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Views of AFT, NEA on Reauthorization Getting Closer

By David J. Hoff — March 20, 2007 6 min read
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After five years of following separate paths, the two national teachers’ unions are now taking a unified position on accountability under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The National Education Association has been a staunch critic of the 5-year-old law, maintaining that it is an unfunded mandate with unattainable student-achievement goals. The American Federation of Teachers has argued that the law’s goals of raising achievement were sound, but that its policies needed revising.

Last week, when the AFT announced it had endorsed the proposals of the Forum on Educational Accountability, it joined the NEA in a coalition that is lobbying to radically overhaul the NCLB law’s accountability measures.

“We don’t align on every issue,” Edward J. McElroy, the president of the 1.3 million-member AFT, said in an interview last week. “But predominantly we line up on the major issues.”

Edward J. McElroy, right, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, testifies before a hearing last week as Arthur J. Rothkopf, left, and Michael Casserly listen.

Mr. McElroy said the AFT decided to join the Forum on Educational Accountability after re-evaluating where the coalition of 100-plus groups stood compared with the AFT’s positions. He did not outline which of the forum’s positions diverged from those of the AFT.

In another alliance that could complicate efforts to reauthorize the NCLB law, more than 50 Republicans, including the No. 2 GOP leader in the House, introduced bills last week that would remove the law’s accountability measures and its requirement that states assess students every year.

Mr. McElroy outlined the AFT’s position on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act before a hearing of House and Senate members. In a rare event, the House Education and Labor Committee and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held the March 13 joint hearing to discuss changes to the law, which is scheduled to be reauthorized this year.

Other witnesses included NEA President Reg Weaver and representatives of the Council of the Great City Schools, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and a blue-ribbon panel on the NCLB law convened by the Aspen Institute.

While the Senate committee has already held its first NCLB hearings this year, last week’s session was the first held by the House committee since Democrats regained control of Congress.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said the House committee, which he chairs, plans many hearings on the law as part of “a bipartisan, comprehensive, and inclusive process.”

Much of the discussion centered on how to tinker with the law’s central provisions establishing a federal accountability system for educational performance, seeking to improve the quality of teachers, and setting a goal that all students be proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Tinkering or Rewriting?

In summing up the witnesses’ recommendations, Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., said that “No Child Left Behind is fundamentally very good for education, but may need some changes.”

That may have summarized the tenor of last week’s hearing, but Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., a member of the panel, said the law gives the federal government too much control over state instructional and assessment policies.

Later in the week, as he indicated he would earlier this month, Rep. Hoekstra unveiled a bill that would give states wide latitude in setting the achievement goals for students and the accountability systems to measure progress toward those goals. (“Conservative Plan Would Shift Accountability to the States,” March 14, 2007.)

Rep. Roy Blunt, the Republican whip, was among the 52 members who have endorsed Rep. Hoekstra’s bill, and Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jim DeMint, R-S.C., have introduced a similar bill in the Senate.

Although the AFT’s policy shift on NCLB is subtle, members of the Forum on Educational Accountability said it is significant. AFT officials attended organizational meetings for the forum in its planning stages three years ago, but decided not to join the group early in the process, said Bruce Hunter, a chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, who was instrumental in the formation of the forum.

“They are looking at different ways of measuring progress,” Mr. Hunter said of the AFT. “I think it shows that their members have weighed in with them, really clearly.”

The change is noteworthy, another observer said, because the AFT has endorsed standards-based accountability measures for more than a decade, dating back to the leadership of the late Albert Shanker. But there are no other signs that the AFT is changing its positions on that policy approach, added Joseph P. Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College, City University of New York.

“I think we have to be careful not to overread this,” Mr. Viteritti said. “This is a significant development, but we’re not sure what it means yet.”

At the House-Senate education committees’ hearing, Mr. McElroy and Mr. Weaver offered similar criticisms of the NCLB’s accountability system.

The system “misidentifies as failing thousands of schools that are making real progress,” Mr. McElroy told the lawmakers. “Students, parents, teachers, and communities know that their schools are making solid academic progress, yet they’re told that they’re not making the grade. It’s devastating and demoralizing.”

National Education Association President Reg Weaver testifies at a joint House-Senate hearing on the No Child Left Behind Act last week. The NEA is part of a coalition seeking a major overhaul of the law.

Mr. Weaver also characterized the NCLB accountability measures as unfair. In his written testimony, he urged Congress to allow states to adopt their own accountability systems that would use several different ways to determine student progress.

Under the NCLB accountability system, states must assess students in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and at least once in high schools. To make adequate yearly progress, districts and schools must meet achievement targets for all students and various subgroups according to race, ethnicity, demographics, and students’ special needs.

The national teachers’ unions haven’t always been so close on the wide-ranging federal law, an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The 3.2 million-member NEA has been highly critical of the law. In 2005, the NEA filed a federal lawsuit seeking to have the law declared invalid because, the suit contended, it violated its own prohibition against forcing state and local officials to spend money for its implementation. (“NEA Files ‘No Child Left Behind’ Lawsuit,” April 20, 2005.)

A U.S. District Court judge in Detroit later dismissed the case, and the lawsuit is on appeal.

The AFT, by contrast, has generally supported the law. It launched a campaign in 2005 outlining ways to change the law to make it an effective way to spur increased student achievement. The campaign includes a well-read Web log called “Let’s Get it Right.”

Coalition-Building

In his statement to the committees, Mr. Weaver of the NEA outlined many of the goals of the Forum on Educational Accountability. The coalition argues that accountability decisions should be made on the basis of a variety of test scores and other measures, such as teacher grades and portfolios of students’ work. It also suggests that schools should define how they would meet targets for improving the quality of their teachers and expanding the involvement of parents. (“Critics of NCLB Ask Congress to Overhaul It,” Feb. 28, 2007.)

The NEA, the AASA, and the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, helped start the forum three years ago. Mr. Hunter said AFT representatives stopped attending the meetings because they supported the law’s system of making accountability decisions based on test scores.

Other members of the forum include the National School Boards Association, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and the National PTA. The coalition also has members from a variety of civil rights and religious advocacy organizations.

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as Views of AFT, NEA on Reauthorization Getting Closer

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