USA: Education unions join forces to build back better education system

published 7 April 2021 updated 7 April 2021

With a new administration vowing to “build back better” from the public health, education, and economic crises of the Trump era, the two largest US educators’ unions, both Education International affiliates, have a shared agenda to ensure students and school communities receive the support they need for recovery and renewal.

In a joint analysis and appeal, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have outlined “the essential elements needed to effectively understand and address the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted students’ academic, social, and developmental experiences”.

Entitled Learning Beyond Covid-19, A Vision for Thriving in Public Education, the framework outlines five priorities as a guide for nurturing learning now and beyond COVID-19. The five priorities are:

  • Learning, enrichment and reconnection for this summer and beyond
  • Diagnosing student wellbeing and academic success
  • Meeting the needs of the most underserved students
  • Professional excellence for learning and growth
  • An education system that centres equity and excellence

AFT: Reimagine public schooling

“COVID-19 has laid bare this country’s deep fissures and inequities,” said Randi Weingarten, AFT President and member of Education International’s Executive Board. “Our children, our educators and our communities have endured an unprecedented year of frustration, pain, and loss. As vaccine access and effectiveness suggest the end is in sight, it is incumbent on us to not only plan our recovery, but to reimagine public schooling so our children, families, and educators can thrive.”

NEA: Support the whole learner

NEA President Becky Pringle said: “We have an unprecedented opportunity to create the public schools all our students deserve. It is our mission to demand stronger public schools and more opportunities for all students - Black and white, Native and newcomer, Hispanic and Asian alike. And we must support the whole learner through social, emotional, and academic development. The ideas presented in this roadmap will lay the groundwork to build a better future for all of our students.”

New administration, new opportunities

The education leaders agreed that a new administration provides new opportunities to strengthen public schools to meet this moment. It is also an opportunity to secure the federal investments necessary to ensure that academic, social, and emotional supports are in place for whole child development.

The education unions’ recommended agenda for the nation says that “rather than simply trying to return to ‘normal’, we have an unprecedented opportunity to create the public schools all our students deserve — regardless of demography or geography.”

Educators can ensure students meet their potential, the unions explain, by employing “instruction, curriculum, and assessment systems grounded in the science of learning” with “well-rounded learning opportunities—including in the arts, sports and sciences, and in civics and history. Think about how civics and science have taken critical places this year as America has faced the worst crisis of democracy since the Civil War and the worst pandemic in a century.”

Strengthening school communities

Building upon relationships between teachers, support personnel, students, and families by creating more community schools should also be a priority, the unions underline. “These schools are not only places where students and families are connected to wraparound services but also spaces where instruction is context-sensitive, culturally relevant, and trauma-informed — all in the service of maximising each student’s potential.”

“The crises gripping our country are weighing heavily on young people, who are the future of our communities,” Weingarten added. “That’s why our schools must, at a minimum, be supported and well-resourced to address our students, their trauma, and social-emotional, developmental and academic needs. This framework is an invaluable tool to help us get there.”