Kenneth J. Bernstein is a National Board Certified retired school teacher and was name a 2010 Washington Post "Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher." He is nationally recognized for writing online on education and other issues, especially as teacherken on Daily Kos.
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.