An Interview with Cheryl Williams: Learning First and Foremost

Jul 21, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

teacher with students

The Learning First Alliance

  1. First of all, what exactly is Learning First, and how come I have never heard of it before?

The Learning First Alliance is a partnership of 17 leading education associations that together represent more than 10 million members dedicated to improving student learning in America’s public schools.

  1. What exactly are you promoting, and how do you go about it?

The nation’s public schools are the key to our future. We are working alongside our 17 partner organizations to ensure that high academic standards are held for ALL students, in a supportive learning environment. We hope to engage and involve parents and communities in their children’s success and encourage them to hold schools accountable in helping students achieve these high academic expectations. School standards must be specific and consistent across states and the nation, allowing all American children to have access to exceptional educators, facilities and technologies.

The Learning First Alliance provides a platform for the collective voices of the organization to be heard. Through its website, social media, newsletter, blog and conferences, the Alliance is consistently providing its audience with the most current information on public education and the strides public education professionals are taking to improve the educational opportunities for students.

  1. Do you have a specific position on teacher tenure, and all this testing?

As a coalition, our focus is on supporting the work that all of our members do to ensure that local schools, and the students they serve, are successful. We believe that teachers should be adequately prepared for, and supported in, their roles as instructors. None of our members, including the teacher organizations, advocate for keeping poor teachers in the classroom. In the context of K-12 education, tenure refers to due process for all classroom employees, not guaranteed lifetime employment. We support due process for teachers and collective bargaining rights that are collaborative in nature and are centered on what’s best for the students in the district.

We believe that testing should be used to inform instruction and contribute to student learning and teacher effectiveness. Testing used to benchmark student progress and teacher effectiveness is useful only in the context of multiple measures of student achievement and in the context of instructional improvement, not as a punitive tool

  1. Now, I mean no disrespect, but what I am going to do is list all of the students that have special needs, exceptionalities, medical concerns and ask how your organization can possibly assist all of the parents, and these students and their teachers—children with vision and hearing problems, students with autism and intellectual disabilities, children with learning disabilities and attention deficit, pupils with speech and language problems, kids with autism, kids with head injury and brain trauma, asthma, diabetes—–does your organization address all of these students?

Public K-12 education in the US is locally governed and financed primarily with local tax dollars, mostly property taxes. The federal government has stepped in to provide additional funding for students with the types of challenges you list in your question. Public schools are required, by an act of Congress, to support the learning needs of all the students in their service area, regardless of disability and many do a fine job of addressing those needs; others are less successful. As organizations providing national leadership for a local enterprise, LFA members have consistently lobbied Congress to fully fund the mandates legislated since the federal funds account for less than 40% of the costs incurred by local districts to serve these children.

And, all LFA member organizations support equity and access to quality schooling for all students in the US. Our ability to have direct impact on implementation of our beliefs is limited by the structure of K-12 public education in the US.

  1. It seems that there is a great disconnect between the parents and students that need help and the organizations and agencies that provide the help. How will you address this?

LFA advocates for civic engagement and active collaboration at the national, state, and local level to ensure that schools aren’t left to fend for themselves in providing a range of services to students with special needs.

  1. My personal opinion here is that the vast majority of schools and teachers are doing a great job- but we seem to be missing the boat on a small number of kids- who are those kids and how are you going to address them?

The data is clear that students not being served by public K-12 education are students who live in poverty, both urban and rural. Again, this is a direct result of lack of community support, both financial and human resource, since public schools are a reflection of the communities in which they sit.

Our coalition is looking at local strategies that have proved effective in bridging the equity divide, i.e. Syracuse, NY/Kalamazoo, MI, and advocating for the scaling up of community-led school improvement initiatives.

  1. It seems that the technology is increasing faster than the average teacher can keep up with—I noticed that you have partnered with my friends at ISTE- what are your long range plans?

As a past president of ISTE, I was anxious to have their involvement in LFA. I think one of the challenges that has impeded our ability to be as effective as possible in improving public education through national leadership is that many of our organizations are siloed in a way that precludes their impact on reform. Most of us in the education technology community spent most of our time talking to each other as opposed to reaching out to the larger education leadership community to share knowledge on innovative practices and the technology available to support such practices. I believe ISTE’s involvement in LFA will build bridges to the professionals represented by LFA member organizations and help us move toward more effective use of technology to support school improvement. ISTE does a great job of communicating to its members about new technologies on the horizon. By ISTE being an active part of LFA, we can spread this knowledge down to every teacher.

  1. Do you have a web site where parents can learn more about your services, what you do (lobbying) and how to contact you?

For more information about the Learning First Alliance, as well as contact information, you can visit us on the web at

  1. What have I neglected to ask?  

One of the major goals of LFA is to provide professional development for the CEO’s of our member organizations which includes the opportunity for our board members to exchange information in a “safe place” with their peers. If we say that effective leaders are also lifelong learners, this is an important function of LFA. We’ve just completed our annual Leadership Council where we had speakers from McKinsey & Company, OECD, ETS, the Gates Foundation and the US Department of Education who spent time with our board and association-elected leaders to bring information on research and policy that they may not have been able to get elsewhere.

In addition, LFA sent a letter to Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan urging the Secretary to exercise his authority and work with our members to provide regulatory relief from some of the onerous requirements of No Child Left Behind, given that the legislation will not be reauthorized by this Congress before the start of the 2011-12 school year. This is an example of the coalition’s work in support of effective public schooling.

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