No Turning Back For D.C. Kids

Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future." This couldn't be any truer today. Every child in America deserves a great education, not by chance but by right. In the District of Columbia and throughout the nation, our challenge is to make sure every child's neighborhood school is one where parents want to send their kids and educators want to teach. A school reform process is under way in Washington, D.C., and there's no turning back. The voters have spoken and said they want more accountable and connected leadership. The city must keep faith with its children and continue the hard work necessary to give them the education they deserve that will prepare them for life, college and career.

Teachers put their hearts, souls and talents into their work so they can make a difference for their students. It's a complex and demanding job, but one with unmatched rewards. To succeed, students and teachers need the same things, including a school and systemwide culture that focuses on student achievement; makes parents partners in their child's education; nurtures strong and cooperative leaders; and provides ongoing support for teachers so that they, like their students, can constantly improve. And, yes, there must be accountability--for teachers, parents, administrators and elected officials, and for the community as a whole. But accountability is just a "data dump" if it isn't used to inform teaching and learning, to build upon what works and to change what isn't working.

Come November, the District of Columbia will have a new mayor, one who has ultimate responsibility for running the city's schools. Here, as is the case in urban school districts across the country, much work needs to be done to ensure that all students receive the education they deserve. The district and the teachers union entered into a contract earlier this year that was overwhelmingly approved by the teachers. It has provisions that challenge teachers and the district to think and work differently. If we'd written the contract on our own, some provisions might have been different; the district, no doubt, would say the same thing. But that's not how negotiations work. Both sides have to agree to the contract, and both sides have to be committed to making it work. We are ready to meet those challenges, and we look forward to working with an administration prepared to move forward by working with us.

Strong and supportive leadership will get results. Look at the school districts across the country that have made radical changes by working with teachers, not fighting with them. In school districts in New Haven, Conn.; south Los Angeles County (ABC Unified School District); Pittsburgh; Hillsborough, Fla.; Douglas County, Colo.; and many others, the teachers unions and their respective administrators are working together on innovative reforms to help kids get a great education.

The new school year is now under way, and in Washington, D.C., it will take strong and supportive leadership to accomplish unfinished business--better instructional guidance; collaboration on implementing the contract; work with city agencies and nonprofit groups to provide wraparound services to address students' unmet needs through, for instance, after-school programs; and converting empty school buildings into parent and community service centers.

Public education is a marathon, not a sprint. Yes, there's urgency to fixing our schools, but we have to set ourselves on a long-term path toward constant and sustainable progress. As Vincent Gray, Washington, D.C.'s Democratic Party nominee for mayor, so eloquently put it last night, "collaboration and reform are not mutually exclusive." We wholeheartedly agree.

-- Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers
-- George Parker, President, Washington Teachers' Union