July 28, 1997

Union Leader Asks Teachers to Help Close Weak Schools

By SOMINI SENGUPTA

In her first speech as the new president of the American Federation of Teachers, Sandra Feldman urged teachers Sunday to take the lead in helping to shut down poorly performing schools rather than fighting to keep them open.

Speaking at a conference of union members in Washington, Ms. Feldman, who is also the president of New York City's United Federation of Teachers, called on school officials and local unions across the country to use the model in New York for closing failing schools, according to a transcript of Ms. Feldman's speech.

When a school is closed in New York, if teachers wish to be transferred they are given a choice of schools or are allowed to stay and help reorganize the school with administrators.

By contrast, she said, when David Hornbeck, the superintendent of the Philadelphia public schools, recently closed two troubled schools, teachers were summarily transferred to other schools.

Philadelphia school officials could not be reached for comment Sunday. But when Hornbeck took control of the failing high schools, he had announced that three-quarters of the teachers were being transferred because they had failed to improve student performance.

Teachers have often been assailed for problems in public education. But in Sunday's speech, Ms. Feldman, who succeeded her mentor, Albert Shanker, as head of the 940,000-member union in May, tried to cast teachers as part of the solution, not part of the problem in public education.

"I propose we do not seek to defend or perpetuate failing schools to which we would not send our own children," she said. "We should advocate the closing and redesign of failing schools."

In a telephone interview after the speech, Ms. Feldman said that the national union was taking a position on the issue for the first time, because more states have been shutting down schools. Local teachers' unions around the country have opposed the school closings because of the way their members have been treated.

"What I hope to accomplish," she added, "is that our local unions, instead of being defensive when a school has been failing for years and years, will advocate for drastic change, if it is necessary, and be in the process."

For instance, she said, the New York teachers' union and Board of Education worked together to close the former Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, and then to reopen it as four small schools concentrating on areas such as science or the arts. Under a contract provision, teachers in New York City's failing schools can ask to be transferred.

If Shanker, who died earlier this year, made his reputation as a vocal advocate of rigorous national standards for students, Ms. Feldman's speech Sunday seemed to emphasize working with school administrators. Ms. Feldman said she would continue to press for high standards for students and so-called zero-tolerance laws that permit schools to expel disruptive students.

Similarly, the National Education Association, the larger of the two teachers' unions, has sided with education officials and agreed to make it easier to fire incompetent instructors; earlier this year, it changed its policy to allow peer-review programs, which can spot problems in the classroom before a teacher has to be dismissed. The American Federation of Teachers has long supported such programs.

Ms. Feldman also said she would also seek to increase the level of training required for new teachers and fight the use of school vouchers.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company