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Changing NCLB Is Top Topic at NEA Convention

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A majority of the 8,200 delegates gathered here for the National Education Association’s annual convention overwhelmingly approved a plan that would push for aggressive changes to the federal No Child Left Behind law, which is up for reauthorization next year.

The nation's largest union, whose leaders have often complained they were not allowed to participate in the crafting of the country's chief education law, approved a plan during the July 2-5 meeting that calls on NEA members to lobby Congress for reforms to bring the law more in line with the views of the 2.8 million-member union.

The changes proposed include establishing an accountability system that no longer relies only on testing as the measure of success or failure. Instead, the union recommends designing a system based on multiple benchmarks, including teacher-designed classroom assessments, student portfolios, graduation/dropout statistics, and college-enrollment rates, among other measures.

The plan also calls for smaller class sizes, more funding for schools, and revisions to the definition of “highly qualified” teacher.

The plan passed with just three delegates speaking publicly against it, because they argued that the union should take even more extreme measures and try to repeal the NCLB law in its entirety.

NEA delegates discuss issues on the floor of the Representative Assembly during the union's annual convention this week in Orlando, Fla.
NEA delegates discuss issues on the floor of the Representative Assembly during the union's annual convention this week in Orlando, Fla.
—Photo courtesy of Brenda Alvarez/NEA

At the Representative Assembly, the union also released a survey of 1,000 NEA members that showed nearly 70 percent dislike the No Child Left Behind Act and believe it has failed to improve education. Only 29 percent of those surveyed said they approve of the law.

NEA Executive Committee member Rebecca Pringle, who chaired the committee set up last year by union President Reg Weaver to craft the strategy, said that this plan "authorizes the NEA to go boldly where it has never gone before."

"We knew from the start that a flawed law would prevent educators from providing a rich, supportive environment for students," Ms. Pringle said, adding that bipartisan support for the law had, at the beginning, made the NEA voice "lonely." Support for the NEA point of view has since grown, she added, with some states—such as Connecticut—taking a stand against the law.

Abby Beytin, a teacher at Timber Grove Elementary School in Owings Mills, Md., and a member of the committee that drew up the plan, said it was unfair that teachers who deal every day with children in the classroom, were left out of the crafting of the NCLB law. “We are given a curriculum and step-by-step instructions as if every child will fit in a box,” she said. “But they are not giving me, the expert, the opportunity to do what I think is the best way to teach a child.”

‘Experience and Expertise’

The NEA has long opposed the law, particularly some of its accountability and teacher-qualification mandates. In his keynote address July 2, Mr. Weaver exhorted members to aggressively lobby state and federal lawmakers to press for changes to the No Child Left Behind Act.

“You should be – must be – among the leaders in the education reform debate. … We have the experience and the expertise, and we should be the vanguard innovators of education reform,” Mr. Weaver said.

Mr. Weaver also called for a $40,000 annual minimum wage for all teachers, and a living wage for education support professionals, as well as adequate and equitable funding for schools.

“If we are going to close the gaps in student achievement, have the ethnic minority community believe that we care, increase salaries, attract more teachers to the classroom, … we must have a funding structure that does not discriminate,” he said.

The national debate over immigration this year found its voice at the NEA convention as well, with delegates pushing for —and passing—a resolution that would protect teachers and school employees from the role of policing undocumented immigrants and reporting such students to immigration authorities.

Pushed by several states and led by the California Teachers Association, the largest delegation at the convention, with more than a 1,000 delegates, the resolution states that the “NEA will work with state affiliates to assure that any immigration process will protect the rights of all students, support a safe environment, and provide an opportunity to learn.”

Barbara E. Kerr, the president of the CTA, said the resolution reflects the “horror and frustration caused when Congress started looking at making teachers felons and immigration officers. “This is about a quality education for all children, about guaranteeing human rights,” she said.

NCLB ‘Horror Stories’

In this city of amusement parks, delegates dressed as if for a picnic cheered wildly and kept up an atmosphere of light-heartedness even as they plodded through numerous business items over the four-day Representative Assembly. Despite the numerous topics they tackled, the NCLB acronym was heard most in the conference hall, with many delegates expressing personal frustration with the law.

Nearly 100 teachers told their own NCLB “horror stories” to a video camera in a room in the convention center. As the NEA campaign on the law gets under way, one of those teachers will win a trip to Washington to meet with his or her congressional representative to recount the story in person.

Sharon Stacy, a teacher from Van Buren County, Mich., who teaches children with severe disabilities at the Bert Goens Learning Center, spoke to the video camera of increased paperwork, no time for planning, and the almost impossible mandates set for her children, some who are so disabled, she said, that the most basic accomplishments, such as learning to talk and walk, are milestones.

“It sounds great to say ‘no child left behind,’ but to expect every child in my school to meet standards is ridiculous,” she said later in an interview.

Tanya Earle, a social studies teacher at Molalla High School in Molalla River, Ore., said the NCLB law “has undermined a lot of what we do. … It has taken the emphasis away from the core principles we wanted to teach,” she said, contending that her subject area has suffered tremendously because of the federal law’s intense focus on math and reading.

“With limited resources and unfunded mandates, schools are not making good choices,” Ms. Earle maintained. “Some schools are saying social studies is not even part of the core curriculum.”

Still, while Ms. Stacy said she would be happy if Congress does away with the law, some NEA stalwarts appeared to believe that a compromise was more in order.

Most teachers agree on some of the basic principles in the law, including the need for accountability and skilled teachers, said Patricia A. Foerster, the outgoing president of the Maryland State Teachers Association. “There are ways to deal with the negativity of NCLB short of destroying it,” she said, “that will put us on a better track.”

Vol. 25

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