AFT Project To Push Order And the Basics

By Ann Bradley — September 06, 1995 9 min read
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The American Federation of Teachers thinks it has found the key to boosting confidence in public schools: common sense.

This week, the union will launch 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. They are also what teachers and parents want, polls have found.

“Other reforms may work; high standards of conduct and achievement do work--and nothing else can work without them,” the union contends in its “Lessons for Life: Responsibility, Respect, Results” campaign.

The project grew out of months of brainstorming and polling at the AFT and crystallized after the Public Agenda Foundation released its “First Things First” report last fall. The study by the foundation, a New York City public-opinion-research organization, found that the public wants “safety, order, and the basics” and is skeptical of many of the teaching innovations that have accompanied the school-reform movement. (See Education Week, Oct. 12, 1994.)

“What we find so nice is that teachers and parents agree,” Albert Shanker, the president of the union, said in an interview. “We essentially want to organize for common sense. We view this as a central, life-or-death campaign for public schools.”

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

The no-nonsense flavor of the campaign appears to place the union in opposition to much of the current thinking of the reform movement that began in the early 1980s. Many school reformers place a high premium on innovation and call for massive cultural and organizational change to create new kinds of schools.

“Let’s get real,” said Bella Rosenberg, an assistant to Mr. Shanker. “Reinventing a democratic institution isn’t going to happen overnight, particularly if you’re operating on guesses. That’s what a lot of the new reforms are about. Guesses.

“That should go forward, no question,” she said, “but there’s an obligation in the profession to do what works.”

As evidence that higher standards pay off, Ms. Rosenberg cited findings that, since the early 1980s, more rigorous course-taking among high school students has led to higher achievement.

‘Bill of Rights’

Union leaders say the campaign, to be sustained for at least a year, is the most ambitious in the 875,000-member AFT’s history.

This summer, the union sponsored a two-day training session in Washington for 64 campaign coordinators charged with spreading the word in their districts and states.

The organization sent"tool kits” to wage the campaign to its 2,500 affiliated locals, ranging from the massive United Federation of Teachers in New York City to Montana outposts with 10 teachers. Among the materials are background papers, ready-made news releases, tips on discipline policies, sample newspaper editorials, and suggestions for involving parents.

This week, Mr. Shanker and union presidents across the country will hold news conferences to announce the campaign. Television stations and cable channels also will be asked to show a public-service announcement on the need for high academic standards.

The centerpiece of the campaign is a 10-point “Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for Learning.”

The document says, for example, that 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 and promotion should be earned, the document says, while high school diplomas should mean that a student has the knowledge and skills essential for college or a good job.

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.

‘Silent Majority’

Union leaders assert that the campaign for straightforward components of a reliable educational system is long overdue. The reform movement, they contend, has ignored teachers’ and parents’ concerns about conduct and academic standards in favor of unproven experiments that have not produced higher achievement.

"[The campaign] is, in effect, mobilizing a silent majority,” Ms. Rosenberg maintained.

The AFT’s own polls and interviews with its members over the past seven years--conducted to stay in touch with their concerns--have consistently shown worries over conduct and academic standards.

In a 1994 poll of AFT members, 49 percent of all teachers and 58 percent of middle school teachers said they currently had a student who “really should not be in their classroom” because of disciplinary problems. More than 65 percent of the teachers said the chief obstacle to good discipline in their schools was inconsistent or lenient punishment.

When union members were told about the planned national campaign, said Sandy Wiesmann, the regional director of the organization and field-services department, they were overjoyed.

“The response was just overwhelming,” she recalled. “They said, ‘It’s about time. This is just what we need.”’

Although most districts have discipline policies, Ms. Wiesmann said, many are not enforced, are too complicated, are unevenly interpreted, or are driven by a desire to avoid legal trouble.

While discipline problems have escalated, teachers have felt growing pressure to promote students regardless of whether they have learned material, union leaders say, and to give them higher grades than they have earned.

“I’ve been fighting for this for the last three years,” Leonard Lee, the director of field services for the Broward Teachers Union in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said of the campaign by his union’s national affiliate. “Hopefully, this will kick off nationally and we can regain control of the schools.”

Sandra Lanier-Lerma, the assistant superintendent for instruction in the Corpus Christi, Texas, public schools, applauded the union’s emphasis on high standards of conduct and academics, the focus of attention in her district for the past three years.

“We’re really not big on the bandwagon stuff here,” she said. “Our standards for what students should be able to do in the core curricular areas are very specifically written. We feel like our teachers have a road map.”

‘Politician’s Dream’

While union leaders knew their members were increasingly frustrated, it was not until the Public Agenda Foundation poll was released that they saw just how well teachers’ concerns meshed with those of the public.

“Here were all of the things that I had thought, and knew from polls and discussions with teachers,” Mr. Shanker said. “It’s a politician’s dream. The overwhelming majority of the public is on board, and that’s where they are naturally, as a result of their experience.”

The reform movement, in contrast, has given short shrift to issues of safety and the basics, Mr. Shanker argued, leading to a disconnect between the reformers’ agenda and that of the public.

In waging the campaign, he said, the union is organizing “against what we think are 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,” he warned, people who would otherwise back the public schools will have “no rational choice but to turn to vouchers.”

Most reformers’ insistence on doing away with tracking students by ability, for example, does not sit well with teachers or members of the public, Mr. Shanker noted. The Public Agenda poll found that only 34 percent of the respondents believed that mixing children of different abilities in one class would improve student learning.

The union president said he believes school reformers have become so enamored with the idea that teachers should be innovative that they have lost sight of proven practices that work with students.

“Innovation is one of the things which makes you lose the support of the public,” he cautioned.

In fact, the Public Agenda poll found disenchantment with accepted pedagogical techniques of the reform movement, including early use of calculators, encouraging children to write without attention to spelling and grammar, and using forms of assessment that are considered more authentic than traditional tests.

Advocates for children’s rights, Mr. Shanker added, have done schools a disservice by pressing to keep students with severe discipline problems in classrooms.

John L. Anderson, the president of the New American Schools Development Corporation, a nonprofit, privately financed group that is working to disseminate models of redesigned schools in communities around the country, said last week that he does not disagree with the AFT’s campaign. But he said the best way to have good discipline is with a stimulating learning environment.

Moreover, he said, the diversity of American communities argues for different approaches to meet the needs of different students.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” Mr. Anderson said.

Focus Groups

In preparing the campaign materials and strategy, which involved nearly every department of the union, the AFT proceeded cautiously. The campaign’s “Lessons for Life: Responsibility, Respect, Results” slogan and its bill of rights were vetted with focus groups of African-Americans in Baltimore and conservative Republicans in Allentown, Pa.

Members of the focus groups were asked to rank the top 15 slogans from more than 200 generated by AFT staff members.

“We felt we were on the right track, but for school boards to adopt it, they would need the broadest possible support of the community,” said Elizabeth M. Smith, the union’s political director.

Some parts of the campaign’s bill of rights might be appropriate for collective bargaining, but union leaders stressed that the campaign is not meant to be adversarial.

In addition to addressing what the AFT believes are pressing issues, the campaign offers local affiliates a chance to involve their members and to show they are working to find solutions to teachers’ concerns. Many new teachers, says a background paper prepared for the campaign, are not interested in traditional labor-management issues, and instead expect their union to attend to classroom problems.

But the campaign also has potential risks. Ms. Rosenberg said a young teacher informed about the campaign expressed unease at what she perceived as a return to “traditional” education. Union leaders insist they are not talking about 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,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “They want schools to be joyous places. We want that also.”

The union tailored its campaign tool kit so that local affiliates could pick and choose activities appropriate to their areas.

In Mississippi, where the 3,500-member Mississippi American Federation of Teachers helped win passage of tough new discipline legislation last year, union leaders sponsored a lengthy training session with the national materials.

“This is so well laid out and planned that it prevents us from having to reinvent the wheel,” said Mary Ann Graczyk, the state union’s president. “The campaign is excellent and long overdue.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 1995 edition of Education Week as AFT Project To Push Order And the Basics


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