School & District Management

NEA Opens Campaign to Rewrite Federal Education Law

By Vaishali Honawar — July 11, 2006 6 min read
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A majority of the 8,200 delegates gathered here for the National Education Association’s annual convention last week approved a plan to push for aggressive changes to the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which is up for reauthorization next year.

In his keynote address, Reg Weaver exhorted union delegates to lobby for changes to the No Child Left Behind Act. "We should be the vanguard innovators of education reform," he said.

The nation’s largest union, whose leaders have often complained they were prevented from taking part in the crafting of the country’s chief education law, approved the plan during the July 2-5 meeting that calls on NEA members to lobby Congress for revisions to bring the law more into line with the views of the 2.8 million-member union.

The changes proposed include establishing an accountability system that relies on far more than testing as the measure of success or failure. Instead, the union recommends designing a system based on multiple benchmarks, including teacher-designed classroom assessments, student portfolios, graduation and dropout statistics, and college-enrollment rates, among other measures.

The plan also calls for smaller class sizes, more funding for schools, and revisions to the definition of a “highly qualified” teacher.

It passed with just three delegates speaking publicly against it. They argued that the union should take even more drastic steps and try to repeal the law in its entirety.

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At the Representative Assembly, the union also released a survey of 1,000 NEA members that showed nearly 70 percent dislike the 4½-year-old No Child Left Behind law and believe it has failed to improve education. Only 29 percent of those surveyed said they approve of the law.

“We knew from the start that a flawed law would prevent educators from providing a rich, supportive environment for students,” said Executive Committee member Rebecca Pringle, who chaired the committee set up last year by union President Reg Weaver to devise the strategy.

Bipartisan support for the law had, at the beginning, made the NEA voice “lonely,” she said. But support for the NEA point of view has since grown, she added, with some states—such as Connecticut—taking a stand against the law. Both Connecticut and the NEA have filed lawsuits against NCLB. The Connecticut suit is pending, but the NEA one was dismissed. The union is appealing that decision.

Abby Beytin, a teacher at Timber Grove Elementary School in Owings Mills, Md., and a member of the committee that drew up the proposal, said it was unfair that teachers who deal every day with children in the classroom were left out of the drafting of the NCLB law.

“We are given a curriculum and step-by-step instructions as if every child will fit in a box,” she said. “But they are not giving me, the expert, the opportunity to do what I think is the best way to teach a child.”

Teachers ‘Left Behind’?

The NEA has long opposed the law, particularly some of its accountability and teacher-qualification mandates. Dennis Van Roekel, the vice president of the NEA, said when Congress passed the legislation in late 2001 at the urging of President Bush, the nation was focused on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. “[The NCLB law] was not where our nation was focused. Many people who voted on that act did not have an idea what was in it,” he charged.

Some observers agree that teachers’ voices were glaringly absent during its passage.

Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said the perception at the time was that “Democrats felt schools were not moving fast enough to help children, and Republicans tend to be very suspicious of most public school organizations, and believe that reforms have to be imposed on public schools.”

The former longtime education aide to House Democrats added that teachers ought to be more willing to accept accountability and the federal law if they want to influence the reauthorization.

The U.S. Department of Education did not return several calls for comment, and the NEA’s manager for NCLB policy, Joel Packer, said the union’s own attempts at communicating with the department and with members of congressional education committees have been mostly one-sided.

Offers of help with the reauthorization have gone unanswered, he added. Two House committee hearings held so far on reauthorization did not include the NEA.

But some observers say the union’s complaints do not ring true, given its political and lobbying might. While the NEA might not always get what it wants, it does make its voice heard, said Dianne M. Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a watchdog group in Washington that has largely supported the law.

Roberto Rodriguez, a senior education adviser to U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, said the senator—one of the architects of the law five years ago—would listen closely to all K-12 stakeholders, including the NEA, as Congress moves on the reauthorization.

“The NEA is an important and critical voice, and one we will definitely listen to in the context of reauthorization,” he said.

Steve Forde, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., the chairman of the House education committee, did not refer directly to the NEA in an e-mail response, saying instead that the congressman would work with “a wide array of stakeholders” on the reauthorization and get input from “students, teachers, administrators, parents, and others.”

NCLB ‘Horror Stories’

Here in this city of amusement parks, delegates dressed as if for a picnic cheered wildly and kept up an atmosphere of lightheartedness even as they plodded through numerous business items over the four-day Representative Assembly. Despite the numerous topics they tackled, references to NCLB were heard most in the conference hall, with many delegates expressing personal frustration with the law.

Nearly 100 teachers told their own NCLB “horror stories” to a video camera in a room in the convention center. As the union’s campaign on the law gets under way, one of those teachers will win a trip to Washington to meet with his or her congressional representative to recount their story.

Sharon Stacy, a teacher from Van Buren County, Mich., who teaches children with severe disabilities at the Bert Goens Learning Center, spoke to the video camera of increased paperwork, no time for planning, and what she says are the almost-impossible mandates set for her children. Some have such disabilities, she said, that the most basic accomplishments, such as learning to talk and walk, are milestones.

“It sounds great to say ‘no child left behind,’ but to expect every child in my school to meet standards is ridiculous,” she said in an interview.

Tanya Earle, a social studies teacher at Molalla High School in Molalla River, Ore., said the law “has undermined a lot of what we do.”

She contends that her subject area has suffered because of the law’s focus on reading and math.

“Some schools are saying social studies is not even part of the core curriculum,” she said.

But Glen Kraig, a delegate from Fontana, Calif., said he has few objections to the No Child Left Behind Act—an opinion, he said, that does not make him popular with many fellow teachers. Although he agreed that the amount of testing should be reduced, “standardized tests became necessary because some teachers were just passing children through,” he said.

While teachers like Ms. Stacy say they would be happy if Congress did away with the law altogether, some NEA stalwarts appeared to believe that a compromise was more in order.

Most teachers agree on some of the basic principles in the law, including the need for accountability and skilled teachers, said Patricia A. Foerster, the outgoing president of the Maryland State Teachers Association. “There are ways to deal with the negativity of NCLB short of destroying it,” she said, “that will put us on a better track.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as NEA Opens Campaign to Rewrite Federal Education Law


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