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N.E.A. Creates Center To Promote School-Renewal Efforts

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Washington--In a move that its officials hope will position the National Education Association in the forefront of school reform, the union last week announced the creation of a research center to develop reform projects and disseminate information about promising methods for improving education.

The new National Center for Innovation in Education will incorporate and expand on the union's existing projects to encourage school renewal.

The decision to establish the center, which will have a budget of about $2 million, represents "a major realignment of n.e.a. resources," according to the union.

"The creation of the center is definitely an indication of n.e.a.'s intention to escalate our efforts to restructure schools," said Gary Watts, senior director of the center and the union's former assistant executive director for professional and organizational development.

"There is a heavy directive here that the other units in n.e.a. will be support units to the center," he added.

Sharon Robinson, the former di4rector of the n.e.a.'s instructional- and professional-development division, will be director of the center.

Ms. Robinson said the new entity would focus on identifying and publicizing methods of improving student achievement and teaching practice, with an emphasis on highlighting "teacher-tested" knowledge "that needs to be included in the policy debate."

The center will finance projects itself and also seek outside grants to develop new programs.

One of the center's first projects is likely to be the development of a partnership between a local nea affiliate, a school district, and a university to improve teacher training.

Such a project, Mr. Watts said, would emphasize pedagogical training and include field experiences intended to expose prospective teachers to "experimental classrooms."

The concept still is being developed, Mr. Watts said, adding that the partnership would probably be formed in a "major city with a minority population."

Although it is the nation's largest teachers' union, the n.e.a. has not traditionally had a strong presence in large urban districts. Its rival union, the American Federation of Teachers, has received extensive attention for its attempts at instituting site-based decisionmaking, career ladders for teachers, and other reform strategies in several cities, including Cincinnati, Dade County, Fla., and Rochester, N.Y.

The new center is expected to build on the experiences of the schools and districts participating in the nea's Mastery in Learning and Learning Laboratories projects.

But it also will function as a broader "think tank" examining restructuring efforts that are not directly sponsored by the union, officials said.

The Mastery in Learning project, launched in 1985, involves 26 schools in districts across the country in a research-based approach to school improvement.

The Learning Laboratories initiative, announced last year, now includes eight districts. In Memphis, for example, seven inner-city schools were closed and then reopened with staffs chosen by teachers and parents. Each school is governed by a council made up of teachers, administrators, and community representatives.

"We have a gold mine of information about what works--and what doesn't work--in efforts to create school environments that nurture effective teaching and enthusiastic leaarning," Keith B. Geiger, president of the n.e.a., said last week. "Through our new center, we will be better able to share this information with all those working to improve America's schools."

The announcement of the center's creation was timed to coincide with the National Governors' Association's meeting here Feb. 24-27, during which the governors were set to adopt national education goals developed with President Bush.

Mr. Geiger noted that many of the projects tackled by schools involved with n.e.a. initiatives have addressed the same areas in which goals are being set.

Another purpose of the nea center will be to expand a computer network that currently links the union with the Mastery in Learning schools, 10 schools participating in other reform efforts, 12 federal education laboratories, and 5 research universities. The network, started two years ago with a $250,000 grant from the International Business Machines Corporation, uses special "conferencing" software to allow participants to interact with one another.

Last fall, the network was expanded with a $300,000 federal grant that enabled researchers to "seed" the network with current research on topics of interest to the teachers who are working on new projects.

The national center also will sponsor a yearly symposium on education issues, publish a newsletter, and release papers discussing the findings from its research projects.

At some point, the center may develop its own "model programs," Mr. Watts said. In particular, n.e.a. officials are interested in developing models of professional accountability.

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