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Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as Education Organizations Launch Defense of Public Schools

Education Organizations Launch Defense of Public Schools

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Weary of what they describe as unfounded attacks and increasing criticism leveled at the nation's public schools, the leaders of several national groups convened a conference of administrators, teachers, and other education experts here this month to launch a counterattack.

The nearly 200 participants at the Sept. 11-13 National Congress for Public Education in suburban Washington were urged to undertake their own campaigns to promote the value of public education and offset any misinformation about the achievements of schools.

"Public education is being discredited by superficial and incomplete information about its accomplishments; threatened by misguided attacks on curricular, instructional, and assessment practices; and undermined by the diversion of money to alternative ventures with limited public access and accountability," Jack Barshinger, the superintendent of the Winfield public schools, west of Chicago, and an organizer of the event, told the group. "Such threats require a strong response."

The conference was organized by the International Reading Association, in Newark, Del.; the National Council of Teachers of English, in Urbana, Ill., and its whole-language umbrella group; and the Center for the Expansion of Language and Thinking, based at Kent State University in Ohio.

Supporters include the National Council for the Social Studies, Phi Delta Kappa, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the National Reading Conference, and the George Gund Foundation.

Speaking Out

The event included advocacy sessions on dealing with the news media, lobbying lawmakers, and increasing public involvement in schools. It also dealt with curricular issues, educational research, and the trend toward holding schools and teachers more accountable for student performance.

"This is a grassroots event that came about because some people said they'd had enough with criticism of public schools and they wanted to do something about," said John F. Jennings, the director of the Council on Education Policy, a Washington-based independent advocacy group, who was the keynote speaker. "If you believe in [public education], state it clearly and act on it, and you can move mountains ... the mountains of criticism that have been building up over the years," said Mr. Jennings, who was previously a longtime education aide to Democrats in the U.S. House.

Several speakers recommended that the participants' course of action include speaking up vigorously for the value of public schools, setting high standards for students and teachers, working for more equitable funding of education, encouraging schools to change more rapidly.

"There is a long-standing perception that schools have deteriorated over the last 30 or 40 years," said Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "I don't buy that argument ... but I believe we have not improved schools fast enough to deal with the change in societal needs."

Organizers of the meeting say it will continue to work on a plan of action. The group has set up a site on the World Wide Web to get reaction from and provide help to educators.

Vol. 18, Issue 3, Page 5

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