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Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as Union Heads Issue Standards Warnings

Union Heads Issue Standards Warnings

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The movement to set higher academic standards for American students is making unprecedented and unfair demands on teachers, the leaders of the two national teachers' unions warned last week. And both complained that testing has far outstripped efforts to write curriculum.

Although the union presidents said they continue to support standards-based school improvement, their remarks underscore the difficulty that the teachers among their combined membership of 3.5 million face in making it a reality.

Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told delegates to her union's biennial convention here that too many political leaders and school officials aren't doing their part to make the movement for higher standards work.

"They promised we'd get new curriculum aligned with new standards," she said. "Where is it? They said tests would be better and used more responsibly. In how many places is that true?"

Instead of such support, Ms. Feldman said, teachers are left to fend for themselves with a list of state standards—a practice she described as intolerable for teachers and "grossly unfair to the children they serve."

Echoing the AFT leader's concerns, Bob Chase, the president of the National Education Association, told his union's delegates that the nation needs "a massive infusion of common sense—common sense based on real classroom experience."

Mr. Chase, speaking at the NEA's annual meeting in Chicago, said some state standards are so high as to be "absurd," noting that California, for example, expects 5th graders to memorize the periodic table of the elements.

"In some states," he added, "teachers are being required to teach an entirely new curriculum without textbooks or other resources—or without training. As one teacher wrote to me, 'I have never been so overwhelmed in my 32 years of teaching.'" In some states, Mr. Chase said, "testing mania is quite literally devouring whole school systems like some education-eating bacteria."

Federal Efforts Urged

The union leaders' strongly worded comments come at a time of heightened concern about a public backlash against the movement for stricter academic standards and state-mandated "high stakes" tests.

U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, who addressed both union meetings, said in Philadelphia that he agreed with Ms. Feldman's assessment of the situation. Mr. Riley himself has been vocal about his concerns that policymakers have raised standards too quickly for both students and teachers. In February, he called on state leaders to undertake a midcourse review to make sure they were putting standards into place correctly. ("Riley Urges 'Review' of Standards," March 1, 2000.)

"I am worried that in the push to put standards into place we may be putting the cart before the horse—rushing to put assessments into place," Mr. Riley told the approximately 3,000 AFT delegates.

To address the problem, he proposed co-hosting a national forum that would bring together state leaders, teachers, business executives, parents, and academic experts and issue a report to the nation.

Though the federal government is prohibited from developing a school curriculum, Ms. Feldman called in her keynote speech for the U.S. Department of Education to invite states to enter into a national consortium that would solicit proposals to craft and try out new curricula and software.

Such a consortium also could help straighten out the problems in testing, she said, arguing that in some places tests have become the de facto curriculum. Teachers support testing, she said, "but there is way too much of it going on at the risk of kids' getting truly educated."

Ms. Feldman stressed that she was not calling for one national curriculum, but rather for the creation of "a variety of outstanding and effective curriculums within each subject area, each of which is based on high standards."

The federal government and the states would contribute money, she said, and the states could reap the benefit of comparing their standards and following the best examples.

'Constructive Criticism'

Advocates of standards-based school reforms acknowledged that the union leaders have valid criticisms of how the movement is playing out in the classroom.

Too many states have adopted assessments that aren't linked to their standards, some experts say, and thus leave teachers in the lurch on what and how to teach.

"It's really a serious problem," said Denis P. Doyle, the chief academic officer of SchoolNet, a Chevy Chase, Md., company that aids schools in setting and reaching high standards. "It's demoralizing for teachers to be held to standards that they don't have any idea how to meet."

"The curriculum component has been one of the last things to be discussed" in the standards movement, said Matthew Gandal, the director of the Washington office of Achieve Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based group formed by governors and corporate executives that is working to raise states' standards. Part of the reason for that delay, he said, is that in some states, districts refuse to relinquish control over curricular decisions.

"The quicker we can do this, the better off we'll be," Mr. Gandal said. "If this is the voice of teachers saying, 'We need help, we need curricula,' people ought to listen."

Proponents of higher standards added that they view the union leaders' criticisms as constructive so long as they aren't interpreted as an attack on the standards movement itself.

"They both go to pains to say that they don't want to dismantle or back away from standards, but that we have to get it right," said Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, a Washington nonprofit group that promotes high achievement in the core subjects. "That should be viewed as constructive and good criticism."

Transitional Year

The tougher high school graduation requirements that many states—including California, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas—have embraced also threaten to push out students who don't have the skills to meet the new requirements, Ms. Feldman argued.

Nationally, about 415,000 students drop out of high school every year, a figure that some educators fear will rise in the face of the stiff new diploma requirements.

Teachers who work with struggling secondary students often don't have the training to help them overcome severe deficits in reading, mathematics, and other basic skills, Ms. Feldman said. As a remedy, she proposed that these older students be guaranteed after-school and summer school programs. For students who need even more help, she called for a "transitional year" of schooling—either before high school or during it—to enable them to learn from specially trained teachers the basic skills they need to graduate.

Most secondary school teachers, Ms. Feldman acknowledged, don't know how to address such students' skills deficits and need help in learning to do so. She proposed that the federal government "stimulate an all-out effort" to put programs found to work with such students into middle and high schools.

Specifically, the AFT president mentioned the Talent Development high school reform model designed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and High Schools That Work, an improvement design offered by the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.

Finally, Ms. Feldman suggested that the federal departments of Education and Labor work together to harness the knowledge and practices that adult-literacy educators and the military use to improve the skills of older learners.

"We need to do whatever it takes to rescue these kids," she argued.

In Rochester, N.Y., Superintendent Clifford Janey has proposed creating flexible high school programs that would allow students to complete their diploma requirements in three years, while offering a fifth year of high school for students struggling with academics.

Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association, said he considered Mr. Janey's proposal to be in line with the suggestions made by Ms. Feldman. The Rochester school board is set to vote on it later this month.

Students who fall behind in completing their credits often give up because they fear they can't finish high school in four years, Mr. Urbanski said, while others could finish their requirements in less time. "This introduces the radical notion that systems can be flexible," he said. "It's just eminently good common sense."

Staff Writer Jeff Archer and Assistant Editor David J. Hoff contributed to this report.

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Pages 1,20-21

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