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Shanker: No 'Sea Change' In AFT's Views on Reform

To the Editor:

There was a lot of speculation in your story about the American Federation of Teachers' current views on education reform, but little of it hit the mark ("Teachers' Unions Appear To Trade Places on Reform," Dec. 6, 1995).

For starters, the recent "sea change" in our views, described as a repudiation of innovations like school restructuring and an embrace of "traditional" schools, is a fiction. Our position on restructuring and other efforts to create the schools of tomorrow is as supportive as it was in 1992, when we adopted a convention resolution that said, "We must continue the efforts to create a different kind of learning institution to replace the traditional school."

In that same resolution, we also said we must simultaneously work to "improve our traditional schools so that they are at least as effective as the traditional schools in other industrialized countries." Why? Because for the foreseeable future, we will not have the "schools of tomorrow." We're still on a long road of careful experimentation to see what these should look like. So, until we know a lot more than we do now, we have an educational and moral obligation to do what we know works, as well as experimenting with innovations we hope may work.

We also noted in that resolution that getting Americans to adapt the key elements of "traditional" school systems that are more successful than our own "is no less a revolutionary task than school restructuring." Why? Because those "traditional" elements mostly do not exist here: safe and orderly schools, rigorous academic standards, assessments based on those standards, incentives for students to work hard in school, and genuine professional accountability. As it turns out, Americans strongly support those elements, but many educators--and the politicians intent on seeing our public school system dismantled--do not. Not sexy or "innovative" enough, I guess.

Education Week was also wrong in stating that the AFT "became disenchanted" with reforms like restructuring when they "failed to bring substantial gains in student achievement." We didn't become disenchanted.

Rather, we didn't allow ourselves to be so enchanted by our hopes for restructuring that we lost our critical capacity and focus on improving student achievement, which is supposed to be educators' main business. We asked ourselves, what's missing? Why are the successes so few and their replications even fewer? The effort so laborious and so focused on process rather than substance? Our answer was the absence of clear, subject-by-subject, grade-by-grade academic standards to guide, focus, and evaluate reform efforts, whether these involved experimenting with new school models or adapting "tried and true" practices. Standards are not a substitute for reform, but a prerequisite. And once standards (and appropriate assessments) are in place, we'll be in a better position to judge--rather than pontificate about--the relative merits of different reform models because our touchstone will be their effectiveness in helping students meet the standards.

Our focus on safe and orderly schools is also not a "sea change." It's been a central preoccupation of the AFT for at least as long as I can remember. Do we see student discipline as a substitute for good school organization? Of course not. But like standards, orderly classrooms are a prerequisite. It's unfortunate that our point, which is nothing but common sense, has become controversial--and distorted. Education Week repeats the false accusations of the Council of the Great City Schools, saying we call for "removing disruptive children from schools." We do not. We call for alternative educational placements for students who are chronically disruptive and violent, which happens to be a practice followed by many districts belonging to the council.

There is an alternative to this position, which is to make public schools exclusively the domain of chronically disruptive and violent students. That is what will happen if the parents of the 98 percent of children who want to learn demand vouchers for private schools because we're too busy being politically correct to deliver on their fundamental, and entirely reasonable, demand for safe and orderly classrooms where children can learn.

Finally, the AFT is guilty as charged about being strongly influenced by the polls and focus-group results of the Public Agenda Foundation, Gallup, and others. That's not because we blindly follow polls, including our own. Our many daring and nonconformist stands over the years should be proof of this. But the public, parents, and our members are entirely correct that no reforms will work where there is constant disruption. Neither will they work if we don't have clear and high standards and hold students to them. We also agree with parents and the public that students should master the basics--not because this is the goal of education, but because the basics are part of, and often a prerequisite to, the more sophisticated knowledge and understandings we aim for.

The next time anyone is inclined to sneer at the basics as "traditional," I suggest he or she visit with a 12th or even 6th grader who can barely read, write, or compute and look at the pain and frustration on that student's face.

Albert Shanker
American Federation of Teachers
New York, N.Y.

NEA Charter School Initiative Not 'Watering Down' Concept

To the Editor:

In a recent article, you cited the National Education Association's new Charter Schools Initiative as an example of our promotion of school innovation ("Teachers' Unions Appear To Trade Places on Reform," Dec. 6, 1995). Indeed, this project is taking the nea and some of its affiliates into uncharted and exciting territory. We are attempting to assist our members as they promote innovation while keeping sound educational practices and democratic principles as a foundation for this work. Our aim is to learn as much as possible about the efficacy of the charter model in creating improved learning for public school students, and, at the same time, to determine how traditional union roles will change in dealing with these new entities.

It was curious to us, then, that you quoted Jeanne Allen as a critic who accuses us of trying to "water down the charter movement" by helping our members establish charter schools. Perhaps a few details about our charter initiative, or CSI, will help dispel the misconceptions that may have arisen from her criticism.

CSI schools will first and foremost be public schools founded on the same democratic principles as all public education. They will have completely open admissions policies, be fully integrated, and not exclude students based on ability or past behavior. Is this a watering down of key principles?

In the CSI schools, unlike many other charter schools to date, student achievement will be easy to evaluate because the nea is underwriting ongoing documentation and assessment led by an independent team of faculty and staff members from the University of California at Los Angeles. Is this a watering down of the strong accountability the public wants from all schools? This evaluative work will generate the lessons learned--positive or negative--to be shared with others across the country.

Our research and evaluation will focus on eight aspects of these new schools, including: changes in pedagogy and student learning; innovations that can positively affect district, state, and national efforts to revitalize public schools; collaboration between charter school founders and the larger community; governance and accountability issues; and the implications of charter schools for state and local policy. Would the staunchest of charter proponents consider learning about these factors as watering down the charter movement?

We intend that the best of the charter schools taking part in the CSI project will demonstrate that teachers and other school staff members can become extraordinarily creative in developing schools. We are particularly concerned that these schools find a way to share their best practices with other public schools. We believe the intent of the charter school movement is to helpspur innovation within public education.

Perhaps it is Ms. Allen and critics with a similar agenda who would use the charter movement to pave the way for vouchers, a privatized system of education, and teachers' unions that would roll over and play dead. We would argue that it is they who really have the watering-down agenda--one that would erode the very principles that have made our system of free and universal public education the foundation on which our great democracy has been built.

Andrea DiLorenzo
Robert McClure
Charter Schools Initiative
National Education Association
Washington, D.C.

Teacher's 'Lemmings' Lesson Misread Class' Motivation

To the Editor:

Teri Kanefield missed a superb, once-a-year-if-you're-lucky teaching opportunity when her class doubted her story that lemmings are "rodents that blindly follow one another, and when one goes over the cliff, they march to death en masse" ("Lemmings," Commentary, Dec. 13, 1995).

What did her class do? First, they questioned what she told them (critical thinking). Then, they backed up their questioning by going to the library and looking up "lemmings" (research). Then, they brought in a photocopied page as evidence (proof). And on top of everything else, they did all this for an "authentic purpose" (to prove their teacher wrong). And they succeeded.

In other words, they did, on their own, just exactly what we teachers spend years trying to get them to do. But instead of saying "Good for you! Now you know what education is all about--keep doing it," Ms. Kanefield treated the class as though they had done something wrong. Wouldn't we give our children a better education if we recognized and applauded creative thinking when it happened (Ms. Kanefield admits that she herself never thought of questioning the lemming story) and greeted academic initiative with praise instead of treating it as if it were misbehavior?

Helen B. Andrejevic
New York, N.Y.

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