New AFT President Urges Members To Help Floundering Schools

By Ann Bradley — August 06, 1997 2 min read

Despite the advances that educators have made in learning “what works” for students, there are still too many troubled schools. One of the favored policies now for fixing them is reconstitution--which involves closing floundering schools, disbanding their faculties, and reopening them with new leadership, programs, and teachers.

In her first keynote address since becoming president of the American Federation of Teachers, Sandra Feldman called on members to “get out front and center on turning around or shutting down failing schools.” She spoke last month at the union’s three-day professional development conference, Quality Educational Standards in Teaching, or QuEST.

If states or superintendents act first, she warned, they will craft policies that punish teachers and fail to address the root problems. Ms. Feldman called the reconstitution efforts under way in San Francisco and Philadelphia a host of names, including cruel, rude, crude, and ineffective. “Reconstitution--the word itself is ugly,” she said.

Instead, unions and management can craft sensible, appropriate, and agreed-upon criteria for identifying failing schools and create processes for providing help and support, or for closing and redesigning the schools if necessary, she said. She cited the United Federation of Teachers’ work in New York City to break up a dysfunctional high school and reopen it with four small, theme-based schools.

The national union’s executive council approved a resolution in May spelling out how low-performing schools should be redesigned. And the AFT has prepared a detailed guide for its members. One recommendation: Use a promising program like Core Knowledge, Direct Instruction, High Schools That Work, or Success for All.

This year’s QuEST conference, “Building on the Best, Learning From What Works,” highlighted some of those programs and curricula that have a track record of success.

At the high school level, the spotlight was on Advanced Placement courses, the International Baccalaureate program, the College Board’s Equity 2000 effort to upgrade math instruction for minority students, and High Schools That Work, a reform network of 650 high schools that have eliminated their general-track courses in favor of college-preparatory work with a career focus.

Teachers of younger students could attend workshops on Success for All, a comprehensive elementary program built around reading research, and the Core Knowledge Sequence, a K-8 curriculum that uses history, literature, geography, mathematics, and the arts and sciences to tell the story of humanity. Also featured was Direct Instruction, a scripted set of lessons used for teaching at-risk students.

E.D. Hirsch Jr., a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the author of the Core Knowledge series of books that make up the curriculum, received the AFT’s 1997 QuEST award. The honor, according to the union, recognizes “one of the most important education thinkers in the nation.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 1997 edition of Education Week