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Education Issues Loom Large At Governors' Gathering

Student achievement was the watchword when the nation's governors gathered here last month for their annual convention. Gov. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, who presided over the meeting as chairman, picked the education theme when he began his one-year term in August 1998.

Like a freshly minted Miss America stumping for her chosen cause, the new chairman of the National Governors' Association traditionally uses the post to focus attention on an issue that looms large for the states.

Mr. Carper, a Democrat who was succeeded as NGA chairman on Aug. 10 by Gov. Michael O. Leavitt of Utah, duly declared that improving schools should be at the top of every governor's agenda. And he pinpointed what he sees as three worthwhile directions for state education policy: increasing accountability at all levels of schooling, harnessing technology, and expanding opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.

Sessions at the Aug. 7-10 convention highlighted those areas, and for the most part produced few surprises. The governors touted pet legislation or lauded the initiatives of their colleagues. Platitudes were plentiful.

But at least once, a critical voice was raised.

In a session on high-quality teaching featuring 11 teachers who hold certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Gov. John Engler of Michigan questioned whether such certification led to increased student achievement and whether it stressed teaching methods over content knowledge.

"I know I'm raising something controversial," said Mr. Engler, a Republican.

Rebuttal came swiftly from none other than Nancy Flanagan, the Michigan middle school teacher who had made the trip to St. Louis at the invitation of Mr. Engler.

"That's a false dichotomy between pedagogy and content," snapped Ms. Flanagan, who teaches instrumental music at Hartland Middle School in Hartland, Mich. The NBPTS certification program, she said, "is content-rich, and it doesn't prescribe a single teaching style."

The Michigan governor's questions were provoked by an article in the Aug. 9 issue of the magazine National Review. In it, authors Danielle Dunne Wilcox, a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Chester E. Finn Jr., formerly a high-ranking federal education official under President Reagan and now the head of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, argued that the board had become "another union-dominated, establishment outfit, steeped in 'progressive' ideology, visiting new woes on our schools." The board so far has certified more than 1,800 master teachers.

But Ms. Flanagan, along with the other teachers present, offered a ringing endorsement of the NBPTS process, calling it "the Cadillac of professional development."

The session was chaired by North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt Jr., a Democrat and the founding chairman of the NBPTS board.

Ordinary attendees of the governors' meeting went home with souvenir tote bags, but the governors themselves got another kind of luggage: "tool kits" for fixing their schools.

At the opening plenary session, each governor's place was marked by a lavender- and mint-colored box with a carrying handle. Inside the cardboard box were three videotapes, several publications, and a thick binder laying out the challenges of accountability, technology, and out-of-school learning opportunities along with creative responses from state governments.

The idea, said Dane Linn, the director of the NGA's education policy division, was to provide a handy and predigested guide to improving schools.

"It's a series of tools and great ideas so governors and their policy advisers don't have to reinvent the wheel," said Mr. Linn, who planned to make the kits available to others as well.

A conference that puts teachers at center stage should probably feature students, too, and this one did. In a session on "Tutors, Mentors, Coaches, Friends: Expanding Learning Opportunities," Govs. Gray Davis of California, Frank O'Bannon of Indiana, and William J. Janklow of South Dakota each introduced a student with a story to tell about learning outside the regular classroom.

Seventh grader Brittany Davis of Sacramento, Calif., described her transformation from couch potato to honor-roll student, thanks to an after- school program backed by public and private funds.

Nineteen-year-old Bree Emsweller of Danville, Ind., detailed the skills she had acquired in 10 years of active participation with the 4-H Club.

And 7th grader Tim Yim of Sioux Falls, S.D., credited his state-funded after-school program with keeping him out of trouble and feeding his aspiration to become a doctor. Asked how he would improve a good thing, Tim suggested sending students out to sing and read to hospitalized children.

Gov. Carper, who chaired the session, said interest is growing in providing children with extra learning time. Forty-three of 50 governors responded to a survey on the topic, and more than half said they planned to step up efforts to create more such opportunities, he reported.

—Bess Keller

Vol. 19, Issue 1, Page 22

Published in Print: September 8, 1999, as Reporter's Notebook
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