In Education, Perfect Must Not Become the Enemy of Good
The head of AFT and the former head of IBM Foundation discuss moving past divisiveness
America’s future, and the futures of our more than 50 million public school students, are one and the same. Essential to this future are the more than 3 million teachers who—more than anyone else besides parents and the students themselves—are responsible for our children’s success. But our dedicated teachers are hamstrung by inadequate funding and a lack of other types of support that are critical to providing our children with high-quality education. That is why all of us must work together to make teacher success our top priority.
Public-private partnerships that allow us to get past divisiveness on key education issues can be critically important to education reform. As the former deputy chancellor of schools in New York City (Stanley Litow) and the former head of the city’s United Federation of Teachers (Randi Weingarten), the two of us know the importance of putting differences aside in service of the greater good. We have learned the hard way that perfect can be the enemy of good and that we must set aside our criticisms if we are to build a sustainable future for our children.
None of us has all the solutions, but one critical challenge on which we agree is our national teacher shortage, which could soon hit crisis levels. A 2016 Learning Policy Institute study projects a shortfall of more than 100,000 teachers by this calendar year, and it’s not hard to see why. Inadequate salaries, poor working conditions, the cost of obtaining qualifications, and deficient teaching and learning resources have contributed to rampant dissatisfaction among teachers. In fact, a recent study by the American Federation of Teachers and the educator-advocacy Badass Teachers Association revealed that two-thirds of teachers usually feel stressed out—twice the level of workers in the general population. (The respondents included 4,000 educators in a public survey and a random sample of 850 AFT educators.)
Stress can be particularly acute for early-grade teachers. Under pressure to improve student achievement, many elementary school teachers are suddenly asked to instruct unfamiliar grade levels or master specialized areas like math without adequate support. This lack of support affects our nation’s youths directly. Children in early grades cannot afford to miss the essential building blocks in math and other subjects, which research indicates are directly connected to overall achievement.
The IBM Foundation and the AFT worked together for more than two years—with the backing of the Carnegie, Ford, and Niarchos foundations and in collaboration with more than 1,000 teachers—to develop a solution to the problem of inadequate support. The result, which was launched nationwide at the start of the current school year, is a free online tool that helps teachers find the best-quality content—vetted by a range of education experts and nonprofits—to assist them with their work in the classroom. Teacher Advisor uses IBM’s artificial-intelligence technology to produce tailored advice for teachers in grades K-5. It delivers relevant material based on teacher queries, drawing from a repository of more than 2,000 high-quality math lessons, proven teaching strategies, and videos. Importantly, Teacher Advisor is a support tool, which will improve with continued training and use. It does not evaluate teacher performance.
The idea for Teacher Advisor sprang from conversations with educators and policymakers across the political spectrum. They set aside polemical differences to support our teachers, and early feedback on the tool has been promising.
Technology cannot be the only answer to any problem—there are no silver bullets in education. Any new approach needs to be part of a genuine collaboration with teachers, who are in the driver’s seat, to produce gains in student achievement. We believe additional collaborations will be essential to improving how we help teachers and students succeed. And we know that working together—not pointing fingers—will be critical to our nation’s future success. Teacher Advisor is not the only way to help alleviate one of the many challenges facing teachers today, and we certainly hope it won’t be the last. But we believe it is an important step toward harnessing the transformative power of collaboration to improve education.
We cannot afford to continue to undervalue public education. If we do, our nation’s children will have the most to lose. Instead, we can, and should, roll up our sleeves and work together to support our teachers’ tireless efforts to improve kids’ chances of success.