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The Good Schools Seminars
This seminar series is part of an effort to build a network of union leaders, district superintendents, and researchers to work collaboratively on improving public education through a focus on teaching. It emerges from the Albert Shanker Institute’s role as sponsor of provocative policy discussions about education reform and dovetails with the education agenda of the American Federation of Teachers.
In June 2007, the Albert Shanker Institute held the first seminar in what its leaders hoped would become a productive series of meetings on the necessity for a greater union role in shaping good schools. The first Good Schools seminar examined the state of the research on teaching quality and teacher policies—including the charges by union critics that collective bargaining contracts and the practices they codify result in teaching assignments, teacher protections, transfer policies, and salary determinations that have a negative effect on student achievement, particularly for poor and minority students. The group found that the picture being painted by partisan researchers was not accurate, and indeed may act to distract attention away from what serious research offers on how teaching practice and teacher policies could be made more effective.
In his concluding remarks, then AFT and Shanker Institute President Ed McElroy noted the sense of participants that this work was really about a much larger agenda. Many had observed that these discussions take place against a backdrop of a public education system under serious and immediate threat, prompting McElroy to recommend that we continue discussing these issues around a “big table” of actively involved people—making sure that the agenda is very concrete and consistently anchored in lessons from the best research. Fighting back against those who are only too happy to balkanize and dismantle public education, he said, will require taking on these issues with a variety of players who are willing to work together to strengthen and preserve public education
Thus began a series of two-day off-the-record meetings among district superintendents, local union leaders, researchers, and education policy experts, with a welcome to other participants. They were designed as practical and political meetings that could help broaden and deepen discussion between local labor-management partners on what research suggests about the design and execution of sound teacher policies, with a focus on: induction and supports for new teachers; professional development; teacher evaluation and peer assistance and review; staffing hard-to-staff schools (including transfer and assignment policies); and differentiated and performance pay.
At the forefront of our thinking is that these policies are embedded in school, district, and state practices which may be more powerful in determining the policies’ effectiveness than are the details of the policies themselves. Some union leaders have noted, for example, that the best new teacher supports and peer assistance programs may not be enough to keep new and talented teachers in the district if the school environment is toxic or student discipline policies go unenforced. Similarly, making peer judgments about whether or not a teacher intern has and uses adequate content knowledge may be difficult if the content he or she is expected to teach varies from school to school.
Thus, our discussions of teacher policies have been introduced in relation to two “context factors” that are crucially important to teaching and learning. The first is standards and curriculum—what is it that the district expects children to know and understand at each grade level in each subject area. The second is the learning environment—clearly, good teaching cannot happen if classrooms and schools are chaotic or unsafe, if students or teachers feel disrespected, or if turmoil in students’ lives or the community is allowed to go unaddressed.
To this, we add the observation of the current AFT and Shanker Institute President Randi Weingarten that “teachers, working through their unions, want our public schools to change for the better… Our focus must be to rely on what evidence and experience tell us kids need.”
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