Educators Gather To Hear Latest on Federal Improvement Programs

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More than 2,000 state, local, and federal education officials met here last month to consider the links between quality and equity in the classroom.

Leading the charge at the Department of Education's 1998 Regional Conference on Improving America's Schools was Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

Mr. Riley, who likened the meeting to a "Marine boot camp for educators," outlined the department's policy priorities for the coming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the 1965 law that governs most federal K-12 programs. Congress is expected to tackle ESEA reauthorizing legislation this year.

For three days at the Opryland Hotel and Convention Center, amid the lush surroundings of the country music capital at Christmastime, teachers and administrators attended more than 100 workshops to learn about federal programs and how to apply for them and put them to work in their schools.

The Dec. 15-17 meeting, the department's third and final regional conference on school improvement of 1998, offered attendees from individual schools and districts tips on how and why comprehensive school reform can work. The array of program topics--from teacher training to early-childhood literacy--was based on seven Education Department priorities.

Those priorities involve ensuring that: all 3rd graders can read well and independently; all 8th graders can master the fundamentals of algebra and geometry; all students by age 18 are prepared for and can afford at least two years of college; all students have talented, well-trained teachers; all classrooms are wired for the Internet by 2000; all schools are safe and drug-free; and all standards for achievement are clear and challenging.

Mr. Riley told the conferees in a keynote address that the priorities will protect the future of public education. He urged them to suggest ways to strengthen the ESEA law, which some more conservative members of Congress have promised to overhaul with block grants and school choice initiatives. He vowed to oppose any such proposals.

"It makes my blood boil when I hear talk of voucher and other alternative programs, which would weaken public education," said Mr. Riley to applause.

Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., assured the conferees that education will continue to be a top priority for the new 106th Congress. But Mr. Frist, who chaired the Senate Education Budget Task Force, declined to promote any of the contentious GOP initiatives with the audience of educators.

In 1999, "education will be number-one on the agenda," he predicted. The senator, who also serves on the Senate committee that oversees school legislation, added that his first priority will be to pass bipartisan legislation that would expand the Ed-Flex program to all states. The program currently allows 12 states to waive certain Education Department regulations.

Mr. Frist shared the stage with Mayor Philip N. Bredesen of Nashville, a Democrat who is likely to challenge him in the 2000 Senate election. Mr. Bredesen, who has overseen a districtwide school construction and renovation project during his two terms as mayor, stressed the importance of public schools.

At one session, attendees learned more about the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program, which offers federal dollars for "whole school" reform.

The program, often referred to as "Porter-Obey" or "Obey-Porter," was created in 1997 after Reps. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., and David R. Obey, D-Wis., tucked funding for it into a larger appropriations bill. It focuses on Title I schools.

A successful demonstration project for comprehensive school reform requires several elements, said Frank Sobol, a senior program specialist with the Education Department's office of elementary and secondary education. They include: effective, research-based methods and strategies for reform; a comprehensive reform design with components that are in sync with one another; and ongoing professional development.

More information on the demonstration program is available on the World Wide Web at

At one session, Arthur Cole, the Education Department's director of student-improvement programs, and other officials led about 100 educators in round-table discussions on improving the provisions of the ESEA.

Roger O'Brien, a mathematics specialist for the 76,000-student Polk County district in Bartow, Fla., suggested that the new reauthorization law require universities who train educators to coordinate with school districts on standards for teachers.

"There's this big gap," Mr. O'Brien said of what teachers learn in college and what they are expected to teach in classrooms. "Universities need to have some ownership over the standards."

--Anjetta Mcqueen, Joetta L. Sack, & Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily

Vol. 18, Issue 18, Page 23

Published in Print: January 13, 1999, as Educators Gather To Hear Latest on Federal Improvement Programs
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