School & District Management

NEA, Business Groups Back ‘Tough Choices’ Reforms

By Catherine Gewertz — March 10, 2009 4 min read
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The nation’s largest teachers’ union and two leading business groups said today they have become partners in the work of a blue-ribbon commission trying to revolutionize American education.

The announcement by the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers marks the next step in taking the ideas in a high-profile December 2006 report, “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” from proposals to practice. The report, by the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, called for sweeping, systemic changes in education funding, assessment, school management, and teacher pay and training. (“U.S. Urged to Reinvent Its Schools,” Dec. 20, 2006.)

At a news conference here, leaders of the National Center on Education and the Economy, which sponsored the commission, also said that Arizona, Delaware, and New Mexico would begin the planning required to rework aspects of their education systems to reflect the commission’s framework. In doing so, the new states join Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Utah, which signed on to do likewise in October. (“Pilot Projects to Aim at Workforce Issues,” Nov. 5, 2008.)

The NEA, the manufacturers’ group, and the U.S. Chamber issued a joint statement encouraging states to seek grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s $5 billion “Race to the Top” fund of economic-stimulus money to help finance their own versions of the commission’s recommendations.

Previously, the NEA had pledged to support any of its state affiliates that chose to work with state leaders on changes consistent with the commission’s report. But today, the association went a step further, pledging support for the concepts at the federal policy level as well. In their statement, the three groups urged “states and the federal government to give a fair trial” to the report’s ideas, even as they reserved the right to disagree with some of them.

“Each of us does not necessarily agree with every detail of the recommendations in the report,” the three groups said, “but the case it makes for revolutionary change is compelling and urgent, and the proposals it offers deserve serious attention.”

The statement included an asterisk noting that the NEA objects in particular to the report’s suggested elimination of defined-benefit pension plans for teachers.

Planning Phase

Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit Washington group, said the union and business alliance indicated that those groups are willing to change the way they work in order to remake American education to build a globally competitive workforce.

“None of us can afford to hold on to positions long considered sacred,” he said. “That is stasis. And stasis is what we can least afford.”

John Wilson, the NEA’s executive director, said the union “is here to say we no longer accept the status quo.” But he and Arthur Rothkopf, the senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber, said details of the concrete steps the union and business groups would take have yet to be worked out.

Mr. Wilson said that while some of the commission’s recommendations are “very prescriptive,” the union endorses the overall framework. He declined to detail the provisions that the union considers thorny, saying it is best to focus on areas of agreement.

The three states new to the partnership will now begin a planning year. Mr. Tucker said each will focus on different aspects of the report’s recommendations, as they see fit, and the work might begin with demonstration districts, rather than statewide.

Each state’s education commissioner appeared at the news conference, one via video, alongside the heads of the states’ NEA affiliates.

Lillian Lowery, Delaware’s superintendent of education, said her state might use the report’s guidelines to reshape its assessment system and boost teacher quality, improve its high schools, and build more flexibility into its funding system.

New Mexico’s education secretary, Veronica García, said she was interested in its recommendations to craft state-level high school “board exams,” provide universal preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds, and revamp teacher compensation.

Appearing by video, Arizona’s education superintendent, Tom Horne, said he hopes to draw on the report to generate better compensation, recruitment, and retention strategies for teachers. He is also interested in the report’s proposal to allow high school students to leave early for college once they pass the proposed board exams, since that could free up funding to better compensate teachers.

Mr. Tucker said there is a delicate tension between allowing states to forge their own approaches to the report’s recommendations and permitting them to be so selective that the power of the broad, systemic approach is lost.

“We would get worried if what we heard is, ‘Let’s pick the low-hanging fruit and leave it at that,’ ” he said. “If you want to cherry-pick, that’s fine, but don’t become part of our coalition.”

William Brock, a former Tennessee senator and U.S. secretary of labor who is a co-chairman of implementation for the commission, said that “with the support of a Congress that is beginning to pay attention” and a new president who has improving education high on his agenda, he is optimistic that deep change can take root.

“I think we’re at a tipping point, and it is fun to be part of that,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2009 edition of Education Week

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