While, sadly, bashing unions is the specialty and mission of the Center for Union Facts, as it demonstrated in its AOL News opinion piece last week ("Will Teachers Unions Bend to Education Reform?"), the American Federation of Teachers prefers to focus on concrete solutions that will improve the current state of the American public education system.
Do we have to makes changes? Absolutely. But improving schools requires building on what works and replicating it. There are countless success stories in public schools that rarely, if ever, get highlighted in articles or documentaries. Building on what works means taking best practices from around the country and other nations that outperform us, and promoting promising innovative reforms -- all to help prepare every child, in every public school, for life, college and a career in today's global knowledge economy.
The Center for Union Facts doesn't like unions. That's their right, but they can't play fast and loose with the facts. So let's look at where they say the AFT has blocked progress.
In Washington, D.C., the voters ousted Mayor Adrian Fenty because they disapproved of his disconnected management style. He and schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee had a "my way or the highway" attitude that the public (including teachers), by a significant margin, soundly rejected.
Yet while the center criticizes the AFT's support for the victor, Vincent Gray, it doesn't bother to mention its own anti-teachers-union campaign of the past couple of years, including its efforts supporting Mayor Fenty during his losing bid for re-election. The center also fails to note that, in 2008, it spent $508,000 on print, radio and TV ads, even a Times Square billboard, bashing teachers unions. The amounts it spent more recently haven't been disclosed yet.
In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers had good reason to block release of certain teacher value-added data reports. The data was used by teachers and principals under an agreement to keep it confidential because its intent was to inform instruction, not evaluate teachers. The New York data is not a reliable, stand-alone assessment of teachers' effectiveness. Every respected researcher disapproves of publicly disclosing these ratings.
In Baltimore, a new tentative contract agreement -- which includes rewards and incentives for teachers, and creates a culture of collaboration and shared leadership -- is being reconsidered by its members. During the first round, none of us -- management or the union -- did a good enough job explaining the proposed reforms.
And while the center may have loved the film "Waiting for 'Superman,'" many others have criticized it. (Read Diane Ravitch's review in the New York Review of Books, and LynNell Hancock's article, "Waiting for Substance," in the Columbia Journalism Review.)
The film hails charter schools as a panacea, yet only one in five charter schools does the same as or better than regular public schools. Sadly, as The New York Times recently revealed, one of the film's scenes in a charter school actually was staged, and director Davis Guggenheim left on the cutting-room floor scenes he filmed at an incredibly successful unionized charter school -- Green Dot New York Charter School, in the South Bronx.
So rather than reflexively bashing unions and calling us disingenuous, why don't the center and others try a different approach, and collaborate with us on what seems to work to improve public education? Best practices across the United States and in high-achieving countries show clearly what the foundations are for building a system of public education that provides all children with the great education they need and deserve:
Collaboration. Progress on education reform is made when there is collaboration and respect among administrators, teachers, union leaders and elected officials. Districts have to do reform with teachers, not to them.
Developing great teachers. The AFT has created a groundbreaking teacher development and evaluation model, now being used in more than 50 districts, that assesses teacher effectiveness with multiple measures. Its purpose is to enable new and struggling teachers to improve, help good teachers become great, and accurately identify those who should not be teaching. Nearly half of all teachers leave in their first five years, a churning that costs American school systems $7 billion annually. The countries that consistently outperform us, like Finland, invest in training and retaining teachers.
Shared responsibility. Everyone responsible for the education of our children, such as superintendents, principals, elected officials and parents, must be held accountable for our students' academic performance -- not just teachers.
No one in education will be satisfied until we ensure all students are prepared for the demands of our ever-changing world. And we are already walking the walk -- through, among other things, the AFT Innovation Fund (which provides grants to develop bold education innovations in public schools), our proposal that revamps the teacher evaluation system, our work on common core standards, our fight against budget cuts, and our efforts to make schools safe, secure places. We are doing our part to help kids succeed. Let's stop the scapegoating and come together to find solutions that work for all students, schools and communities.
Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers.