Current Events: In Brief
"Although some states are moving toward deregulation and greater flexibility,'' states former Gov. Garrey Carruthers of New Mexico in the new report, "comprehensive change has not occurred, and student achievement remains at a standstill.''
The 1986 document committed the states to a fiveyear reform agenda. The goals included creating a more professional teaching force, strengthening school leadership, promoting greater parental involvement and choice, helping at-risk students meet higher standards, and making more effective use of technology.
States have made gains in some of the areas. The report notes, for example, that many have raised teachers' salaries and enabled parents to exercise more choice about the schools their children will attend.
But few states, the report points out, have developed strategies to improve the caliber of school principals. And, while most states have raised teaching standards, "The Time for Results agenda for improving the teaching profession remains largely unfinished,'' the report says.
In particular, it notes, a teacher's performance still has little or no effect on his or her pay and responsibilities. And most teachers' jobs change little from their first day in the classroom until their last.
A tiny town in New Hampshire has become the first in the nation to authorize tax abatements for property owners who pay for a high school student's private education.
Mary Fulton, a research analyst for the Education Commission of the States, called the move by Epsom, N.H., "a new twist.'' And advocates of school choice say it may be an important development in their effort to bring more competitiveness to the educational marketplace.
"Even though it's a tiny town and a modest-sized program, it could have gargantuan ramifications,'' says Clint Bolick, director of the conservative Landmark Legal Foundation. "It can apply anywhere property taxes provide a significant degree of education financing.''
Under the controversial plan, property owners in Epsom, a rural community of some 4,500 people located 15 miles east of Concord, can have their property taxes cut by as much as $1,000 if they pay at least a portion of a high school student's tuition at a private school--secular or religious.
Groups considering lawsuits to block the program include the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, and the state school boards' association. The New Hampshire-NEA will be involved in the "fray in some significant way,'' says Fred Place, president of the union. "We view it, obviously, as taking educational funding and diverting it from the public sector to the private sector.''
For the first time in 15 years, the board of directors of the National Education Association has opened discussions on the possibility of merging with other teachers' unions.
"We believe all teachers should be in one organization,'' Keith Geiger, president of the 2 millionmember union, said in January. He characterized the talks at the December meeting as open, healthy, and unemotional, adding that the board would continue to explore the pros and cons of joining forces with such organizations as the 750,000-member American Federation of Teachers and the 45,000-member American Association of University Professors.
The board's action and Geiger's acknowledgement signal further movement on the merger front. Last summer, Albert Shanker, president of the AFT, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, publicly raised the issue of merger. At that time, Geiger said that, although merger was not a top priority, he did not flatly reject the possibility.
Two major foundations have awarded a total of $2.45 million to help underwrite the development of a new national examination system for students.
Grants of $1.15 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts and $1.3 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation will support the project, which is being carried out by the Rochester, N.Y.based National Center on Education and the Economy and the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center.
The grants will pay for the first 18 months of a proposed 10-year effort to develop assessments that focus on high-level skills and on the application of knowledge to real-world problems. Under the proposal, students could complete a series of examinations, portfolios, and projects over a period of time to graduate from high school. A teacher-led effort will determine what all students should know and be able to do by the time they graduate.
"The United States is the only major nation in the world in which students go through school without working toward an examination standard,'' says Marc Tucker, president of the Rochester center. The project is currently assembling a group of volunteer school districts and states to help in the development effort.
The National Council for the Social Studies will begin offering national certification this year to K-12 teachers who demonstrate exceptional competence in teaching social studies.
Four years in development, the new credential is one of a number of efforts nationwide to upgrade the teaching profession by recognizing teachers who excel. The National Science Teachers Association and the Music Educators National Conference have already begun making such credentials available to teachers in those fields. And, on a larger scale, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is developing a certification system for highly qualified teachers in all fields.
Teachers who apply for the new social studies credential must undergo a comprehensive evaluation process that requires them to compile a portfolio of student work, write descriptions of students and their diverse educational needs, prepare three to five days of lesson plans, and write a "reflective log'' analyzing the successes or failures of those lessons.
"It is definitely not a deal where you send in an application and a check and get a certificate in the mail,'' says Frances Haley, executive director of the NCSS.
The new certification program is open to all experienced precollegiate teachers who have both a bachelor's and master's degree and who demonstrate that they are continuing to take advanced courses in the field. The application deadline is June 1. About 100 teachers are expected to apply for certification this year.
Key lawmakers across the country are warning that the nation's widening fiscal crisis is likely to take a significant toll on state education budgets.
Prospects for increased spending and new reform initiatives are dim, if not nonexistent, they say, and there are even doubts that basic school-aid programs can be protected.
The first national economic recession since the early 1980s has created rising deficits in much of the nation and a bleak outlook for revenues to fund fiscal 1992. Recent surveys show that more than half of the states will be forced to order cuts or postpone spending in order to reconcile this year's budgets. And without improvements in the economy, some states that have weathered fiscal 1991 could join the growing list of states facing substantial tax increases or program cuts for the new budget year that begins in July.
The states experiencing the largest general-fund deficits, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, include Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia.
Detroit and Minneapolis have joined the list of cities moving to create schools specifically tailored to the needs of black students.
The Minneapolis school board voted in January to establish the Afro-Centric Educational Academy for 30 to 50 male and female pupils in grades 6-8. Students will spend mornings at their home schools and attend the academy in the afternoon. Admission to the program will be based on student interest and teacher recommendations.
In Detroit, a proposal to create a K-8 school for black boys has been approved by a committee of the city school board and is expected to receive final approval this month.
The idea of creating allminority schools as a way to address the special needs of minority children is becoming increasingly popular. The Milwaukee school board voted in October to create two such schools. And the New York City school board has expressed interest in a plan to develop an alternative high school that would focus primarily on black and Hispanic males.
As in those two cities, the efforts under way in Detroit and Minneapolis have sparked controversy; critics argue that such schools discriminate by race and sex and represent a return to segregation.
"Impressions,'' the literature-based reading series published by Holt, Rinehart & Winston, is under attack again. A group of parents in Willard, Ohio, has filed a federal lawsuit against local school officials in an effort to force them to drop the series, now in use in 1,500 districts nationwide.
Some parents and conservative religious groups claim that "Impressions'' is morbid, violent, and laced with references to the occult. (See "A War Of Words,'' November/December.) As a result, state boards in Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Mississippi have refused to adopt the elementary reading series for statewide use.
The six Willard parents who filed the lawsuit claim that using the books in public schools violates the constitutional ban against government establishment of religion because the books promote the "religion'' of witchcraft. In a de- parture from previous textbook challenges, the plaintiffs are seeking $1 million in punitive damages and $160,000 in compensatory damages against the board and school superintendent.
"It's frankly intimidating for school boards to be sued for such a large amount simply for choosing school books,'' says Elliot Mincberg, a lawyer for People for the American Way, a national civil-liberties group representing the school district.