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Risk-Taking Key to Preserving Public Education, Geiger Says

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Washington

When Keith B. Geiger looks out over the 9,000-odd delegates at next month's National Education Association convention here, he's likely to have a lump in his throat.

Mr. Geiger, the eighth of nine children born to Pigeon, Mich., farmers, has achieved much more than his modest origins might have presaged.

Now, he's preparing to step down after serving seven years as the president of the nation's largest teachers' union. At his last meeting of the governing body of the 2.2 million-member nea, Mr. Geiger, 55, plans to spotlight his family and his education in a one-room country schoolhouse.

But the personal touches will be the sugar that helps the medicine go down: Mr. Geiger also will use his final address to exhort the delegates to emulate risk-taking NEA affiliates that are working to "keep public education public."

The remarks will highlight his support of the nea's ongoing efforts to bring instructional issues into balance with political and collective-bargaining concerns. The union's attempt to focus on teaching and learning began before his term, but the outgoing president is credited with making progress along a difficult road.

"A lot of people might say the NEA could have done more, but he's trying to lead an enormously diverse organization with a great deal of autonomy," said Mary Hatwood Futrell, Mr. Geiger's predecessor at the NEA and the dean of the education school at George Washington University here. "Trying to get people to follow that path is as difficult as making the change itself."

An Unfriendly Climate

Any NEA president faces obstacles in steering the complex organization, with its 36 special-interest caucuses. Policy is made by the Representative Assembly, the governing body whose elected delegates vote for the executive officers. The president is the chief executive officer and spokesman; an appointed executive director manages internal operations.

When the delegates gather in Washington July 2-5, they will choose a new president from two candidates who work with Mr. Geiger at the nea's headquarters here: Robert F. Chase, the vice president, and Marilyn Monahan, the secretary-treasurer. (See story, page 32.)

Mr. Geiger's term has been marked by a political climate unfriendly toward unions, the rise of profit-making companies venturing into public education, and media and legislative scrutiny of time-honored teacher protections such as tenure. The union, which has long been a major supporter of Democratic candidates, has rethought its approach to politics since the Republican victories of 1994. (See story, page 28.)

Still, the association remains a lightning rod for conservatives. The Washington group Concerned Women for America, for example, has lashed out at the union for its support of Lesbian and Gay History Month. The group is expected to demonstrate at the NEA meeting next month. (See Education Week, Oct. 25, 1995.)

The combination of perceived threats to public education has put many educators on the defensive. But in an interview this month, Mr. Geiger said he has tried not just to rattle his saber in response to criticism. And the NEA has steered away from embracing the view of a number of education scholars and pundits, dubbed the "revisionists," who argue that American schools are performing better than ever before.

"That really isn't a very valid argument," Mr. Geiger said. "The fact is, even if it's true, we still have to change in order to make schools relevant for next group of kids who come."

At the same time, however, the union has not been a vocal proponent of setting national academic standards for schools.

"On my list of priorities as to what gets us to where we ought to be, that's not at the top," Mr. Geiger said of the standards movement. "When you take a look at the poverty problem, the immigration problem, the discrimination problem, those are so much more critical to kids getting an education than whether or not we have national standards."

The 'Keen Politician'

Members' requests spurred the nea's moves to concentrate more on teaching and learning--which include reorganizing its staff here--according to Susie C. Jablinske, an elementary teacher in Annapolis, Md., and a candidate for the NEA vice presidency.

"Keith is a very keen politician," she said. "He understands the things that need to be done in order to move the organization in a direction that is much more responsive to its members' needs."

The union president prides himself on the national organization's strong relationships with its state affiliates. They make it possible, he said, for him to endorse controversial reforms in some NEA districts.

"I can make some bold statements, take some risks and some chances that I probably wouldn't have been able to take had we not been able to build that relationship up," he said. "Our people know when I do that, that it's not a prescription all of them have to follow."

In particular, Mr. Geiger plans to tout a peer-review program in Columbus, Ohio, that gives teachers the responsibility for ensuring that their colleagues are up to par in the classroom; a similar program and close labor-management cooperation in Seattle; and an arrangement in New Albany, Ind., that gave the teachers' association 72 percent of the district's budget to manage.

For years, the NEA treated its Columbus affiliate as an outcast for embracing peer review. The practice, though widely praised by education reformers, has failed to take root nationwide.

Mr. Geiger also intends to tell delegates next month to "quit getting hung up on the word 'tenure.'" Instead, he said, they should put in place processes that will make the teaching force so strong that incompetent teachers are no longer an issue. Late next month, the nea's National Foundation for the Improvement of Education is expected to release a report on professional development, including new roles for unions to play.

"If we would put money into professional development for teachers," Mr. Geiger argued, "a lot of these problems would take care of themselves."

Behind the Scenes

The union president said his greatest frustration has been the news media's focus not on such places as Columbus and Seattle, but on hot spots such as Wilkinsburg, Pa., where the school board has contracted with a private company to run an elementary school.

The teachers' union in Wilkinsburg, Mr. Geiger acknowledged, did not take full advantage of an opportunity to craft a plan for turning around the troubled school. Mr. Geiger visited the Pittsburgh-area district to lead a rally against privatization and the firing of teachers at the school, which was challenged in court by the local and state NEA affiliates. (See Eduction Week, March 29, 1995.)

But behind the scenes, he said, local union affiliates have been instrumental in bringing about change.

Mr. Geiger, who began his career as a mathematics teacher in Livonia, Mich., and went on to serve as the president of the Michigan Education Association, said he regrets that merger talks with the 900,000-member American Federation of Teachers did not bear fruit on his watch.

While the talks are continuing, the leadership change at the NEA likely will require a period of adjustment. In addition, Albert Shanker, the AFT president, is undergoing treatment for lung cancer, although a spokeswoman for the union said his illness has not affected the pace of merger talks.

After he steps down in August, Mr. Geiger, who enjoys politics, plans to get involved in President Clinton's re-election campaign, but he has no definite plans beyond the November election.

In a way, he is bemused by all of the handwringing over education and the attention to his organization. "It really doesn't matter what you talk about in education," he said. "What really matters is what goes on between the child and the teacher in the classroom."

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