A Continued Commitment To The Common Good

I am proud to announce my position as Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute on Labor Day. Labor Day is the federal holiday dedicated to workers, and it signals both a traditional back to school and a traditional start to election season. The Albert Shanker Institute is a think tank dedicated to voices for working people, strong public education, and freedom of association in the public life of democracies. These ideals are interdependent. 

Strong public schools are the foundation of our democracy. Workers’ voices—in their workplaces, professions, and at the ballot box—contribute to a vibrant democracy. A resilient and sustainable democracy protects and secures the voices of workers, the right to participate in our democracy, and the support of our public schools as a common good. I am honored to be immersing myself in this confluence of ideals at a time when our collective recommitment to the common good would create so much mutual progress in our communities, our country, and our world. ASI has a mission to generate ideas, foster candid exchanges and promote constructive policy proposals related to public education, worker voice, and democracy. Ideas, candid exchanges, and constructive policy proposals are all necessary avenues to our cooperative commitment to progress to the common good. My lived experience and my study of history convinces me that the triad of strong public education, healthy worker voice, and a vibrant democracy can make progress for all unstoppable. I relish the opportunity to convene great and divergent thinkers and successful activists to make meaning, shape plans, and accomplish policy to improve people’s lives across our country.

I am the first executive director of ASI who did not know Al Shanker personally, although I saw his impact throughout my life. I came from a family that acted on a joyful responsibility to be involved in our community, including our public schools, our workplaces and professions, and in our democracy. My father, who had a choice of teacher unions, chose to join the AFT because he recognized the power of joining the AFL-CIO in strengthening the community in which he taught and lived. I became a teacher just as Al Shanker was leading a movement to further professionalize teaching. His work for a “new professionalism” included the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. I was among the first generation of teachers to enter the profession with the opportunity to pursue board certification, similar to professionals in medicine and engineering. Like Al Shanker, I saw an opportunity to shape our profession at the bargaining table. In 2005 I became president of my local teacher’s union. I still believe what I believed then: our contract can be the most powerful document a school system has to attract, retain, and recognize a diverse and accomplished staff who know how to meet the needs of our students. I negotiated pathways for paraprofessionals to become teachers and for teachers to become board certified. We built a full-spectrum peer assistance and review program that would strengthen the tenure process as well as support experienced teachers to strengthen their practice. We amended our constitution to make our union more welcoming to a more diverse workforce and we addressed contract language and practices that had created barriers to equitable teaching and learning conditions and compensation. 

When I stepped away from my role as Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education last spring, I immediately joined the efforts to support an inaugural project-based teaching and learning experience at a local middle school and the efforts of a local high school to support their seniors at risk of not graduating with tutoring and credit completion. For me, being among students—and the adults dedicated to teaching them—renewed lessons in the schools our students deserve, the profession our educators deserve, and the voice our students, their families, and our educators deserve in our democracy.

I am joining colleagues Burnie Bond and Vicki Thomas, who are both veterans of democracy work. Burnie has also managed programs that advance early childhood education and literacy and currently manages an ambitious civics education program focused on high quality, accessible inquiry-based K12 lessons. Vicki brings a wealth of public policy expertise and experience in human rights work to the organizing expertise she employs every day. 

To improve public education, we must rebuild the teaching profession, and we are under no obligation to rebuild it the way we found it. In 2015 the Shanker Institute published a report on the State of Teacher Diversity as a call to create the representation in our profession that our students deserve. Additionally, ASI researcher Esther Quintero has been working to share the conditions and structures that make the teaching profession more effective at meeting the academic, social, and emotional needs of students in a safe and welcoming environment. 

There is no doubt that an equitable school finance system is needed to commit to a sustainable career for a growing diversity of professionals and to have the practices in place to create academically rich, safe and welcoming learning environments for students. ASI researcher Matthew Di Carlo has been sharing key findings from state school finance systems that identify issues with adequacy and fairness related to student learning and shares it on the website, schoolfinancedata.org.

Building on these works in progress, as well as expanding our reach and partnerships, are priorities for me. 

When I meet teachers who have stepped outside their classrooms I spend time studying them, looking for clues of what they brought to the students in their classrooms. While I never got to teach alongside Leo Casey, working alongside him on this transition into my role as ASI’s Executive Director has been exhilarating. I imagine Leo’s class was a place of inquiry and high expectations with abundant guidance, support, and second chances to succeed. Leo is generous with his knowledge and connections, patient with his time, and outworks every hard worker around him. Despite this abundant talent he endeavors to work in a collective rather than stand out as an individual. Team player is the phrase one may use when embracing the binary of winning and losing. Leo steadfastly believes in a world where we have the capacity to work together to improve everyone’s lives, no exceptions and no losing. That our transition here is grounded in such a shared, immovable vision—with a commitment to the vehicles of worker voice, public education, and democracy to achieve that vision—is another opportunity of a lifetime. 

It cannot go unsaid that I also get to work with members of a Board of Directors who are each inspiring and motivating. Assembled are luminaries in their respective fields, who are generous with their time and talent and fierce advocates for the common good. I’ve had the privilege to work alongside many of these professionals previously, to reimagine the secondary experience, redesign teaching and learning, promote democratic principles, or strengthen the labor movement. President of this board of directors is Randi Weingarten, one of the foremost labor leaders of our time. Randi’s expectations for a better world are matched by her indefatigable commitment to do whatever work is needed wherever it is needed and a steadfast belief that progress will be made in community. Her dedication to public education, worker voice, and democracy can be measured in innumerable sincere relationships, a myriad of campaigns and intellectual contributions, shoe leather, and mileage.

I look forward to every opportunity in this role to work alongside Randi, the Board, my colleagues, and the diverse and expansive community that shares our mutual commitment to public education, a voice at work, democracy, and candid exchanges leading to solutions that improve people’s lives.  

Happy Labor Day! Tomorrow, let’s get to work!

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