Commentary

No Federal Funding for Standards Board

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In overlooking the private-sector model, the partisans of teacher advancement are neglecting the key to professional autonomy.Money," runs the Slavic proverb, "will make iron float." And indeed, it is a substantial sum of federal money that is being sought to float the research and development activities of the recently established National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Currently weighing in with 64 members, this body is the offspring of the 1986 report of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century; its chairman is the former Governor of North Carolina, James B. Hunt Jr. While the Carnegie Corporation of New York agreed to provide $1 million a year for five years to launch the board and its work, a high priority on the organization's agenda has been to secure federal funding for at least half the research that it envisions.

But the nature and purposes of the standards board do not warrant the appropriation of government dollars. The planning and financing of projects aimed at empowering teachers should remain the responsibility of the teaching profession itself.

A vehicle for obtaining federal funding--entitled "the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards act of 1988"--rolled into the Senate in early August. Introduced by Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, and cosponsored by five of his colleagues from the Labor and Human Resources Committee, this bill would have provided $25 million over a three-year period "to pay the federal share" of the costs of "activities directly related to the development of teacher assessment and certification procedures."

Although the bill was shelved before the adjournment of the 100th Congress, its backers plan to introduce similar legislation when the next Congress convenes in January.

It is indeed an interesting calculation to prorate the federal "share" of the costs for activities of private individuals--in this case, teachers. One may argue that teaching is a profession with a peculiarly public application--but then nearly all professions are practiced in or on the public.

And though the nation's schools--the vast majority of which are tax-supported--are more and more being cast in the role of a national public utility and the teaching profession is for the most part a closely regulated public-sector entity, teachers as a group do not have unlimited claim on the public purse.

If teachers set the precedent of having the federal government underwrite a totally undefined research project to establish standards for sorting out the elite members of their numerous ranks, why should not other vocations line up for the same benefit?

The supporters of federal funding for the board fail to establish a reasonable--or constitutional--claim to such special treatment. The proposed legislation identifies as its goal "the development and promulgation of voluntary standards of professional certification ... that complement and support state licensing practices." Its proponents argue that they are trying to provide "incentives to enhance the professionalism and status of teaching."

And to justify this essay in philanthropy, they offer the rationale that "the economic well-being and national security of the United States depend on efforts to strengthen the educational system," and that "improved teaching is central to the goal of ensuring a well-educated workforce."

Under a rubric as wide as that, almost any initiative in education would be eligible for federal funding.

Beyond considerations of constitutionality and economics is the question of whether such a "Manhattan project" type of approach will succeed in advancing the professional status of teachers. It may, in fact, just as easily retard this movement.

While the teaching profession may gain certain short-term benefits by having politicians assume the role of patrons, surely teachers are capable on their own of establishing and codifying standards of excellence.

It would far better suit the enhanced image they presumably seek and help earn them the parity with other professions that has long eluded them if teachers took charge and themselves established procedures--as physicians and lawyers and architects have done--to rate their colleagues' qualifications and expertise.

And the standards to be devised by the board would be voluntary; they would not supplant the existing licensing procedures overseen by the states that serve as the basic quality-control strategy for assessing teacher competence.

An optional program is ipso facto discretionary for the teachers who would apply. Those who obtain board certification would presumably acquire greater prestige and income--as do, other things being equal, physicians who successfully pass specialty-board examinations.

Medical specialty boards are financed by fees charged to those physicians who apply for certification and membership. Such specialty boards are, for the most part, small, frugal, and efficient operations, and the public has confidence in what they do.

In overlooking the private-sector model, the partisans of teacher advancement are neglecting the very key to professional autonomy and maturity.

As the promising movements toward school- and classroom-based management so powerfully show, teachers are more than capable of rising to the task at hand. The empowerment of their profession is a task the Congress can safely leave in their hands.

Vol. 8, Issue 9, Page 28

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