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Autumn Of Discontent

Hard economic times often translate into hard times at the bargaining table. That has certainly been the case this past fall for teachers and school boards in many districts across the nation. As a result, the number of teacher strikes this year has far outdistanced last year's pace. In fact, by mid-November, the nation was only five strikes shy of the 199091 school-year total of 84.

Teachers in a number of districts are employing a more subtle tactic: working strictly to the rules of their contract. In Prince George's County, Md., for example, teachers were advised by their union leaders not to work beyond their seven and a half hour work day and to refrain from calling parents on their own time, spending their own money for school supplies, and volunteering for committee assignments or extracurricular activities.

Observers say the heightened level of labor unrest is due to a feeling among educators that they are bearing a disproportionate share of government spending cuts triggered by the recession.

Parents Ask: What National Goals?

More than three-quarters of American parents are totally unaware of the six national education goals adopted last year by President Bush and the National Governors' Association, according to a new survey sponsored by the National PTA and the Chrysler Corp.

Just 24 percent of the 792 parents surveyed said they were aware of the goals, and only 7 percent could correctly recall without prompting even one of them.

Moreover, the survey found that many parents didn't believe the goals were attainable by the turn of the century. Only 4 percent, for instance, believed that every school would be free of drugs and violence by the year 2000. The parents were optimistic on only one goal: Sixty-two percent thought it possible that students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having passed tests showing competency in such academic subjects as English, mathematics, and science.

About Face In Houston

After more than five years of favoring what district officials describe as a whole language approach to teaching reading, eight of the 162 elementary schools in Houston have returned to a traditional, phonics-based reading program this year.

Teachers and principals at the schools argued that their students--many from low-income families--were doing poorly under the whole language method. Scores on standardized reading tests have risen in some Houston schools in recent years, but they have declined in others.

Whole language may have fallen short, the petitioners say, because parents were not providing necessary at-home support. "For us, whatever a child learns for the most part happens in school, and we have to give them the skills to learn to read without someone standing over their shoulder,'' says principal Thaddeus Lott Sr. of Wesley Elementary School.

The debate over the kind of reading programs used in the Houston schools mirrors battles taking place nationwide between proponents of phonics, who stress the importance of teaching the relationships between letters and sounds, and whole language advocates, who believe children should be taught to read using whole texts. Over the years, district officials in Houston have encouraged schools to drop heavily structured phonics programs and replace them with strategies focusing more on early use of literature and writing.

But in November, the school board set aside $70,000 to purchase a phonics program for use on a trial basis in the eight schools.

Schools In Ruins

Nearly 5 million students attend classes in public schools that are inadequate due to age, overcrowding, or flaws in their structure or mechanical systems, according to the most extensive study of school facilities conducted in nearly 30 years.

Overall, one in eight public school buildings provides a poor physical environment for learning, the American Association of School Administrators concludes from its survey of 15,840 school districts. Nearly one-third of the public schools were built before World War II; only 11 percent have been built since 1980. Other problems that render the buildings inadequate, according to the survey, include environmental hazards, poor or non-existent heating, and problems in air conditioning and electrical systems.

School administrators, facility planners, and architects responding to the report concur with its findings and note that the education reform movement has largely ignored the need to upgrade school buildings.

Says Franklin Hill, an architect who wrote the book Tomorrow's Learning Environment, "We've totally ignored our capital infrastructure--buildings--in our educational thinking.''

The Association of School Business Officials estimates that the cost of just catching up on deferred maintenance nationwide would be $100 billion.

Worthy Wages For Child Care

The National Association for the Education of Young Children, the nation's largest organization of child care professionals, has decided to support an activist coalition of its members in a fiveyear campaign to secure better wages and benefits for child care workers across the country.

Advocates who pushed the NAEYC's governing board to take a more aggressive stand on the salary issue say they have become increasingly frustrated by working conditions that are forcing the teachers of small children to live "on the edge of poverty.''

Early childhood professionals uniformly agree that low salaries and high staff turnover are compromising the quality and availability of child care in this country. Despite increased levels of training, wages have declined in real terms over the past 15 years and now average $11,500 a year, according to a study released by the NAEYC. And a 1988 survey reported average turnover rates among child care teachers and aides of 41 percent; the study found that children in centers with high turnover were less competent in language and social development than those in centers with a stable teaching staff.

"It's ironic that at a time when there is more consensus than ever in the field about standards, quality, and what's good for children . . ., we can't retain good people,'' says Helen Taylor, a member of the NAEYC governing board.

The "worthy-wage campaign'' is being coordinated by the Child Care Employee Project, an Oakland, Calif.-based research and advocacy group, with support from several other groups.

New Respect For Teacher Education?

Over the past decade, few sectors of the education establishment have been as savagely criticized as teacher education. Some colleges of education have begun to take steps to improve their preparation programs, but many teacher educators complain that their efforts have been stymied. Schools of education, they argue, often occupy the lowest rung on the campus status ladder and typically lack the support of their institution's leadership.

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities-- whose member institutions are responsible for training more than half of the nation's teachers--is trying to change all that. A recent report by the AASCU urges the presidents of the association's 375 institutions to exert their leadership to ensure that teacher training receives the attention and resources it needs to become an active participant in the education reform movement.

The report marks the strongest signal to date that the nation's college presidents are taking seriously pleas from education leaders that they become direct players in promoting reform in their schools of education.

Robert Glennen Jr., chairman of the 16-member commission that prepared the report, says panel members are convinced that the "presidents can initiate changes that will restore the dignity, stability, respect, and effectiveness of teacher education in our democratic society.''

Specifically, the report directs colleges and universities to: ensure high priority and visibility for teacher education; promote and ensure total quality of teacher education; connect teacher education to the K-12 schools and their communities; promote diversity in the teaching profession; and recognize their leadership role in responding to the challenge of President Bush's America 2000 plan and the national goals approved by Bush and the nation's governors.

Catholic Educators Come Out Fighting

Seemingly undeterred by two and a half decades of falling enrollments in their schools, Roman Catholic educators emerged from a major national meeting in November feisty and ready to go on the offensive.

The delegates to the National Congress on Catholic Schools for the 21st Century approved 25 "directional statements'' on a range of topics. One calls for "just compensation'' for Catholic school faculty; it suggests that church schools raise pay to marketplace levels by 1997. Most Catholic school teachers are paid salaries well below those typically found in public schools.

Another statement calls for the opening of new schools and encourages Catholic educators to design "alternative school models to reflect the changing needs of family, church, and society.'' Notes Sister Catherine McNamee, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, "One of the reasons we have had this rather dramatic decline in enrollment is that much of the Catholic population has moved out to the suburbs, and the church decided not to open schools out there.''

As expected, the congress supports legislation that would include church schools in government funded parental-choice plans. "We will aggressively pursue legislation enabling all parents to choose the education appropriate for their children with their share of the education tax dollar,'' one statement says.

The purpose of the meeting, Sister McNamee explains, was to make sure that Catholic schools "are on the cutting edge for the 21st century and to make sure they are stabilized as far as financing.''

A Tragedy Of Errors

If on a test, a student described Sputnik as "the first successful intercontinental ballistic missile launched by the Soviet Union,'' the teacher would undoubtedly send the pupil back to the textbook for the right answer.

Unfortunately, the textbook may not be much help. In fact, if it was one of the new texts recently up for adoption in Texas, it may have been the source of the problem. That factual error was just one of 230 found in new U.S. history texts that the Texas school board was considering.

Although more than half the errors were incorrect dates, school board members were alarmed at a number of other errors they characterized as "stupid.'' One history book indicates that the United States invaded Guatemala in 1954, when, in fact, it never did. Another states that the United States "easily settled the [Korean War] conflict by using the bomb.''

Says William Davis, a state board member, "We wonder why our children make mistakes in history and geography when part of the reason might be that they get textbooks full of errors.''

Texas, the third largest purchaser of textbooks, had planned to spend $20 million on history texts that are typically used for at least six years. In many cases, textbooks approved in Texas are adopted in many other states as well.

After citizens pointed out the errors in November, the board decided to delay the books' approval; it will reconsider them at a meeting this month.

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