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In Shift, N.E.A. Puts New Focus On Reform Issues

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The National Education Association, long viewed as a sideline spectator in the decade-long movement to improve the nation's schools, has undertaken a major effort toward greater involvement in reform.

In the past year, officials of the nation's largest teachers' union have taken steps to position the 2.2 million-member organization at the forefront of reform. Among those steps are an internal reorganization of the union's bureaucracy and a new, research-based program to help affiliates evaluate the quality of their schools.

"We are shifting the focus of the N.E.A. so we place more emphasis on education reform and we place more emphasis on the public schools of America improving," Don Cameron, the union's executive director, said recently. "We are focusing virtually all our human and financial resources into those goals."

This new focus was visible last week as N.E.A. members gathered in Minneapolis for their annual convention. (See related story .)

Mr. Cameron and Keith B. Geiger, the president of the union, said the N.E.A. can make such a shift because the union's heavy emphasis on collective bargaining over the past 25 years has produced livable wages for teachers. In addition, many younger teachers, who tend to take their benefits for granted, are looking to the union for help in doing their increasingly difficult jobs.

Leaders of the union, traditionally an ally of the Democratic Party, also are anxious about the impact of last November's elections--which put Republicans in control of Congress and installed 14 new G.O.P. governors--and about school vouchers and the move to hire private companies to manage public schools.

While the changes at the N.E.A. were under way before last fall, Mr. Cameron said, the elections were "a catalyst for moving faster than we were. We might have eased into it."

'Need To Do More'

Mr. Cameron, who manages the national union's 565 employees, has reorganized its Washington headquarters to reduce the bureaucracy and to steer resources to professional issues. He and Mr. Geiger have been crisscrossing the country, urging elected union leaders and staff members to join in school-reform efforts.

"My job is to convince the public that we are doing a lot more in the way of reform than anybody out there knows," Mr. Geiger said. "And my job is to convince our members that we need to be doing more."

In a videotape Mr. Geiger made for regional directors, he throws a straitjacket into a wastebasket to symbolize the abandoning of rigid thinking. He calls for members to take the lead in--and not just go along(See educational change.

The videotape highlights six N.E.A. sites where teachers are taking risks in the name of reform. In Glenview, Ill., Mr. Geiger explains, teachers voted to replace the collective-bargaining agreement with a less restrictive constitutional set of principles.

"We put in that one because it makes many members uneasy," Mr. Geiger said in an interview. "I got several letters from people who were not happy that I highlighted that."

The union's heightened emphasis on teaching and learning also prompted Mr. Geiger to interrupt this year's Representative Assembly for a three-hour "Focus on Educational Change" moderated by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. In the past, the meeting has been devoted solely to developing union policy, sometimes on political and social issues tangential to the classroom.

And next year--for the first time in the union's history--the N.E.A.'s national conference will be devoted to instructional issues and education reform, Mr. Geiger said.

'Radical' Work Changes

The union's leaders have backed these gestures with internal changes meant to focus the union's resources more sharply on educational issues rather than on collective bargaining and advocacy.

Mr. Cameron has grouped employees into semiautonomous "centers" that work together instead of as isolated departments. The union also has established a decentralized approach to decisionmaking and is beefing up its research department.

"We have radically changed the way we approach work here at the N.E.A," Mr. Cameron said.

The union's policymaking process, however, remains the same. It involves lengthy procedures that eventually bring issues to the 9,000-member Representative Assembly for votes.

The Center for Teaching and Learning, created last fall to be the union's brain trust on educational issues, merges all the union's school-reform and policy programs, including:

The National Center for Innovation, created in 1990, which houses the union's Mastery in Learning and Learning Laboratory restructuring projects;
The teacher education initiative, through which the N.E.A. is collaborating with 17 colleges of education to improve teacher training;
The National Foundation for the Improvement of Education, which is in the midst of a two-year study of professional development; and
The Center for Education Technology, which explores ways technology can help restructure the educational environment.

The Center for Teaching and Learning also includes the N.E.A.'s efforts to track key issues in the teaching profession, including national certification and the accreditation of teacher-preparation programs.

Lynn Coffin, the senior director of the National Center for Innovation, said blending the reform initiatives and the union's policy analysis reflects the maturation of the union's forays into restructuring.

The Center for Innovation plans to distill what it has learned from the Mastery in Learning and Learning Laboratory sites into useful information for teachers.

Union leaders acknowledge that these projects--launched under the previous president, Mary Hatwood Futrell--have had a low profile. The N.E.A., Mr. Cameron said, prefers to "do, and then talk," rather than boast about reforms that might not pan out.



A Yardstick for Schools

Perhaps the union's most important new project to help classroom teachers, officials say, is the keys project. The Keys to Excellence for Your Schools program is a yardstick that can help teachers measure the organizational quality of their schools against national norms.

"We don't talk about what your math curriculum is," explained Tony Rollins, the N.E.A. assistant executive director who is heading the Center for Teaching and Learning. "We talk about what [type of] organization will allow you to make good decisions on curriculum."

The study is the first original research on schools conducted by the N.E.A. in 35 years. Union researchers instead have focused on finance and teacher demographics.

For the study, researchers surveyed teachers to identify the hallmarks of high-quality schools. Then, researchers tested the 35 conditions the teachers identified against a smaller sample of schools in six districts.

They found that student achievement was higher in schools that incorporated a significant number of the 35 indicators.

These factors include a commitment to continuous, long-range improvement; explicit, achievable goals; daily assessment of student improvement; use of teacher-made tests to assess students; and school staff members who actively seek to identify barriers to learning.

The list does not include small class size, a condition traditionally sought by teachers' unions. Mr. Geiger noted that schools would not need more money to score well on the indicators, because many are school-climate measures that are not linked to resources.

In the fall, the union plans to work with affiliates in 15 states to distribute the keys survey. Jeff Schneider, the N.E.A. researcher who headed the study, says the questionnaire should be filled out by at least 20 teachers to give a full picture of a single school.

Then, the National Center for Innovation will analyze the data and work with N.E.A. affiliates to help schools improve their profiles. That assistance may take the form of summaries of educational research or in-service training for N.E.A. UniServe directors, who work with locals.



National Advisers

A national panel of educators is advising the union on how to flesh out its plans for the keys program. The committee is offering suggestions on how to group the 35 indicators in a more user-friendly manner so that teachers can develop a mental picture of good schools.

"To really be of help to those systems, and to train UniServe representatives to be helpful, is a major undertaking and commitment on the part of the association to focus more on this kind of building of a learning organization," said Willis Hawley, the dean of the college of education at the University of Maryland and an adviser to the N.E.A. on the project.

Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard University professor and another member of the panel, said the N.E.A.'s emphasis on school-based change reflects a shift "away from protective bargaining toward constructive school reform. That's no small change for an organization to make."

The project is somewhat risky for the union, observed John Ryor, the executive director of the Florida Teaching Profession-N.E.A. Still, he backs the N.E.A.'s decision to become more actively involved in improving schools.

"I think it's enormously helpful, but I worry that we are raising hope above our capacity to deliver here," Mr. Ryor, who served as the president of the national union in the mid-1970's, said of keys. "Help is what teachers need, and an organization like ours ought to be able to provide."

Larry E. Wicks, the executive director of the Minnesota Education Association, said he fully agrees with the union's rededication to professional issues. "That kind of got put on the back burner," he said. "It needs to be in the forefront."

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