April 30, 2009

AFT Innovation Fund offers grants to boost your students' achievement

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: New York Teacher
Caption: From left, Innovation Fund executive director Adam Urbanski, AFT president Randi Weingarten and board chair Barbara Byrd-Bennett.
AFT Innovation Fund

What if you and your union could receive money for projects you've always wanted to try to boost your students' achievement?

That's the thinking behind the American Federation of Teachers Innovation Fund, a new multimillion-dollar grant program spearheaded by the national union with generous support from four of the nation's most prominent private foundations.

"The AFT Innovation Fund will encourage unions to think outside the box and develop pioneering, sustainable ways to strengthen public school," said AFT president Randi Weingarten, who spoke at a news conference to launch the fund and announce the renowned foundation supporters.

"We want applicants to think big, think boldly and think beyond their usual comfort zone," Weingarten said.

NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi is encouraging local unions to step up and seriously consider applying for the AFT grants to leverage funds for bold initiatives for public education. "This could be a tremendous opportunity to be a national model," Iannuzzi said.

Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski, who will serve as executive director of the AFT fund, said the initial $2.8 million for the first set of grants will come from the national union, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.
"Some who describe (unions) as obstacles to change, obstacles to reform - the innovation fund should put that argument to rest," Weingarten said in a quote prominently featured on the Education Week Web site after the news conference.

NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira, who is serving on the AFT fund's 16-member advisory board, said it's crucial for teachers and their unions to take the lead on education reform.

"Reform must be done with teachers - not to them," Neira said in a well-received speech at NYSUT's annual convention. "We owe it to our students and ourselves to consider bold ideas."

Some of the bold ideas may be controversial, Neira said - like lengthening the school day or school year, creating national standards, using value-added measures as part of accountability, performance pay and replicating programs that are working in charter schools.

"We are a union of exemplary professionals who have the audacity to lead," Neira said. "These ideas will not be right for every school and district. But I urge you to consider these options seriously, and to develop local options where you are leading the educational changes."

AFT state and local affiliates can begin applying now for grants that will be awarded in the fall. In the first phase, AFT locals that are interested in applying will complete a brief application and letter of interest by May 25. After review, locals will be invited to submit a more detailed phase two of the application by July 27. The first round of grant recipients will be announced Sept. 22.

Priorities for the first round of applications include:

  • The design of unique approaches to teacher evaluation, staffing high-need schools with strong teachers and other cutting-edge approaches to teacher-quality issues.
  • New compensation systems to enable educators to have differentiated roles, responsibilities and rewards.
  • Community approaches to address out-of-school factors that affect student learning.

Neira noted the fund will complement NYSUT's ongoing effort to close the achievement gap.

Funded projects will stress collaboration and risk-taking ideas that will improve teacher quality and student achievement, Neira said.

Urbanski, who started the Teacher Union Reform Network, said the union movement has a long tradition of of risk-taking in support of innovation, going back to the visionary union leader Al Shanker.

"The Innovation Fund continues in this tradition, leveraging top-down" support for "bottom-up" reforms," Urbanski said.

For more details or an application, you can link to the AFT Innovation Fund information at www.aft.org/innovate.