Teaching Profession

AFT Announces First Recipients of Innovation Fund

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 09, 2009 4 min read
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Eight affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers plan to scale up new models for teacher bargaining, recruitment, evaluation, or compensation—including some that would incorporate student test scores—with their cut of $1.2 million from the first round of grants from the union’s Innovation Fund.

The reform initiative is the centerpiece of the AFT’s drive to encourage school improvement efforts that are developed collaboratively between teachers and administrators.

“This will be viewed in retrospect as one of the most important days in real education reform,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said last week at a press conference here at the union’s headquarters to announce the winners of the financing. “Our unions are not afraid to take risks and to share responsibility for student success. We are not adverse to change; we are leading it.”

The Innovation Fund, which totals $3.3 million, has received financial backing from five private foundations. They are the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

But the fund’s down payment of $1 million came straight from members’ dues, Ms. Weingarten underscored.

“What better way to show [members’] wanting to make a difference to the lives of children than that?” she said.

The announcement won plaudits from outside observers.

“The AFT deserves great credit for extending teachers the opportunity to participate in cutting-edge projects and for exploring the use of student-outcomes data,” said Timothy Daly, the president of the New York City-based New Teacher Project. “But the true test is whether these projects produce results that are any different than what we get today, and in particular, whether they produce better outcomes for kids.”

Announced last fall, the Innovation Fund was designed to encourage collaborative reform ventures between unions and school districts. About 125 local affiliates sent in letters of interest in the program for the first competitive grant cycle, AFT officials said.

Grant Details

Among the winners are three affiliates that will experiment with incorporating student-achievement information into decisions involving teachers. That notion is a focal point of the Obama administration’s own school improvement efforts in its $4 billion Race to the Top program. (“Rich Prize, Restrictive Guidelines,” Aug. 12, 2009.)

The Broward Teachers Union, in Broward County, Fla., will develop a performance-based system built on several measures, including standardized-test scores in the appropriate grades and subjects.

Two state affiliates, the New York State United Teachers and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, will team up to help districts in their states devise new teacher-evaluation systems that will also take into account student outcomes alongside other learning yardsticks.

The New York example in particular shows a willingness on behalf of the union to engage in conversations about “value added” data on teacher effectiveness. Previously, the AFT lobbied legislators in the state to bar the use of test data in decisions about whether to grant a teacher tenure.

“I was impressed,” said Charles Barone, the director of policy for the New York City-based Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee that supports the use of data in teacher decisions. “I think [Weingarten] sees the writing on the wall and would rather have it on her terms than rammed down her throat.”

The president of the Rhode Island affiliate noted, however, that the project will also promote strengthened teaching standards and a way of gauging conditions necessary for strong learning environments.

“Because [value-added] has cachet right now, clearly it will be a part of our work,” said Marcia Reback. “But it will not be the focus.”

Several of the grants expand policy initiatives that Ms. Weingarten has supported since she assumed the presidency of the 1.4 million-member union in 2008.

The NYSUT-RIFTHP partnership, for example, also will establish or strengthen peer-assistance and -review programs. In such systems, novices or struggling veteran teachers are given support by consulting teachers before facing tenure-granting or dismissal proceedings.

Ms. Reback said the grant would result in the first such programs in Rhode Island. If so, they would join programs begun this year by AFT affiliates in Anderson, Ind., and St. Louis.

The AFT’s Philadelphia affiliate, meanwhile, will expand a community-schools initiative to 10 additional schools on the city’s troubled west side. Ms. Weingarten has said the health services, child care, and other supports offered by those schools are crucial to helping close achievement gaps.

A grant to the Illinois Federation of Teachers will be used to craft a new collective bargaining system and contract in Chicago’s Union Park High School—a newly opened charter school with unionized teachers—that could be used as a model in other schools. Under Ms. Weingarten, the AFT has worked to develop contract provisions that preserve the unique culture in charters.

Contrast With i3?

The AFT’s announcement came mere days after the Obama administration announced its vision for its own $650 million Investing in Innovation, or i3, fund, and as the administration readies its final criteria for the Race to the Top program.

Although she would not comment directly on those programs, Ms. Weingarten drew an implicit contrast between the AFT Innovation Fund’s “bottom-up” approach and the proposed Race to the Top guidelines.

“If a local is doing [the reform work], the local has itself created a sense of ownership instead of someone from on high saying, ‘Make it about test scores,’ ” she said.

Innovation Fund grantees also include the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, in Minnesota; the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, in Texas; and the ABC Federation of Teachers, in Hawaiian Gardens, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week as AFT Announces First Recipients of Innovation Fund

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