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A.F.T. Shifts Emphasis To Focus On Improving Traditional Schools

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The American Federation of Teachers, which has earned a reputation as a forceful advocate for the creation of radically new schools, is now shifting its emphasis to helping union locals improve traditional schools--a move that is seen as a step backward by some educators.

The union's new policy on school improvement calls for American schools to adopt the successful practices used by traditional schools in other industrialized nations. It also calls for the development of national academic standards and student assessments.

With a new governance structure designed to give more members a voice in the union, A.F.T. leaders say they are looking for programs and services that can advance their revamped reform agenda.

But some educators who were inspired by the union's efforts to restructure schools are critical of the shift in focus. They fear that the support--and money--needed to sustain innovation will dry up if the A.F.T. is seen as backing away from a fundamental reform of the way schools function.

After a group of educators heard Albert Shanker, the union's president, discuss his current views on education at an A.F.T.-sponsored institute last year, recalled Frank Gold, the principal of Tamalpais (Calif.) High School, "we felt that he was going backward in a way.''

"We took off after him,'' Mr. Gold said, "because we didn't like the direction he was going.''

"One person said, 'You can't unring a bell,' '' the principal said. "Al had sounded that bell loud and clear, and that was for radical change, not incremental moderation.''

Buicks and Saturns

In two recent interviews, Mr. Shanker stressed that he still supports efforts to design alternative models of schooling.

But the union president acknowledged that the A.F.T.'s new policy on reform, as laid out in a resolution adopted at its convention last summer, represents a departure from his past thinking.

"I went around for quite a period of time saying that schools that looked like traditional schools ought to be destroyed, or I came pretty close to saying that,'' he said. "I believed we ought to start from scratch.''

For practical as well as moral reasons, he now believes that educators must press simultaneously for both improvements in the status quo and more drastic changes.

"Any profession's first obligation is to do the best they are able to do right now,'' Mr. Shanker said, "and there is a simultaneous obligation to make major breakthroughs.''

"Do we have the right to take a whole generation of youngsters and jeopardize their abilities to do a lot better to search for something that's perfect?'' he asked. "I think that's irresponsible.''

Much has been learned since school-based reform began, Mr. Shanker said. A national framework of standards, curriculum, and assessments will provide a much-needed focus for such efforts, he argued.

"I have never been wedded to a bunch of fads of my own making or somebody else's,'' he said. "I'm constantly reading, going to conferences, and talking to a lot of interesting people, and I constantly change my mind.''

Mr. Shanker said his analogy for what he and other top union leaders are now advocating in education is the approach being taken by General Motors and the United Auto Workers. The two collaborated to create Saturn cars using an entirely new manufacturing process, he pointed out, but they have not stopped making Buicks and Cadillacs. In fact, they continue to try to improve those models at the same time, he said.

Reputation for Risk-Taking

Over the years, the A.F.T. has gained its reputation for supporting innovation and risk-taking through Mr. Shanker's speeches and weekly "Where We Stand'' columns, through experimentation in school restructuring by a number of its most prominent locals, and in resolutions adopted by the national union membership supporting and encouraging such activities.

In 1985, for example, Mr. Shanker proposed the creation of a national certification system to identify and reward accomplished teachers. He is now a member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which is developing such a system.

In 1986, a watershed year that saw the release of influential national reports on the teaching profession, the union issued a report, entitled "The Revolution That's Overdue,'' calling for teachers to "take charge of teaching.'' The document called for "dramatic changes in the management of our schools'' that would give teachers the freedom to make decisions affecting their students.

Two years later, Mr. Shanker proposed that groups of teachers be granted "charters'' to set up autonomous schools within existing school buildings.

In the meantime, A.F.T. locals in such school districts as Rochester, N.Y.; Dade County, Fla.; Hammond, Ind.; and Cincinnati negotiated contracts that provided opportunities for teachers to participate in decisionmaking, evaluate one another, and take on more responsibilities without having to leave the classroom.

In contrast, the A.F.T.'s 1992 resolution on schooling, "U.S. Education: The Task Before Us,'' states that the union now has "strong evidence'' that school-based management and shared decisionmaking will not succeed "unless we first agree on what all students must know and be able to do.''

Internal Changes

The shift in the A.F.T.'s thinking on reform and its recent governance changes have been accompanied by internal changes at the union's Washington headquarters. In the past six months, for example, the educational-issues department has undergone a significant reorganization to bring its work into line with the new policy positions.

"The top priority for the union now is leadership development,'' Eugenia Kemble, the assistant to the president for educational issues and the director of the department, said last week. In particular, the training will focus on helping members deal with issues of standards and curriculum on the state and local levels, she said.

Under the new setup, the education and research committee of the union's executive council, which once worked closely with the issues department, has been disbanded. Its responsibilities will be assumed by a new K-12 program-and-policy council.

The K-12 council was established last summer in an overhaul of the union's policymaking structure. Its 31 members include all of the vice presidents of locals that represent teachers, plus leaders from a number of large locals that are not represented on the executive council. (See Education Week, Sept. 9, 1992.)

Within the issues department, the Center for Restructuring--which published a newsletter, oversaw a teacher-education project, and developed an interactive multimedia program that explained restructuring--has been dissolved. The two senior staff members who directed the center have left the A.F.T.

Mr. Shanker attributed the turnover in the department to a change in management, which led to "personality rubbings that weren't right.''

Marsha Levine, one of the co-directors of the Center for Restructuring, who is now the director of the Institute for 21st Century Schools in George Washington University's school of education and human development, said it was never clear to her why the center was folded. She remains a consultant on the teacher-education project.

"Educational issues always had a significant service responsibility to its members,'' she said, "but how one defines service and what's possible in the way of providing it is really the question. One can make different decisions.''

Project Called Off

In trying to take a more service-oriented, hands-on role, the educational-issues department has met with mixed success.

Last year, it coordinated a series of institutes, called the Leadership for Reform project, for local union leaders and members. The program began operating in August 1991 with a budget of $700,000, not all of which was spent.

Union officials say the governance changes and new reform policies have made further meetings of the group unnecessary.

Mr. Shanker said he was disappointed with the result of the project: a document spelling out the attributes of "achieving schools.''

"It was the kind of thing that could have come out of any group of students in a teacher-training institution over the last 50 years,'' he complained. "It didn't say anything. And it was loaded with platitudes.''

The local leaders and members who participated in the institutes were from Albuquerque, N.M.; Bloomington, Minn.; Cincinnati; Dade County; Hammond; New York City; and Rochester.

These teams were joined by 25 educators from other active A.F.T. locals, who made up a supporting network for the reforms the teams were to carry out.

The participants were selected on the basis of their responses to requests for proposals that asked them to commit to pressing for reform in their communities, based on a set of common understandings to be developed during the meetings.

"There would obviously be variations,'' Mr. Shanker said, "but the purpose was essentially to bring about a large-scale amount of change in all these places. And basically, that didn't happen.''

A number of participants said that the purpose of the institutes was never made clear to them.

Mr. Shanker agreed that the project's goals were "ill defined.'' Expecting people who work in very different locations to move ahead quickly on an identified set of reforms, he said, "turned out to be unrealistic.''

No 'Forward Thinking' Ideas?

Several educators who attended the meetings said it became apparent that the views of Mr. Shanker and Ms. Kemble were out of sync with the educators' own ideas about school reform.

Jim Novosel, a counselor at Spohn Middle School in Hammond, said that "nuts-and-bolts kinds of people, the union members still working in individual buildings,'' were seeking "forward thinking'' ideas to take home, while Mr. Shanker seemed primarily interested in student assessment.

"I am very much interested in that myself, but you've got to have the whole thing about what we can do that's radically different,'' Mr. Novosel said. "That was missing.''

At one meeting, participants said, Mr. Shanker told the group that he believed educators should look at successful systems in other countries, and successful schools in this country, and emulate their practices.

To some, that sounded like retreat from earlier calls for inventing new schools.

Part of the difference in ideas, some participants suggested, had to do with very different perspectives.

"A lot of these people in Washington haven't been in the classroom in a long, long time,'' said Adela Solis, an elementary school teacher in Albuquerque, "and it was a good thing for them to hear from us and, conversely, for us to see what it's like at the national level.''

'Isolating Curriculum Pieces'

The union's focus on national standards and curriculum also rubbed some educators the wrong way.

For Lynn Nordgren, the professional-development facilitator for the Minneapolis school system and a member of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, the emphasis on curriculum and "getting back to certain basics'' that she heard from Mr. Shanker sounded like a return to "isolating curriculum pieces again.''

"There was a lot of focus on the curriculum,'' she said, "more than the people from around the country wanted to focus on.'' They would rather have discussed, she said, "the strategies, the inclusive and multicultural kinds of things, contextualized learning, experiential, hands-on learning, and other things we're finding out from research and experience in the classroom.''

But Tom Mooney, the president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, found the discussions instructive.

"You should not underestimate the value of the exercise in consolidating opinion around national standards and assessments,'' Mr. Mooney said. He added that he went into the series of meetings "not opposed, but not necessarily supporting'' the concept and "came away a convert.''

Multiculturalism, Tracking

Two of the most contentious topics that arose at the sessions, a number of people said, were multicultural education and student tracking and ability grouping.

A presentation by E.D. Hirsch Jr., the author of books on cultural literacy, brought up the question of whose culture was to be taught.

And Mr. Shanker made comments in favor of certain kinds of tracking--especially as it is done in other countries--that some people strongly disagreed with.

"I don't happen to be in favor of doing that,'' Ms. Nordgren said of tracking, "and there were a lot of statements made about why that is a good thing to do.''

Mr. Shanker said he believes there was actually a good deal of agreement on the topic.

"In the United States, we have tracking for failure. In every other industrial country, they have tracking for success,'' he said. "I think most of the people in the Leadership for Reform group mean that they're against the kind of tracking that takes youngsters at an early age and puts them into a curriculum track where they do not get any challenge.''

"With tracking, I'm trying to solve a problem,'' he added. "On multicultural education, I am ideological, because one of the functions of education is to hold society together and to enable people to live in society.''

"I am ideologically opposed to programs that get people to hate each other,'' he continued, "and some are like that.''

In writing the A.F.T. policy document approved last summer, Mr.
Shanker said he took into account the opinions and ideas that surfaced during the series of institutes. He also consulted with the members of the union's executive council.

'No Less Revolutionary'

Stating that the "crisis in American education continues,'' the document concludes that the union and its members face five tasks: to continue their efforts to create a different kind of school; to improve traditional schools to be "at least as effective'' as the traditional schools in other industrialized countries; to place both types of schools in a national framework of standards, curriculum, and assessments; to convince the public that other countries spend more on education, families, and health care; and to fight against public money being used to support private schools.

The portion of the resolution devoted to the "lessons'' from other countries discusses their national curricula, challenging assessments, student-grouping practices, lack of large bureaucracies, and teacher professionalism.

"Getting Americans to adopt the key elements of these traditional schools is no less a revolutionary task than school restructuring,'' it says.

The document includes a summary of the grouping practices used in France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries. "We need to move away from the ideological debate about student grouping,'' the resolution says. "The basic issue is to determine what practices are needed to make the system work for all students.''

'Cart Before the Horse'

The experiences of some of the A.F.T. locals that have delved into school-based management and shared decisionmaking have played a large role in influencing Mr. Shanker's thinking.

"We don't even have management that is very experienced in thinking about different ways of running schools,'' Mr. Shanker said. "How would you expect teachers, who are locked in their classrooms all the time, to do that?''

"But [school-based management] was a thing which people picked up,'' he said, "because hey, this will elevate our status, and it was doable.''

School-based management "has not been bad,'' he added. "But it was putting the cart before the horse. You have to know where you're going--what is the purpose of this group?''

Mr. Gold, the California principal, and several elected union leaders said that Mr. Shanker's frustration with the pace and outcome of school reform has been evident for some time.

"I think that Shanker has been very, very frustrated by the inability of school reform to really take hold in an authentic, student-oriented manner,'' said Patrick O'Rourke, the president of the Hammond Federation of Teachers. "He's frustrated that a lot of us are spinning our wheels in the area of governance, and I don't blame him.''

"What the political leadership of the union needed last year, and probably needs right now, is something fresh,'' Mr. Gold said. "There is no question that Al thinks that.''

Some of the elected A.F.T. leaders who have the most experience with school-based management say they fully support efforts to put such local initiatives into a broader context of standards and assessments. Without such a framework, they say, reform efforts typically are rudderless.

"We took the scenic route around to this realization,'' said Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association.

In Rochester, the union will launch its own Leadership for Reform institute early next year to help teachers articulate and replicate effective classroom practices. Mr. Urbanski calls this strategy "reform without permission,'' noting that there is much that teachers can do now that needs no further approval.

Training Programs

Exactly what the A.F.T. and its locals can and should do to spur change, Mr. Shanker and others said, is still being discussed.

"We can't create national curriculum frameworks and assessment systems,'' Mr. Shanker said, "so we're trying to sort of ask the question, 'In the absence of these national frameworks, what can be done now?' ''

One of the tasks of the new K-12 council will be to determine what kinds of support the A.F.T. locals need to pursue the union's new vision of school reform. The council is scheduled to meet at least twice a year.

The educational-issues department plans to expand the Leadership for Reform project "in a more focused way'' to include any locals that want such training, Mr. Shanker said. Written materials, as well as audio and video tapes, will be developed.

In order to offer effective programs, union officials say, the department will have to be connected in some formal way with the union's local elected leaders.

"I think educational issues should have some mechanisms in place to be, on an ongoing basis, informed by the membership at large, and to work in tandem with elected leadership,'' said Mr. Urbanski, who chaired the disbanded research committee. "As the [K-12] council proceeds with its work, I am confident that we will develop such mechanisms.''

'Stay in One Direction'

At the council's first meeting, held last month, members engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of education and the problems they face, including student discipline.

"There wasn't a great debate or discussion on the point of developing new strategies for school reform or collective bargaining,'' Mr. O'Rourke of the Hammond local said.

Union leaders have differing opinions on what the national organization should do now, and what they themselves can do. Because of the way the union is organized, the steps that local leaders take now are likely to depend more on their own circumstances than on policies emanating from the headquarters.

Mr. Mooney of Cincinnati said he would like to see the A.F.T. renew its emphasis on professionalizing teaching. "I have raised repeatedly in the last year that we should give that a higher profile again,'' he said. "We can do that at the bargaining table.''

In Albuquerque, meanwhile, budget cuts have demoralized teachers and school-based-management efforts have gotten "bogged down,'' said Don Whatley, the president of the Albuquerque Federation of Teachers.

"I agree with Al that we do need to shift gears on our reform agenda,'' Mr. Whatley said.

But Albert Fondy, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, sees things differently.

"The last thing we need is to be moving in 65 new directions,'' he said. "We've got to stay in the direction we're trying to move in, and stick with it and try to get some results.''

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