In School's Gym, Some Senatorial Talk of Federal Support
Boston--It was an unusual setting for a Congressional hearing, a relic of a gym with unevenly painted brick walls, elderly overhead bleachers, and heavy metal railings.
Speakers were repeatedly interrupted by the tumult of students filing in and out of the room, taking turns impassively observing the workings of democracy and the famous lawmaker who presided before a pile of exercise mats.
The hearing's subject was the use of incentives to improve education. It was convened last week by Senator Edward M. Kennedy to focus on both the public-school choice initiative included in the Senate's omnibus reauthorization bill and a proposal to aid innovative approaches to teaching that he plans to add to the legislation.
"Today's hearing will emphasize testimony on innovative ways to reach the goals we share," said the Massachusetts Democrat, his voice ricocheting across the worn wooden floor and chilly expanses of the East Boston High School gymnasium. "The types of innovation differ, but they have one thing in common--they provide incentives for accomplishing specific goals in specific periods of time."
"It's important for us to get out in the field as much as we can," Senator Kennedy said after the hearing, which included testimony from educators, state officials, and an Education Department official on efforts to transform the teaching profession through incentives and innovative choice programs.
Senator Kennedy, who is chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, said his staff was working on plans to provide federal support for such initiatives aimed at teachers. The measure is to be added to S 373, the omnibus reauthorization bill due for consideration this week by his panel, Senator Kennedy said.
The bill already includes a proposal, advanced by Senators Kennedy and Robert T. Stafford, Republican of Vermont, that would provide grants to school districts that abolish attendance boundaries and allow students to enroll at the schools of their choice. (See Education Week, Oct. 9, 1987.)
At last week's hearing, officials from the Cambridge, Mass., schools and Community School District 4 in New York City described their choice-based systems, and Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr. argued that such programs make "better schools."
Choice systems function as incentives by encouraging excellence through competition and fostering schools with unique characteristics, several speakers agreed.
"Not only is choice the way to opel15lerate schools in a democracy, it makes for better schools," Mr. Finn said, praising the proposed federal choice program and an accompanying proposal to expand the magnet- schools assistance program.
He also lauded states and school districts that have taken steps to increase the influence of educators over their schools and to encourage them "through various incentive and reward systems to provide better leadership and to produce improved results."
Richard P. Mills, an assistant to Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey, described a state initiative that rewards successful schools and teachers with state money and waives monitoring and reporting requirements for schools that meet high academic standards.
Mr. Mills praised provisions in the Senate bill that would reward successful schools participating in the Chapter 1 program and improve the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
He also urged Senator Kennedy to add a national training network for educators to Chapter 1 and to obtain federal funding for the National Board for Professional Teaching4Standards, the certification panel convened last May by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy.
Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, explained how his district is "translating rhetoric into reality" by incorporating principles of the Carnegie group's landmark report on teaching, A Nation Prepared, into its new teacher contract. (See Education Week, Sept. 30, 1987.)
While favoring a federal effort to improve teacher training and professional development, Keith Geiger, vice president of the National Education Association, said the union opposes efforts to create differential responsibilities and salaries for groups of teachers. He also decried the use of standardized tests to evaluate teacher or student performance.
"In its search for genuine incentives to improve education, the federal government must adopt a responsible, deliberate course of fostering only proven new methods that will guarantee the advancement of education," he said. "Congress must avoid actions that will encourage new, ill-advised fads."