A Measure Of Self-Control

November 01, 1989 4 min read

Minnesota has become the first state in the nation to give teachers a voting majority on a fully autonomous board that sets standards for entry into teaching.

Those who advocate giving teachers more control of their profession also had something to cheer about in Iowa, where lawmakers this year established an autonomous standards-setting board on which teachers will hold the largest bloc of seats.

The creation of independent, teacherdominated boards is seen by many as a critical step in the effort to professionalize teaching.

Unlike most of the established professions, teachers generally lack the authority to establish the standards that their peers must meet to practice. The question of who should set and enforce the standards for entry into teaching has become a lively and contentious issue in a number of states. majority. Many people consider it autonomous, but in reality some of its actions can be vetoed by the state board of education.

The American Federation of Teachers, which has fewer members than the NEA in most states, has generally remained quiet on the state standardsboard issue, focusing instead on the work of the new national board. In Minnesota, however, the bill giving teachers a majority on the existing board was crafted by its state affiliate.

Despite the concerted efforts of the NEA and its affiliates, progress has been slow. Iowa and Minnesota were among 15 states that addressed the standards-board issue during this year’s legislative season.

“The states that have moved ahead should be applauded,’' says Mary Hatwood Futrell, the former NEA president. “And those that decided not to have to understand that the issue is not going to go away.’'

The idea of teacher-controlled standards-setting at the state level has been controversial since the early 1970’s, when the NEA first began pushing for it. Many critics of the concept contend that teachers and their unions cannot be trusted to govern the profession in the public interest. They argue that because education is a public enterprise, the public should control standards-setting for teaching while allowing some teacher involvement.

In most states, such an arrangement exists, with the authority for setting standards and issuing licenses resting with the state board or department of education. In many places, the licensing agency receives recommendations from an advisory panel, which often includes teachers.

“It’s a question of turf, of changing the decisionmakers,’' says Susan Carmon, a professional-development specialist with the NEA. “Whenever you do that, you’re going to run into some opposition. It’s a very overt change.’'

In Connecticut this year, the state board of education rejected a proposal to create an autonomous licensing panel, creating instead an advisory committee with a teacher majority.

Gerald Tirozzi, the state’s superintendent of schools, says he believes the advisory role is appropriate since state laws “very clearly’’ give the state board of education responsibility for governing public schools. “I have a problem when I hear, ‘We want to be treated like other professions,’' Tirozzi says. “We’re talking about a public enterprise, and that’s a very unfair comparison.’'

The Minnesota teaching board has operated independently since its creation in 1973. The new law reduces the number of members from 15 to 11, six of whom will be teachers. All will be appointed by the governor. The board grants and revokes teacher licenses, sets licensure standards, and approves teacher-education programs.

The NEA considers the creation of Iowa’s new board a major success. The Iowa State Education Association, which drafted the bill, had lobbied for the board for seven years. The 11member panel includes five teachers, four administrators, the state school superintendent, and a lay member. Like Minnesota, the governor appoints its members.

The board has the authority to set licensure standards and issue and revoke licenses. The panel, however, does not have the power to approve teacher-education programs. Institutions that train teachers objected to the change, according to James Sutton, a union lobbyist.

Robert Black Jr., a program specialist for the Minnesota Education Association, notes that teachers’ greater role in policing their profession will be accompanied by calls for more accountability.

“Heretofore, it has been one of the excuses or escapes that we don’t control the profession, so don’t blame us,’' he says. “If we’re controlling it, there will be a greater portion of responsibility we will have to accept.’'

After years of striving for its ideal board with only limited success, the NEA is now encouraging state affiliates to make incremental advances and to do whatever they can to get more teachers involved in standards-setting. “If they can’t get the model board,’' Carmon says, “they ought to try to increase the scope of existing boards and increase the proportion of teachers on those boards.’'

She expects to see activity on the issue in the coming year in Connecticut, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Pennsylvania.

--Ann Bradley, Education Week, and Blake Hume Rodman

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as A Measure Of Self-Control