NEA President Blasts Testing Proposals
Federal lawmakers intent on using high-stakes tests to gauge students’ knowledge are unfairly jeopardizing otherwise rich academic lives, Bob Chase, the president of the 2.6 million-member National Education Association, declared during a July 4 speech to NEA delegates here.
Mr. Chase blasted such efforts, which are part of far-reaching federal legislation expected to be enacted within the next few months, in his address to the union’s annual Representative Assembly. Then he went on to attack President Bush’s recent tax cut, and questioned Mr. Bush’s commitment to disadvantaged children.
“So much of the soul of education is being jettisoned in the name of testing,” Mr. Chase told the more than 9,000 delegates, who met from July 4-7. “Music, art, scientific discovery—even recess—are being thrown by the wayside in order to prepare students for the almighty test. What good is an education if it teaches children to memorize, but not to think?”
Mr. Chase was referring to a policy in bills recently passed by large bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress that would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Students in grades 3-8 would be tested annually in reading and mathematics, and the results would, in part, be used to determine which schools would undergo shakeups. The two versions of the measure will go next to a conference committee, which will write a final version.
“At a time when testing is being exalted as a cure-all, we must insist that tests be used as a stethoscope, not a sledgehammer,” Mr. Chase added to applause.
Instead, standardized testing should be one of many variables used to diagnose students’ strengths and weaknesses, he said. Such exams, when used alone, don’t collect adequate information to determine which schools are doing a good job and which are not, he said.
At a time when education needs more money, he added, the Bush administration has pushed through a multibillion-dollar tax cut. Without adequate funding, any reforms are destined for failure, Mr. Chase—whose union was a staunch supporter of President Bush’s 2000 Democratic opponent, Al Gore— warned.
Sandy Kress, Mr. Bush’s chief education adviser, called Mr. Chase’s speech politically motivated and lacking in key information.
“He is really saying the status quo is acceptable,” Mr. Kress said in an interview from Austin, Texas. “We’ve increased spending over the years, and the problem is that we’re not getting the improvement we need. It has become intolerable to excuse the failure to make progress.”
The bills that will be considered by House and Senate conferees would reward schools that were doing well and provide educational options for the families of children attending schools that were failing, Mr. Kress said. In addition, he said, the bills would allow more money to be spent on items such as professional development and class-size reduction. They also would allow school districts flexibility in deciding how to best use portions of federal allocations.
At a press conference, Mr. Chase acknowledged that not everything in the House and Senate bills is bad. For example, the union has long supported literacy initiatives and helping low- performing schools. But at the same briefing, the NEA president took issue with lawmakers who maintain that now is not the time to significantly increase federal spending on special education programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
“I don’t know why we have to wait for further discussion on IDEA to fully fund it,” he said. “It’s been around for 26 years.”
A few days earlier, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige told a gathering of NEA leaders here that the IDEA was “an act that itself needs systemic reform,” but that major changes in federal special education policy should be a job for the next session of Congress.
“Our special education system has a big problem with overenrollment of minority students,” he said in his June 30 speech, “and reports have shown that IDEA, as it stands now, leaves too much room for this problem to continue.”
This year’s annual meeting shaped up to be a quiet one, with the exception of a proposed resolution related to homosexuality and schools. (See story, “NEA Poised To Defer Vote On Aid For Gay Students.”)
Plans to form a new partnership with the American Federation of Teachers elicited some harsh words on the assembly floor, but the pitch of the debate never reached the level heard at previous NEA meetings over more contentious matters, such as pay-for-performance for teachers.
Specifically, the so- called “NEAFT Partnership” agreement” would create a new panel—comprising 15 NEA leaders and 15 AFT leaders—that could plan joint projects, such as political-action campaigns and conferences on improving school quality.
The agreement was crafted earlier this year after negotiators conceded that this summer was too soon for the two teachers’ unions to consider a plan for a full- fledged merger. A measure that would have laid the groundwork for creating a single national teachers’ union was resoundingly rejected at the NEA’s 1998 Representative Assembly.
“I was against merger in 1998, and I am against merger today,” said Edward Rosenthal, a delegate from Illinois and a member of the NEA’s board of directors. “This document is not a merger document, it is a partnership document. It allows NEA and AFT to work together on issues where we agree, but it also allows NEA and AFT to remain separate and independent.”
Even so, a one-hour debate on the proposal here showed that some delegates still had concerns with even a small-scale alliance with the AFT. Some protested that the two unions would be equally represented on the new joint council, even though the NEA boasts some 21/2 times the AFT’s 1 million members. Others complained that they hadn’t yet learned the specifics of a no- raid agreement brokered by leaders of the two unions.
The agreement, which seeks to discourage affiliates of the two unions from vying for one another’s members, would go into effect if the partnership plan passes. NEA delegates were schedule to vote by secret ballot on July 6. The AFT’s executive council plans to take up the agreement on July 11.
Two New York NEA Affliates Vote Switch to AFT
Even as the two national unions work to form new alliances, members of two NEA affiliates in New York state have recently voted to switch their allegiances to the AFT.
The 1,100-member Greece Teachers Association and the 80-member Gananda Teachers Association, both based in suburbs of Rochester, voted last month to end their relationships with NEA-New York, according to union officials. The unions’ constitutions require members to review memberships with national unions periodically.
“The issue was not the national affiliate, but the state affiliate,” said William L. Walzer, the executive vice president of the Greece Teachers Association. “We had difficulty with the NEA-New York providing quality services.”
No local affiliate has left the state affiliate since 1993, said Gregory S. Nash, the president of the 45,000-member union based in Albany. He added that he wasn’t sure what had motivated the union members to make the decisions they did.
Refining Union’s Stance on Charter Schools
Delegates on July 5 overwhelmingly approved a report by a special NEA study panel that seeks to refine the union’s stance on charter schools.
Although it does not call for major changes in NEA policy, the document does reflect far more flexibility than the organization showed in the early 1990s, when it expressed nearly complete opposition to the publicly funded but largely independent schools.
For instance, while it still opposes granting charters to for-profit businesses, it does agree that groups that are given charters should be permitted to hire profit-making organizations to provide services, including management services.
Also, it acknowledges that forcing charter schools to adhere to all rules and regulations that apply to mainstream public schools would stifle the very innovation that the charter movement was meant to nurture. While stressing that charter schools should not “disproportionately divert” resources from regular public schools, the document favors formulas that finance charter schools at the per-pupil level just as regular schools are funded, and it recognizes a need for charter schools to have access to start-up money.
“Charter schools are a major part of the education reform movement,” the report says, “and if NEA is to continue to be the pre-eminent national voice for public education, it must be part of the dialogue about the future direction of charter schools.”
Considering Candidates for Next NEA President
Mr. Chase has entered his final year as president, and delegates began considering the upcoming changing of the guard.
They were scheduled late last week to choose three new members for the nine-person executive committee, which meets about seven times a year to handle NEA policy issues.
On the last day of the assembly, two candidates for union president were expected to announce: Reg Weaver, the vice president, and Denise Rockwell, a member of the executive committee. Mr. Weaver came up through the ranks of the NEA’s state affiliate in Illinois, while Ms. Rockwell has served in leadership positions with United Teachers Los Angeles, a local affiliate including both NEA and AFT members.
—Jeff Archer & Julie Blair
A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as Reporters’ Notebook