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N.E.A. State Coordinators Launch Search for 'Learning Laboratories'

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Washington--Coordinators from 26 state affiliates of the National Education Association met here last week to begin work on the union's Learning Laboratories initiative.

The new program, the union's president has said, will identify one nea district in each state that is interested in turning its school system "upside down or inside out" in order to improve student learning.

Last week was the first time that interested state affiliates had met to discuss the initiative since Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the union, announced it last March.

In a speech before the Fairfax County, Va., Chamber of Commerce last month, Ms. Futrell reiterated her support for the project, saying participating districts would be free to develop "whatever innovations they deem necessary to improve education."

"These local communities will be free to turn their school systems upside down or inside out," she said. "They will be free to open their school doors to 4-year-olds, or end the arbitrary division of class periods into 50-minute chunks, or set up demonstration schools where teachers learn from their peers."

"Would they be free to experiment with performance-based pay plans for faculty?" she added. "You bet!"

But the scope of local initiatives will be left largely up to state affiliates, who will have primary responsibility for selecting the participating district within their state.

Under the program, each state affiliate will nominate to the national office one district for designation as a Learning Laboratory. Local units cannot participate in the program without the support of their state organization.

The nea has provided its affili8ates with some criteria for selecting participating districts. For example:

Projects must be developed through the consensus of all stakeholders, including parents, community representatives, and business leaders.

Both the district and the union must be willing to bargain, as appropriate, on any existing regulations or contract provisions that stand in the way of change.

Proposals to change instruction must draw on educational research and include a clearly defined method of evaluation.

The project's plans must provide enough time and resources to support and train all participants.

The national office has appropriated $450,000 for the project's first year. The funds will be used to provide states and school districts with research and technical assistance, some help with start-upcosts, and publicity for and dissemination of the Learning Laboratories' work.

The nea will also contract with measurement experts to help each site develop a plan for evaluating its efforts.

In addition to the 26 affiliates that sent representatives to last week's meeting, another eight have expressed interest in the program, said Barbara J. Yentzer, the project's director.

Approximately 10 districts should be ready to move forward with their proposals this spring, she added.

State affiliates are expected to submit their proposals for Learning Laboratories to the national office within the next several months.

Ms. Yentzer said the job of the national office is not to "second guess" a state affiliate's decision, but to work with state and local units in developing and refining their plans.

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