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This was originally post at AFl-CIO Now blog and is cross-posted here at their request

The AFT, led by its President Randi Weingarten, advocates vigorously on behalf of what it views as best for students in the public schools of America. In the current environment of test-driven accountability systems, there is a danger of narrowing the education our children receive to improve test scores. This leads to a “one-size-fits-all” approach that is justified on the grounds of the supposedly poor performance of U.S. schools on international comparisons. But too often, those who rely upon such comparison neither understand what the results mean nor do they examine what things high-scoring countries do.

The AFT has never opposed the proper use of tests as one means of assessment. One can see AFT’s well-thoughtout positions on proper use of testing on its website, including its position statement on Accountability and its publications and reports on Standards and Assessments. Now the AFT is running a petition drive against the idea of One Size Fits All in education, which has been the impact of current policies at the national and state level on assessment and accountability.

Weingarten and other leaders of the AFT have traveled abroad to study closely the school systems of nations such as Finland and Singapore, which have strong results on tests used for international comparisons on education, such as PISA —the Programme for International Student Assessment of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in which the United States does not perform well. Historian Diane Ravitch has pointed out that the United States has never done well on such international comparisons, in part because, unlike most of the nations in OECD, we have a very high degree of childhood poverty and scores on most tests, including PISA, have a strong correlation with the degree of poverty. The United States has the highest child poverty rate of any country participating in PISA—more than 20 percent of U.S. school children live in poverty. By contrast, high-scoring Finland has a child poverty rate of less than 5 percent.  

If we adjust U.S. test scores for poverty, American schools perform higher than those of any other nation: If we look only at schools with a child poverty rate of less than 10 percent, the United States outscores Finland, Singapore and the city of Shanghai—those schools perform at the highest level in the world. The real cause of the overall U.S. performance is our much higher rate of poverty.

Weingarten often has reminded people that most high-scoring nations emphasize teaching as a profession and do not evaluate teachers solely or primarily by the scores their students obtain on high-stakes tests that often were not designed to be used to evaluate teachers or teaching.

AFT is not alone in pushing back against the damage that testing is doing to our students. Led by Drs. Sean Feeney and Carol Corbett Burris, a group of principals from New York have released a statement of concern about the misuse of tests to evaluate teachers and principals that has been signed by more than 1500 of the state’s principals. School boards in Texas and parent groups across the United States have taken similar actions.

Recognizing that we cannot address the needs of children, especially those in poverty, solely through instruction in the classroom, AFT is working in conjunction with community and civic groups to address the needs of children in McDowell County, W.V. In December, Weingarten and Gov. Earl Tomblin jointly announced a three- to five-year commitment called Reconnecting McDowell, which has commitments from business, foundations, governments at a variety of levels, nonprofit agencies and labor to address the complex and interconnected problems often seen in places with high poverty. These problems include under-performing schools, drug and alcohol abuse, housing shortages, limited medical services and inadequate access to technology and transportation.

In late June, Weingarten spoke at a seminar on education held at the Finnish Embassy. In her remarks, she noted that too often in the United States we focus on individual performers rather than following the examples of places like Finland that have created systems to enable all children to learn regardless of their differences. She said that too much of our approach to education is ideologically based—we think it should work, we will it to work and therefore it must work.  Instead, we should view teaching as an important profession, where teachers are “physicians of the mind.”  A doctor has to start with where the patient is to help address any medical problems. Similarly teachers must know their individual students and adjust their instruction to meet those students where they are to help them develop. Teachers have to collaborate to share knowledge and skill, solve problems and best serve their students.

The AFT, a member union of the AFL-CIO, of course is committed to the welfare and professional lives of its members, but its mission includes strengthening the institutions where its members work. This includes improving the quality of the services they provide, promoting democracy, human rights and freedom in the union, the nation and throughout the world.  The insistence of Weingarten and the AFT that we address the needs of children in places like McDowell County, and that we not try to force all students into a one-size-fits-all approach driven by the misuse of tests, is part of this mission statement. There are good things in American schools. Democracy and freedom thrive when children have the right to an education that allows them to thrive.

Hubert Humphrey was a member of the American Federation of Teachers and a great friend of labor. At the dedication of the headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services, named in his honor, he remarked:

It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.
Weingarten and the American Federation of Teachers take their duty seriously to the children for whose education they're responsible for. To fulfill that responsibility, they insist we remember that not all children are alike, that we not reduce their education to the single measure of performance on test and that we remember that it is our responsibility to adjust the education we give them to the needs they have—and not to force them into a single pattern for the convenience of others.

Originally posted to teacherken on Tue Jul 24, 2012 at 03:49 AM PDT.

Also republished by Education Alternatives and Teachers Lounge.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (15+ / 0-)

    "what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community" - John Dewey

    by teacherken on Tue Jul 24, 2012 at 03:49:29 AM PDT

  •  Mornin teacherken (8+ / 0-)

    Great diary as usual. Thank you. I will be spreading it around.

    Students indeed cannot be manifactured as if they were to be the products of an assembly line. That is neither education nor a measurement of capacity. By standardizing our assesment of our students we have created truckloads of adults whose education is an illusion, at best.

    Even from wealthy backgrounds, this outer shell (appearance) education approach has produced selfish, corrupt, intolerant, unethical and greedy individuals who are not really "educated." To me, the first sign of education is the tolerance and moral and ethical behavior. In that sense, for example, someone like Mitt Romney is uneducated, regardless to his formal credentials and wealthy background.

    It is true also that poverty does not help and we indeed need to work together to help improve our  kids' lives, but we must also remember that ovecoming poverty alone will not be enough.

    We have a lot of work to do, indeed...

    "Corruptio Optimi Pessima" (Corruption of the best is the worst)

    by zenox on Tue Jul 24, 2012 at 04:44:44 AM PDT

  •  Good morning, TeacherKen (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The drive in this country to improve everything often makes me depressed.    Nothing is ever good enough.  Nothing will ever be good enough.  It is good to strive for improvement, but not at this desperate, frantic pace, with this total rejection of all that we have accomplished thus far.

    Our worst ranking schools are obviously, without fail, our poorest.   I've seen enough impoverished kids in our own school district, which receives extra funding due to our population of disadvantaged kids, to know what schools face.   Many kids have parents that don't speak English well, didn't get tutoring from parents before starting school to they aren't prepared for elementary, or have heard improper grammar from the time they were born.  Some have been malnourished since birth, don't have good hygeine and may have trouble integrating socially, are exhausted because parents don't put them to bed, are hungry because parents don't feed them breakfast or give them lunch money, and have temper tantrums because they are emotionally traumatized, or simply were never taught social skills and become over-stressed in the structured school enviornment.   They spend time out of class at the nurse's office getting decent clothing, or having their hair brushed out or coping with lice, and time in the principal's office coping with behavior problems.

    The staff at our school is great with coping with all this.  And, best of all, they are affectionate and truly care and try to help kids, right on down to the handyman, who runs an "Angel Fund" to loan money to kids who don't have money for lunch, and who are publicly humiliated (and left hungry), when they get their lunch trays taken from them, and are given a sandwich.

    One of the best things we have been able to do for these kids is to offer pre-k, free and reduced lunches, and free or reduced before and after school childcare.  

    Adequate food and a clean and safe environent can improve educational scores far more than giving the teachers and students another round of beatings until scores improve.

    I am a product of public schools from many years ago -- Mississippi, no less.  I left a year early, went on to a college, needed no remedial courses, and succeeded in my degree.    Whatever these new-fangled changes to our schools are, I didn't need them.  I was lucky to have educated parents who taught me my ABC's and then bought me books.

    I agree, as you have suggested, that poverty is our biggest problem with education.

    Time will cure some of those ills, as generations gain access to opportunities denied their predecessors.

    Other policy changes not related to our schools, such as ending the drug war, and defunding the criminal and gang enterprises would definitely help.    Policies providing solid blue collar job opportunities that pay a living wage would make a tremendous difference.

    And, to some extent, it is how you view the situation that makes a difference.   We do have poverty in this country.     Either we accept it, and adjust our expectations.   Or we reduce it, and recognize that the way to reduce poverty is to share resources, which means that some people will have to give some things up, in order that we can achieve what we say we want.

    Trying to fix all this with standardized testing, and teacher incentive programs is like trying to tune an engine by adjusting the seat.    

    I think we are pulling the wrong levers.

  •  Glad to see AFT opposing the principle of OSFA... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    (one size fits all) schools.  We need to back away from standardized education and the high-stakes testing that enforces it to create a school system that can better support the variety of kids and learning styles.

    Cooper Zale Los Angeles

    by leftyparent on Tue Jul 24, 2012 at 03:51:21 PM PDT

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