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Educator-Led Projects Aimed at Improving Public Schools Showcased in AFT Report

In the seven years since its start in 2009, the American Federation of Teachers' Innovation Fund has awarded grants totaling $16 million, pinning its hopes on teachers, administrators and parents working together to come up with pioneering, sustainable ways to strengthen public schools. A report released this week shows the AFT is convinced its investment has so far paid off.

"The 'bet' AFT's leaders made with the Innovation Fund has proven to be a wise one," AFT president Randi Weingarten writes in the report. "We must trust and support the professionals closest to our students to identify the greatest unmet needs and unaddressed issues in our schools, and to help them find and test solutions to these challenges."

The report is critical of efforts over the past decade to improve teacher and student performance by offering or withholding funding. For example, the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) provided states Title I money on the condition of standardized testing, while the Obama administration's Race to the Top initiative encouraged districts to link teacher evaluations to student test scores in order to receive funding.

The writers see this approach as wrongheaded. The report's overall argument: Trust teachers, working in collaboration with administrators and parents, to identify problems in public education and find a way to solve them. The report describes the efforts of grantees to prepare students better for available careers, re-work school discipline plans with an aim at reducing suspensions, and provide teachers figuring out how to implement the Common Core standards a platform for sharing lessons.

Here are some of the successes the report highlights.

  • Peoria Public Schools District 150 partnered with Illinois Central College, the local teachers' union and other groups to develop a curriculum that would prepare students for available jobs in health care and other local industries. The collaboration resulted in the creation of an online platform called Career Cruising, which helps students find internship opportunities and ultimately guides them through the job-application process. The network has helped more than 70 students find jobs since the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year.
  • The New Haven, Conn.,school district used grant funds for training in restorative justice techniques, which teachers can use to guide students to talk through problems and repair relationships. A report by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies cited New Haven as one of many school districts with high rates of suspensions, particularly of Latino male students and black female students with disabilities. The training has resulted in a drop in "disciplinary incidents" such as suspensions, expulsions, and office referrals, from 466 in 2014 to 347 in 2015.
  • The Cleveland Teachers Union received a grant to fund a four-year project called Building Better Classrooms with the goal of training teachers in how to create lesson plans that align with the Common Core State Standards. Teachers developed a total of 252 lessons that are available on Share My Lesson. The lessons have been viewed more than 300,000 times.

Backing for the Innovation Fund has come mostly from the AFT itself. The teachers' union has contributed $7 million from its own resources in the period. The next biggest contributor is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has donated $6 million in total to the fund. 

funder_graph.jpgIn the period covered by the report, from 2009 to 2016, the Innovation Fund has awarded 45 one-year grants ranging from $26,000 to $200,000. Most were renewed for one or two additional years.

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