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AFT Seeks Safe, Rigorous Schools

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The American Federation of Teachers thinks it has found the key to boosting confidence in public schools: common sense.

In September, the union launched a national campaign to argue for safe and orderly schools with rigorous academic standards. These conditions, union leaders say, are the only proven prescription for success, and they are what teachers and parents want.

"Other reforms may work; high standards of conduct and achievement do work--and nothing else can work without them,'' the union declares in its campaign materials.

Albert Shanker, president of the AFT, says he and other union leaders "view this as a central, life-or-death campaign for public schools.''

The project, which the union is calling "Lessons for Life: Responsibility, Respect, Results,'' grew out of months of brainstorming and polling at the AFT and crystallized after the Public Agenda Foundation released the report First Things First last fall. That study found that the public wants "safety, order, and the basics'' and is skeptical of many of the teaching innovations that have accompanied the decade-long school reform movement. "What we find so nice is that teachers and parents agree,'' Shanker says. "We essentially want to organize for common sense.''

If parents, business leaders, and other community members become convinced that public schools cannot handle unruly students and will not offer challenging course work, Shanker cautions, they will be driven to support tuition vouchers, privatization, and other such measures that the union believes would undermine public education.

The get-tough rhetoric of the campaign appears to place the union in opposition to much of the current thinking of the reform movement. Many reformers place a high premium on innovation and have called for massive cultural and organizational changes in schools--such as doing away with tracking, encouraging children to write without attention to spelling and grammar, and adopting forms of assessment that are considered more "authentic'' than traditional tests.

"Reinventing a democratic institution isn't going to happen overnight, particularly if you're operating on guesses,'' says Bella Rosenberg, an assistant to Shanker. "That's what a lot of the new reforms are about--guesses. That should go forward, no question, but there's an obligation in the profession to do what works.''

Still, Rosenberg concedes that the campaign has risks. She tells of a young teacher who, when informed about the campaign, expressed unease at what she perceived as a return to "traditional'' education. But Rosenberg and other AFT leaders insist they are not talking about creating grim schools that deliver a stripped-down "back to basics'' curriculum. "We are not eager to have children shut up and sit in rows once again, and neither are parents,'' Rosenberg says. "They want schools to be joyous places. We want that also.''

According to Shanker, the reform movement has given short shrift to issues of safety and the basics, leading to a disconnection between the reformers' agenda and that of the public. In waging the campaign, he says, the AFT is organizing "against what we think is an arrogant, small group of people--district by district, state by state, and nationally--who think that no matter what 86 percent of the people want, those are just stupid people.''

"If a handful of elites keep doing this,'' Shanker warns, people who would otherwise back the public schools will have "no rational choice but to turn to vouchers.''

AFT officials say the campaign, which they plan to sustain for at least a year, is the most ambitious in the 875,000-member union's history. This summer, the union sponsored a two-day training session in Washington, D.C., for 64 campaign coordinators charged with spreading the word. The organization also has sent campaign "tool kits'' to its 2,500 affiliated locals. Among the materials are background papers, ready-made news releases, tips on discipline policies, sample newspaper editorials, and suggestions for involving parents.

The centerpiece of the campaign is a 10-point "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for Learning.'' Among other things, the one-page document says all students and staff members have the right to "learn and work in school districts and schools that have clear discipline codes with fair and consistently enforced consequences for misbehavior.'' It also backs clearly stated, rigorous academic standards, well-prepared teachers, and well-equipped schools. High grades should stand for high achievement, promotion should be earned, and high school diplomas should mean a student has the knowledge and skills essential for college or a good job, the document says.

In the first phase of the campaign, union locals will work to get their school boards and communities to back the union's bill of rights; later stages of the campaign will focus on the development of specific policies.

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