NEA Pursues Plan To Establish Teacher-Controlled State Boards
As planning continues for a national board to certify teachers, one of the key players in that effort, the National Education Association, is forging ahead on a related priority of its own: the establishment in each state of a professional-standards board controlled by teachers.
In the view of the N.E.A.'s leaders, such autonomous boards, currently under consideration in several states, would be the "centerpiece'' of professional self-governance. They stress that, unlike the national board, now being developed with the help of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, the state panels would be legally empowered to set standards for teacher licensure--and thus would control entry into the profession.
"What is being done nationally is very important to overall standards-setting,'' said Sharon P. Robinson, director of the N.E.A.'s instruction and professional-development unit. "But the real authority in terms of permitting people to practice is granted by the states.''
"You have to have state boards present if you want to nationalize standards,'' she argued.
This year, legislation that would create teacher-controlled boards has been, or is expected to be, introduced in eight states, according to the N.E.A. In addition, the union's affiliates or state education panels in several other states are studying the idea.
Such boards could enhance the N.E.A.'s already-substantial power at the state level, informed observers say. They explain that, because affiliates of the N.E.A.--the nation's largest teachers' union--are the strongest teachers' groups in most states, those affiliates would be in the best position to influence the standards boards.
The American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers' union, has not endorsed the state-board concept. The A.F.T.'s leadership has contended that the profession's top priority should be the establishment of high national standards, not the creation of 50 new independent boards.
"There is no question that the weight of our policy is on the side of a national board and seeing how that goes,'' said Bella Rosenberg, special assistant to the A.F.T.'s president, Albert Shanker. "I just don't see the point of 50 states going off and determining standards.''
"At some point, there may be a role for state or regional standards boards, but first we have to see what we come up with nationally,'' Ms. Rosenberg said.
"To say that a majority of any professional board should be made up of [representatives] of the profession is to say a lot, but it leaves a lot unsaid,'' she continued. "It is absolutely critical that professional governing organizations are not seen to be creatures of unions or of other organizations.''
The N.E.A. first adopted its policy advocating the creation of professional-standards boards in 1969, and in the early 1970's its state affiliates launched a major push to put teacher-controlled boards in place. That effort largely failed.
From the beginning, those who have followed the issue agree, the concept of teacher-dominated boards has been controversial. Many state education officials and policymakers have contended that teachers and their unions cannot be trusted to govern the profession in the public interest.
Because education is a public enterprise, critics of the board idea have argued, representatives of the public should control standards-setting and licensure for teaching, while allowing some mechanism for teacher involvement.
In most states, such an arrangement is currently in place, with authority for setting standards and issuing licenses resting with the state board or department of education. In many states, the licensing agency receives recommendations from advisory panels, which often include teachers, school administrators, teacher educators, and members of the public.
Over the years, lawmakers in a handful of states--including Oregon, Minnesota, and California--have created autonomous standards boards for teaching. No state, however, has given teachers a controlling majority over an autonomous board.
Despite its past setbacks on the issue, the N.E.A. leadership, over the past year, has again made the establishment of the boards a top priority, and has urged state affiliates to renew their efforts on the matter.
Union leaders point to the Oregon and Minnesota boards--which have operated autonomously since the early 1970's with teachers constituting close to a majority of members--as proof that such boards can be effective.
Legislation that would establish boards based on the N.E.A. model has been introduced, or is likely to be introduced, this year in Maryland, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, and West Virginia, according to Ms. Robinson.
In addition, N.E.A. state affiliates in Michigan and Pennsylvania are "studying what their approach should be,'' she said.
And in Connecticut, according to a state education official, a commission established by the state board of education will release a report early next month recommending the establishment of an autonomous state standards board composed of a majority of teachers.
But in most of the states where bills have been introduced, chances of success are said to be slim.
Already in Maryland, for instance, a bill that made it out of committee was defeated on the floor of the House. And union officials in several other states said last week that they doubted the measures pending in their legislatures would garner enough support for approval.
The measure introduced in South Carolina "will probably die this year,'' predicted Elaine W. Marks, president of the South Carolina Education Association.
"This kind of legislation will take us about three years to pass,'' Ms. Marks added. "We need time to conduct a public-relations campaign to sell people on the idea.''
'Just Cranking Up'
Ms. Robinson of the N.E.A.'s national office agreed that it may take a "several-year commitment'' by supporters in each state to win legislative approval for the idea.
"We are just cranking up,'' she said. "This is not something that is likely to pass the first time around.''
"We are committing a lot of resources to assist states in planning their strategies and building coalitions,'' she continued. "We have a monumental organizing task before us.''
Ms. Robinson noted, however, that the N.E.A. is considerably stronger and better organized at the state level than it was 15 years ago when it first began lobbying on the issue. "We are better prepared to mobilize our membership and inform the public,'' she said.
Still, Ms. Robinson added, the N.E.A. is not rushing to put boards in place.
"We feel it is smart to take the time to build it right,'' she said. Some state leaders, she said, still have to "get comfortable'' with the issues surrounding professional self-governance.
As envisioned by the N.E.A. in policy documents prepared on the subject, a state professional-standards board would be directly responsible to the legislature, with no other agency having veto power over it.
K-12 teachers, nominated by the "majority teachers' organization'' in the state and appointed by the governor, would constitute a majority. In addition, the N.E.A. proposes, the panel would also include representatives of other "educational interest groups,'' such as those representing school administrators and higher education.
Under the N.E.A. model, the boards would license teachers; approve teacher-preparation programs; determine if and how a national professional certificate would be recognized; and suspend, revoke, or withdraw approval and licensure.
In a speech to the presidents and executive directors of the union's state affiliates last November, Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the N.E.A., argued that teachers are just as capable of governing their own profession as lawyers, doctors, and accountants.
"Truly effective state standards boards,'' she continued, "would not only identify the problems teachers now face because of lax standards, but would also be instrumental in prompting an immediate end to the practices that generate them, such as ending emergency certification.''
A 'Public Business'
But opponents of autonomous teacher-controlled boards argue that they would give teachers too much authority.
"We've heard the argument from the teachers that they should have a governing board because others, such as doctors, lawyers, and architects, have their own boards,'' said H. Cooper Snyder, chairman of the Ohio Senate's committee on education and a staunch opponent of the bill that would establish a state teaching board.
"But the difference is that the teaching business is public,'' he contended. "So it is important to have it governed by elected officials who represent the people. That is what our nation is all about.''
In Maryland, an education-department official who testified against a bill that would have established an autonomous standards board in that state echoed Mr. Snyder's concerns.
"The real issue is the issue of lay control as opposed to professional control,'' said Claud E. Kitchens, Maryland's deputy superintendent of schools. "Our basic contention is that this is a very important piece of education governance, and we think it ought to remain within the configuration of a lay board, in this case with the state board of education.''
'Complex and Difficult' Issue
Marc S. Tucker, executive director of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, calls the issue of state standards boards a "complex and difficult'' one.
"There most certainly are occupations and professions which at the state level have managed to capture the standards-setting process,'' Mr. Tucker said. "And I see no reason why teachers should be treated any differently than other professions in this regard.''
"But in setting standards for licensure, I am not sure any profession should be in the driver's seat,'' he cautioned. "It is clearly possible for a profession to so approach the standards function as to limit access to the profession and drive up salaries, and in other ways protect those in the profession rather than the public at large.''
Last spring, the forum's task force on the teaching profession proposed the creation of a national board that would set high standards for teachers certification, but it did not address what organizational structure states should use to set standards for licensure. Both Ms. Futrell and Mr. Shanker are members of the planning group that is working to establish the national board.
Unionism 'Complicates Efforts'
One clear difference between teachers and members of other professions that have control over state standards and licensing boards is unionism, observed Gary Sykes, an assistant professor of education at Michigan State and a well-known authority on the teaching profession.
"The collective voice of teachers is now unions,'' Mr. Sykes said. "Other professions did not have the 'taint' of unionism that teaching now has. And that complicates the efforts [by teachers] to professionalize and assert control over standards.''
Mr. Sykes said many legislators are suspicious of teachers' unions, and would view their efforts to create teacher-dominated boards as simply a move to "consolidate power and influence over teaching.''
Many legislators, he continued, "don't trust that what is good for the union is good for kids, which is what the [N.E.A.] wants to claim.''
Working in the N.E.A.'s favor, Mr. Sykes noted, is considerable political clout.
The N.E.A. should use its clout, he argued, "to make the case that the boards would represent the public interest, and would contribute to an improvement in the quality of standards for teaching.''
According to Arthur E. Wise, director of the RAND Corporation's center for the study of the teaching profession, every other profession has "the dual structure of a national body and state bodies.''
"And since licensure is a state-level responsibility, it really can't work any other way,'' said Mr. Wise, a staunch advocate of autonomous standards boards controlled by the teaching profession.
Too often, Mr. Wise said, states lower or relax standards to levels necessary to ensure that there is a teacher for every classroom. This would not be the case, he believes, if teachers themselves controlled entrance standards.
Mr. Wise agreed that teacher-controlled boards could be a self-serving mechanism. But that, he argued, would not preclude the boards advancing the public interest as well.
"When we have had a shortage of physicians in the past, we have not lowered standards to ensure a sufficient supply,'' he noted. "We have maintained standards ... and the shortage of physicians has driven wages up, and that sent a signal to young people.''
"The doctors' own interests were served,'' Mr. Wise continued. "But at the same time, the public was served, because the standards and qualifications for being a doctor did not decline, and, in a short time, an adequate supply of fully qualified physicians was obtained.''
In addition, Mr. Wise said, because governors would probably "hand pick'' board members, as they generally do for other professions, concerns that unions would dominate the boards are not necessarily justified.
Ultimately, the N.E.A.'s Ms. Robinson maintains, standards boards would always be accountable to the public.
"At any time, the legislature can change the law,'' she said. "If the public is not happy with the standards board and the way it is working, then the public can change the process back to what they have right now.''
"But what I am hearing,'' she added, "is that the public is not happy with what it has right now.''