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To Innovate, Look to Those Who Educate

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By Marla Ucelli-Kashyap, Assistant to the President for Educational Issues, American Federation of Teachers (AFT)

"Innovation" is a pretty straightforward word that means the act of altering, introducing something new, or making changes in anything established. The popularity of the term and the concept seemed to migrate, like so many others, from the corporate sphere into the world of education. Today, "innovation" might as easily call to mind a new technology application in a high school classroom as an entrepreneur moving a new idea quickly to market. The Department of Education has an Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund, of which the American Federation of Teachers is a grantee. And Education Week reported earlier this year that school districts and state departments of education are increasingly having positions with titles like "chief innovation officer".

Some of the brightest and most innovative ideas in education come from sources closest to the classroom. For the past three years AFT's Innovation Fund has been investing in ideas by practitioners, for practitioners, and in partnership with key stakeholders like districts, communities, parents, higher education and other non-profit partners. In fact, collaboration is a thread that runs through all twenty-five grants made over the Fund's life so far. We call this work Solution-Driven Unionism, and it's about acting in innovative and creative ways to solve problems.

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City is finding solutions for early childhood education. By creating high-quality learning opportunities for members who teach young children and by increasing teachers' understanding of the critical importance of oral language development, they are giving more young students the opportunity for a successful start. UFT's Teacher Center has created a curriculum for family child care providers that is based on the PBS series Between the Lions — the children's puppet show designed to promote reading. Coaches trained by the union help providers learn how to use the materials to build the strong foundation that young children need to make a successful transition to pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. The grant has also paid for books and materials for these providers, who became UFT members in 2007. The goal is to sustain the early literacy focus and scale it up across the city through these union members' contracts.

Increasingly, educators and policymakers are looking for innovative ways to rethink the use of time in schools. It's essential if students are to receive a well-rounded education and the enrichment opportunities they need to develop their talents — especially in the challenging economic circumstances so many of our children face. But it's equally important to re-design time for teachers, so they can collaborate and solve student learning problems in the ways that teachers in internationally high-performing education systems do. In Meriden, CT, the union and the school district are collaborating to extend learning time at the Casimir Pulaski Elementary School by offering before-school academic and health programs. In addition, they are forming a labor-management planning team to create a flexible schedule that will allow a cost-effective way to extend learning time for students — and for teachers — at more district schools in the years to come.

One of the Fund's newest grants is to AFT's Jefferson County, Alabama, affiliate. This innovation brings together pre-service teachers and faculty members from the University of Alabama-Birmingham and practitioners in the Jefferson County public schools to write Common-Core-aligned lessons in English Language arts and teach them together. It is designed to ensure that both new and experienced teachers are prepared to teach to the standards, and will evolve over time to include science and social studies. The goal is to redesign teacher education coursework so that future teachers are ready to teach to the Common Core — and thus to bring greater alignment between what teachers learn in their preparation and are expected to demonstrate in their classrooms.

We look forward to sharing information on the implementation, progress, and results of these and other projects supported by our members and partners. Change for its own sake it not necessarily a net good. At AFT, we believe that change that starts with people closest to challenge, solves real problems for those we represent and those we serve, and has the potential for spread and scale is change worth investing in. That's what the Innovation Fund and Solution-Driven Unionism are all about.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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