‘An obligation to systematise success’

Randi Weingarten, attorney, educator and president of the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers spoke with Marilyn Achiron during an afternoon at OECD headquarters. This is a continuation of the conversation that was posted on 30 November 2011.

Marilyn Achiron:  How would you define effective education?
Randi Weingarten: Most of our educational systems have been created to an industrial model. They were built to ensure that kids could competently deal with the routine tasks that were necessary in factories. Some kids would succeed in a different way; but in the main, we were educating kids to be employed in factories; and educating a lot of people to be housewives. The world has totally and completely changed. What has to happen now is that education has to be about knowledge acquisition and knowledge application. And that has to be for virtually all kids, not simply some kids.

MA: How do you prepare children for a life we can’t even imagine yet?

RW: In my lifetime, we’ve gone from technology being a shiny object–a TV–to being an indispensable part of one’s everyday life. Technology is changing as rapidly as you change the channels on the TV set. The challenge and opportunity in education is to understand what’s needed and try to make that happen on a systemic level, yet constantly be open to innovative ideas for improvement. But the one thing we haven’t ever done: we’ve not changed that basic system of education, from the industrial factory model to a knowledge-based model. When I talk about a knowledge-based model what I’m talking about is helping kids apply knowledge, think critically, imagine, be creative, be confident about being lifelong learners. It’s not simply about memorising facts and being able to recite that which one has memorised; it’s about knowing how to learn and knowing how to continue to learn; knowing how to apply that knowledge, and knowing how to communicate it. That’s the deep work, the rigorous work that we need to do in public education, for not just some kids, but for all kids.

Once you see what kids need, it becomes much easier to create the professional learning environment that teachers need. You start with standards: what do kids need to know and be able to do in order to succeed. When teachers start seeing that, then we start working with and amongst teachers in order to make that a reality.

One of the most frustrating conversations I’ve had is around the issue of merit pay. When someone says, ‘I want to give that teacher who has succeeded a lot more money, and fire the ones that haven’t’, I say, ‘Well, what will that accomplish? What happens to all the other kids? Don’t we have an obligation to systematise success?’ To see what is successful and figure out what are the characteristics that enable us to systematise it, so that we sustain success, we continuously improve, and we scale it up: that’s what the international comparisons have helped us see.

When you see what, say Finland or Ontario, Canada, have done over the course of 10-20 years, and you see the change in their systems…they’re not simply rhetorically focusing on education, but they’ve taken steps to enable a significant number of kids in their jurisdictions to succeed. That’s breathtaking. And that’s what the OECD should be credited with: creating a path to do that for all kids.

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education (A video series profiling policies and practices of education systems that demonstrate high or improving performance in the PISA tests)
Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC)
American Federation of Teachers

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