrough. The chancellor’s district schools had much that we are still fighting for today: smaller classes, tutoring time, highly qualified teachers, parent involvement, proven instructional programs and job-embedded professional development from a teacher center in every school. And because we were trying to turn schools around rather than close them down — in some ways what the government and the UAW are doing with Chrysler today — we were able to build on the strong parental and community support in our city’s toughest neighborhoods.

From the start, progress in the chancellor’s district schools raced ahead of other struggling schools, exceeding their progress by 2-and-a-half times.

Sadly, though, like many other new administrations, the Klein administration dismantled the chancellor’s district early on.

And, while today achievement is up, there remains a small, but significant number of children who are persistently low performing. The improving landscape gives us a perfect opportunity to look more closely at what we can do for those who need more help.

And at the same time, as economic stress once again threatens family stability, the idea of the school as the center of the community has gained new urgency.

It’s time for a new strategy - one that of course focuses on instruction, but also aims at the root causes of chronic school failure, one that addresses the needs of the community and its families. If we do that, and I know we can, I am certain that we can finally fulfill that goal of really helping ALL our children.

What if we make available before and after-school programs to keep kids on course, early childhood programs and even childcare for toddlers? What if we could refer families to the social services they need right there in their communities? And what if we provide children with medical screening and counseling through school-based health clinics like those already in some of our schools.

In other words, what would happen if we not only acknowledged that there are conditions in children’s lives that make it harder for them to learn, but actually did something about it?

Just last summer when I was elected AFT president I resurrected the concept of school-based “wrap-around” services for children and families. A new AFT Innovation Fund will support experiments with community schools, among other innovative ideas, around the country. And now, the UFT is working to establish a pilot for just such a community school in District 12, not far from the school I so wanted to help turn around when I first took office.

But that’s just a start. When I became UFT president over a decade ago, we dedicated ourselves to making every school a place where parents want to send their children and educators want to work. It’s time to bring to bear all the power of that commitment and all the strength of the bonds we have forged since then to focus like a laser on making this vision a reality.

Unfortunately these days and we see it all over the country, a common response to a school that shows signs of weakness is to shut it down, break it up, or give it to a private charter operator. That to me is walking away from our responsibility.

I would like school districts including our own to learn the lesson that South Bronx community taught me more than a decade ago: that there is tremendous value in a school that is well rooted in a community. It can take years for a new school to hit its stride, stabilize its staff, and secure the community’s trust and support. If a school can be turned around, if it has parents’ support, if the staff is caring and skilled, and if an infusion of assistance can be provided, it is worth investing in.

Even in Florida, where former Gov. Jeb Bush first gave Chancellor Klein the idea of giving schools grades, schools that get a failing mark automatically receive extra help and resources.

Why do we believe the pre-emptive response is premature? MS 399 in the Bronx is a case in point. When the DOE decided it had to be closed, parents and staff protested that they believed their school had already begun to turn the corner. This week 399, which is still scheduled to close, proved its case. The newly released ELA scores showed the percent of students who are proficient readers literally doubled!

Rushing to judgment can lead to serious mistakes with serious consequences for students, staff and communities.

Now sometimes a school should close, but in this instance, the DOE, over our objections, announced the closing of three well loved schools, depriving those students of a neighborhood school and without consulting the Community Education Councils. When the parents came to us for help, we agreed to join them in a lawsuit, which we won, and the DOE was forced to rescind its decision. This week, the ELA scores showed that every one of those schools had improved, some tremendously: including: PS 241, Manhattan which boosted its percent meeting standards from 22 percent to 54 percent, and PS 150 in Brooklyn which went from 35 percent proficient to almost 50 percent proficient.

Some of the folks from 399, 241, and 150 are with us today. Let’s give them a hand!

Clearly, closing these schools was the wrong choice, and we would ask that they remain open.

In 2002, New Yorkers wanted the mayor to control our schools. They thought that meant that someone was finally on the hook. In fact, even the UFT admired Mayor Bloomberg’s willingness to take responsibility, and many of us still do. But to us, that includes taking responsibility for the hardest cases.

After all, the very definition of public schools means that those in charge can never walk away. Taking responsibility is what governing is all about!

Now don’t get me wrong. Sometimes, if intensive help fails, closing a school and starting over may be necessary.

And the two other common remedies -- charter schools and small schools – can have important roles in a public school system.

Charters, like the 40 schools in the chancellor’s district – can be incubators for reforms that work, laboratories freed from bureaucratic regulation so they can experiment, on a pilot basis, with new strategies.

In addition, charters can be laboratories for a new kind of labor relations. One. where the rules are flexible, provided they are good for kids, fair to teachers and built on collaboration, voice and mutual respect. Wouldn’t that truly fulfill the mission of charter schools?

And small schools, even though they don’t always work, as Bill Gates, their principal promoter recently admitted, do create a more personal, less anonymous learning environment for children.

But, bottom line, what struggling students really need is a new learning experience, not a new school with a new name or a new coat of paint.

Every educator who has been in a classroom knows that top-down changes in governance structure alone will not change day-to-day teaching and learning. An administration can spend millions on consultants who construct and deconstruct regions and service centers and flow charts with endless dotted lines of authority, without affecting by one iota what happens in classrooms.

That’s not to say that efficient management isn’t important. After all, a well run school district helps to create the conditions that are conducive to teaching and learning, -- like getting textbooks in time, or getting people paid properly—but they do not, by themselves, affect the transformational process that takes place between student and teacher.

The learning process itself depends first and foremost on the smarts and sensitivity of the teacher – the teacher who must discern how each child learns and have at her fingertips a panoply of strategies, materials and resources to provide just the right combination that will get through to each child. It’s why I so often say teachers are physicians of the mind.

And that’s why, for reforms to be successful, they must be developed with teachers, not imposed on them.

But many influences merge in that moment the teacher reaches into her bag of tricks (actually, her reservoir of accumulated skills and knowledge) and comes up with just the right instructional solution.

Some of these influences are out of the teacher’s control. Teachers alone cannot change the amount of time they are given or the quality of the professional development they get.

That is why as a union we fight so hard for the best learning and teaching conditions we can secure. Teachers alone cannot cure a child’s asthma or repair a stormy family situation. That is why we fight so hard for the parent engagement we know kids and our schools need, and for the health and human services that will help level the playing field for our kids in greatest need.

So, today I am calling on the mayor and chancellor to join with us in this broader, bolder mission we share. Side by side we can develop a collaborative, coordinated, comprehensive school turnaround model to serve our neediest children in our most challenging educational settings.

We call it ACES — Active Communities Enabling Success.

The opportunity to do this is right now, because of mayoral control, the federal stimulus bill and what we have already accomplished.

Within the stimulus law is a $5 billion incentive fund called Race to the Top. It seeks, as one of its goals, the turnaround of the lowest-performing one percent of schools in the nation.

And turnaround is exactly what we have in mind, a model that combines some of the strategies we have tried and found successful in raising student achievement:

  • robust and rigorous educational offerings such as those designed for the chancellor’s district;
  • the broad health and human services of community schools;
  • the teacher support and attention to quality found in our Teacher Center, Lead Teacher and schoolwide bonus programs,
  • the multiple performance measures that the UFT proposed in our Accountability Reports, and
  • the community and parent outreach we have fostered.

So why not file a joint application to build such a model? In the spirit of President Obama’s call for shared responsibility, together the city, DOE and the union can be partners in a school turnaround network that could be a national model for urban education.

It would showcase not only the best instructional practices, but also the best practices in labor-management relations. And it would be a model for the best use of mayoral control: bringing into our schools the health and human services that children and their families need to ensure school success.

What I’m suggesting is a network of schools, headed neither by some outside group nor some School Support Organization, no matter how good it might be. Rather, to demonstrate its importance and the system’s commitment, the network should be led by the chancellor himself.

And what I am also suggesting is that the neighborhood school become a one-stop source for health and human services and, at the same time, ensure that children arrive in class ready to learn.

The schools in the network will have chosen to participate by a vote of the School Leadership Team and staff. They will be open into the evenings and weekends, for youngsters and families alike.

After-school tutoring and enrichment programs would be closely aligned with the school’s instructional program, but would also include opportunities for exercise, sports, arts and culture and community service. For families and members of the community, childcare, pre-school, ESL, GED and vocational classes would be available.

The schools would also be a locus for health and mental health services, either through the co-location of clinics, mobile clinics or partnerships with local providers and hospitals.

Finally, referrals could be made for housing issues, employment opportunities, immigration issues and legal problems.

[But – and here is the key to making community schools work for educational improvement – service providers would be an integral part of the school community. Clinicians and advisers from outside agencies, along with school-based teachers, guidance counselors, and school nurses (where they are involved) would all be part of a child-centered team, conferring often and offering one another insight and recommendations.]

Imagine what a welcoming place for kids and family members such a school would be. And here’s some other benefits: by addressing health, mental health and family issues, student absenteeism — a major cause of poor school performance — would plummet, and parent involvement would soar as visiting their children’s teachers will no longer be so daunting for parents already familiar with the building.

And for those who say this approach tries to do everything but teach, that is so far from the truth. There is no conflict between emphasizing academics and tending to children’s broader needs. Just look at the Harlem Children’s Zone. For our most disadvantaged kids, our schools can and must do both.

In fact, I would argue that addressing the family, personal and health issues that so many of our students face enables the classroom teacher to focus on teaching and our children to concentrate on learning.

Where does mayoral control come in? The mayor’s office would be able to coordinate and focus the myriad services of multiple city agencies and private and non-profit organizations to serve the needs of schools and school communities.

But let’s look more closely at the classroom itself, the hub of the educational experience. In addition to having the resources and supports for good teaching and learning, what would be different in the classrooms of our turnaround schools?

Yes, teachers would set goals aligned with a common curriculum across the grades. They would use proven content-rich programs. They would analyze student data and differentiate their instruction accordingly.

But here’s the difference: The school community, as the School Based Option clause in our contract first envisioned, would do all this in ways they themselves determine, based on a shared vision for the school they themselves developed. That vision will be built by an empowered School Leadership Team in accordance with the needs and priorities of the students, parents and staff.

And that vision would be implemented collaboratively. Teachers would have time to analyze data, and develop and polish their lessons together, sharing successes and failures and observing one another in class. They would help shape the professional development they need, and, to help deliver that p.d., they might actually use the Lead Teacher initiative that we and the parents in CC9 brought to the chancellor in 2004. And once and for all, teachers would be allowed to unleash their amazing creativity.

The ACES network would not shy away from accountability. But it would seek broader metrics than just test scores and graduation rates to measure its success. It would ask such questions as: Is the school safe? Do children come to school every day? Are they healthier, more engaged? Are they critical thinkers and problem solvers? Are they involved in community service? Are their parents active in the school?

And what’s the teacher turnover rate? Do teachers want to work there? Are planning, implementation and accountability seen as shared responsibilities? In other words, is this a place where parents want to send their children and educators want to work.

Those are the questions that must be asked and answered. And those answers will lead to a true assessment of the school.

As a community, we can let teachers teach and managers manage, but we can also help one another. We can make all our schools work for all our kids by pitching in together, not walking away and leaving the hard work to others.

UFT members have always taken responsibility for our students, which is why every teacher I know refers to her students as “my kids.”

To us, children are not just readers or writers or calculators. They are whole human beings. And they should be treated as such.

To the naysayers we say, stand by our side. Trust us to do the very best job we can do. Give us the support we need to do that, and we guarantee we will help every child, in every class, in every school in this great city.

No child was ever helped by blaming a teacher.

No promising educator was ever recruited or enticed to stay by being threatened.

And no school was ever turned around by demonizing its staff.

As I said at the outset, when we are focused on something that is important for our kids, we are fierce advocates.

Whether it is fighting for school resources and the services children need, promoting teacher quality or working to strengthen community partnerships.

We are fighters for improving our schools!

We stand at the side of working families!

And we believe deeply in the power of public education to lift up all children and set them on the right path. As we believe in the power of this great union to pave the way.

Thank you all.

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