Chartering Educational Excellence: Why Teachers Matter Most

Opinions here are my own and not necessarily those of the United Federation of Teachers, where I serve as President.

In 1988, Al Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, launched the country’s charter school movement. While there were many founding contributors to this school reform that now educates over 1 million students in 4,000 schools, no one was more influential in developing the charter school concept and promoting it nationwide than Al.

In 2005, the AFT’s local affiliate in New York City, the United Federation of Teachers, opened the first of its two charter schools in East New York, Brooklyn, becoming the first teacher union to operate its own charter school. And in 2007, the UFT announced a partnership with Green Dot, a non-profit California-based charter school operator to open a unionized charter high school in the Bronx.

All this may come as a surprise to some readers, given the relentless anti-union animus from some of the loudest charter school advocates. The problem is, their motivation is ideological not educational. In their alternate universe, unions are to blame with all that’s wrong in public education. They grossly misrepresent collective bargaining agreements as rigid rulebooks drafted unilaterally by the union instead of what they are: evolving tools, developed jointly with management, to establish salaries, benefits, and a work environment that is both fair and that supports academic achievement. As perverse as it sounds, these ideologues believe that stripping teachers of their rights to fair treatment and a voice in the workplace will somehow accomplish high levels of student achievement.

Such reasoning flies in the face of what we know. We know that a quality teacher is the most important school factor in a student’s success. We know that teachers—like any professional—are at their best when they are treated with respect, when their opinion is sought out, when their skills are developed, and when they are treated fairly as members of a collaborative team. These are the working conditions that teacher unions have fought hard to establish in school districts across the country where not too long ago discrimination and arbitrary treatment were the norm.

The strain of the charter movement’s anti-union animus promoted by the ideologues is beginning to show. In New York, charters have difficulty recruiting from among the ranks of expert public school teachers who expect to have a voice in the direction of their school and a commitment of fair pay and good benefits. Charter schools’ insistence on “at-will” employment is a growing turn-off to teachers accustomed to basic workplace fairness, and turnover is high.

One has to wonder, how relevant or sustainable is an anti-teacher school reform? Already, careful studies of charter school achievement data indicate that charter school achievement is about the same as the school district, sometimes better and sometimes worse, but nothing close to charter schools’ original promise, as even charter booster Checker Finn concedes. Part of the explanation of these results lies in the charter movement’s recalcitrant attitude toward the rights and working conditions of teachers.

For Shanker, charter schools meant something quite different. In the 1980’s, with the release of A Nation At Risk, school reform took on a new and national urgency. The American Federation of Teachers led the way in its embrace of numerous reforms including peer review, public school choice, national board certification for teachers, career ladders for teacher advancement with differentiated pay and rigorous promotional and academic standards. But Shanker grew increasingly frustrated with a spate of top-down reforms that ignored the expertise of teachers, replaced their professional judgment with “teacher-proof” methodologies, and, in his estimation, missed 80% of the students they were intended to help.

Shanker believed that a different, bottom-up approach was necessary to reach all students and to unleash the expertise found within the teaching ranks. He developed the ideas of educator Ray Budde (who first coined the term “charter”) and proposed in a landmark 1988 National Press Club speech the idea of education by charter. Shanker described an arrangement where groups of teachers and parents would be given significant autonomy to implement a research-based proposal for a new school. The school would be publicly funded, accountable for its results and closed if a failure. He thought of charter schools as laboratories for innovation with their successful practices adopted by school systems throughout nation.

Shanker’s charter proposal, which he advocated across the country, is deeply professional. It believes that expert teachers have the judgment to develop the right learning strategies necessary to reach all students. It’s an empowering vision that grants professional autonomy to educators who will be accountable for results. It connects practitioners to their practice in a meaningful way. And it rests on a foundation of fairness guaranteed by union membership.

In many ways, the UFT’s charter schools try to embody Shanker’s original charter vision. Respect and collaboration define our school culture. Intensive support and development have bolstered our teachers’ expertise. And as union members with a collectively negotiated contract, teachers have a guarantee of fair treatment, fair pay, and workplace voice.

Our educational approach includes team teaching and an extended school day for students. We work hard to engage parents in their child’s learning. Classes are small and personalized. We use a rich curriculum, differentiated instruction, and numerous indicators of learning to adjust instruction as needed. The union’s affiliation—and imprimatur—has encouraged hundreds of teachers from across the city to apply for a handful of positions. And early evidence of student achievement suggests that our approach is working.

As the charter school movement enters its third decade, its leaders face a fundamental choice between ideology and quality. If the choice is to remain on the road laid by political conservatives and free-market ideologues, then we can expect more of the same politics and results. But frankly, the million-plus students in these schools deserve better.

Alternatively, a return to the ideas first presented by Shanker would be a clear signal that quality is paramount and can be achieved only through collaboration, pragmatism, and a belief that teachers should have the rights and responsibilities befitting true professionals. This is the progressive charter school movement that we’re helping to build with our two charter schools in New York. Our colleague Steve Barr is doing the same at his unionized Green Dot Schools in Los Angeles. And across the country, charter school teachers and progressive charter school leaders are recognizing that they can have both the freedom and reforms that charter schools foster and the respect and fairness that teacher unions ensure.

–Guestblogger Randi Weingarten

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