Bread and butter used to be the only items on the table of the nation's largest teachers' union, the National Education Association. Labor-flavored stuff, such as wages and job security, has been the union's primary fare. But a new NEA endeavor called the National Center for Innovation illustrates an added dimension to the union's philosophy: a concern about the character of the teaching profession-- not just the conditions.
Established in 1989 to foster creative and effective change in teaching and teacher preparation, NCI has four main components. The first two--the Excellence in Action Program and the Teacher Education Initiative-- were created to identify successful educational programs and to work with several universities to redesign teacher preparation and induction programs. The other projects--the Mastery in Learning Consortium and the Learning Laboratories Initiative--support real reform efforts in individual schools and districts.
The Mastery in Learning project is a collection of 11 schools from across the country that are in the midst of change. Although each has its own needs and demographic influences, all are interested in broad-based restructuring and in receiving NCI's support. That support takes a number of forms. The center assigns each school a liaison person from its headquarters in Washington, D.C., who monitors reform and determines what kind of support is needed. For example, if one of the school's objectives is to implement alternative student assessments, the liaison may provide a consultant from NCI's staff or find some other "expert'' to help out. The center also schedules conferences and workshops for MIL schools; sets them up with "critical friends,'' knowledgeable outsiders who can offer a fresh perspective; supplies information on the latest educational research; supports faculty in decisionmaking and team building; and provides each school with an indepth analysis of its progress that includes specific praise and recommendations.
The MIL project has taught NCI officials how difficult it is for schools to change; individual schools go so far and then run headlong into a district's rules and regulations. If the district mandates the use of certain textbooks, for example, then a school is bound to use them. In response, NCI began the Learning Laboratories Initiative to actively nudge districts toward giving their schools more decisionmaking power. Participating districts-- this year there are 19--agree to encourage experimentation throughout the system. NCI offers them support similar to that provided to MIL schools.
The center has also created ways for those involved in the NCI family to share knowledge, information, and insight. All participants in the center's four projects are linked through a newsletter and computer network. So, successful MIL ideas can be put to use in the Learning Labs, and the findings of the labs can influence the development of the Teacher Education Initiative.