The teaching profession is in the midst of an "ongoing and alarming crisis," Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in an address on Thursday.
In her speech at the National Press Club, Weingarten condemned the "two major roots" of the crisis that she said have led to both teachers quitting the profession and others staying far away from it—deinvestment and deprofessionalization.
She said states are not investing enough money in public education. Indeed, across the countryover the last two years, teachers have walked out of their classroom in protest of low wages and cuts to school funding.
But Weingarten spent the bulk of her speech on the working conditions that she said are contributing to teachers no longer being seen as professionals. Teachers, she said, are micromanaged, forced to focus on standardized tests, and unable to teach as they see fit.
"This deprofessionalization is killing the soul of teaching," she said. "Teachers need the freedom to teach."
Policymakers, teachers' union representatives, school and district leaders, and classroom teachers themselves need to work together to "elevate teachers' voice and judgment and allow teachers to make learning rich and fulfilling for their students," Weingarten said to a room of policymakers, researchers, and educators.
She offered three paths forward: develop a culture of collaboration, create and maintain proper teaching and learning environments, and give teachers real voice and agency in their work.
Research has found that teachers—in both low- and high-poverty schools—say they don't have enough time to collaborate with their peers. Weingarten said school leaders need to build more teacher time into school schedules to observe colleagues' lessons, look at student work, and plan collaboratively.
And district leaders need to ask teachers what they need to do their job so students can succeed, she said. A recent Education Week Research Center survey found that almost all teachers spend their own money to buy materials for their classrooms, and when they crowdfund online, they're often raising money for books and classroom furniture. Instead of putting the onus on teachers to raise money for the classroom, Weingarten said, legislation, lobbying, collective bargaining, and even school finance lawsuits should be used to get teachers what they need.
Voice and Agency
Finally, Weingarten said teachers need voice and agency in making decisions that affect teaching and learning.
"The classroom teacher is the only person who has knowledge of the students she is teaching, the content she is teaching, and the context in which she is teaching," she said.
A study by researcher Richard Ingersoll found a significant link between teacher leadership and student achievement. But teachers often don't have the opportunity to lead: In fact, teachers said they felt comfortable raising issues and concerns that are important to them in less than half of the 25,000 schools surveyed.
"The assumption should be that teachers, like other professionals, know what they are doing," Weingarten said. "Teachers should be able to be creative, take risks, and let students run with an idea."
This work needs to take place on the school and state levels, she said—not the federal level.
Still, in the U.S. Department of Education's budget proposal, Secretary Betsy DeVos has suggested eliminating the $2 billion Title II grant program for professional learning and replacing it with a $200 million "voucher" program, in which teachers could get stipends for individualized professional development. DeVos said the program would provide "much-needed freedom and flexibility for teachers" while also respecting them as professionals.
In an interview, Weingarten said the budget proposal is an attempt to "destabilize public education."
"When you juxtapose what they're cutting and what they're proposing, you know this is a pretext," she said.
In a panel conversation after Weingarten's speech, district leaders and teachers' union representatives discussed ways to work together to create a culture of change.
For instance, in New York City, the teachers' union just negotiated a new contract deal with Chancellor Richard Carranza.
"There used to be, in the not-so-distant past, a philosophy [in the district] that said, 'Teachers, you do what you're told and we don't need to hear from you,'" said Carranza, who took the helm of the city's schools a year ago.
But when he started negotiations with United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, he said they both shared about 20 things that "drove [them] crazy" when they were classroom teachers—and then pledged to tackle a few of those things in the contract deal.
The result was the Bronx Plan, which is piloting a "collaborative schools model" in 120 underserved city schools. Teachers and principals in those schools will work together to identify challenges and devise solutions.
Empowering teachers will build capacity to create change, Carranza said: "Great working conditions are great learning conditions."
Image of Randi Weingarten via Andrew Harnik/AP-File