School & District Management

NEA, More States Sign On to ‘Tough Choices’ Changes

By Catherine Gewertz — March 16, 2009 4 min read
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The nation’s largest teachers’ union and two leading business groups said last week 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 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 in October to do likewise. (“Pilot Projects to Aim at Workforce Issues,” Nov. 5, 2008.)

The NEA, the U.S. Chamber, and the manufacturers’ group 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 pay for 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 at the March 10 press event, the union 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 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.

In its report, the commission envisions states as the sole funders of schools. States, not local districts, would be teachers’ employers, and would have central authority for recruiting, training, and certifying them. Schools would no longer be “owned” by districts, but by independent contractors, including groups of teachers. School boards and central offices would monitor and support those “contract” schools. High school students could leave school for college or technical programs once they have shown mastery.

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 showed that those groups are willing to change the way they work in order to remake American education to build a more 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 the state sees fit, and the work might begin with demonstration districts, rather than statewide.

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

Lillian Lowery, Delaware’s secretary of education, said her state might use the report’s guidelines to reshape its assessment system and raise 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,” which would signify students’ completion of high school requirements; provide universal preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds; and revamp teacher compensation. The report recommends shifting some retirement benefits toward better compensation for all teachers, especially lower-paid beginning teachers.

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 money to better compensate teachers.

A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as NEA, More States Sign On to ‘Tough Choices’ Changes

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