Teaching Tops Agenda At Summit

By Lynn Olson & David J. Hoff — October 06, 1999 8 min read

Teaching was paramount at last week’s education summit, as state leaders confronted the challenges of making standards real in classrooms.

“If we don’t have great teachers, we won’t have great students,” said Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the chairman and chief executive officer of the IBM Corp. and a co-chairman of the third such national event, held here last Thursday and Friday. “It’s simple.”

Participants adopted an “action statement” that addressed strengthening accountability and building public support for the past decade’s work in the movement for high academic standards.

At the top of their list was how to improve the preparation and professional development of teachers so that the training is tied to state standards; draw talented men and women into the profession; and link teachers’ pay to their performance and skills.

As part of the last item, the business leaders agreed to help at least 10 states incorporate pay-for-performance incentive plans for teachers into salary structures. And education leaders agreed to establish salary scales that would provide credit for professional development only when it was linked to standards. Governors also pledged to establish or expand “alternative pathways” into teaching, as long as individuals demonstrate they have the content knowledge and expertise to help students reach high standards.

In other sections of the action statement, the 114 governors, corporate executives, and education leaders here committed to providing schools with more flexibility and control over personnel and resources--while holding them accountable for results, and giving students extra time and assistance before holding them back or denying them diplomas.

Business leaders also promised to increase to 20,000 the number of companies that review high school transcripts as part of the hiring process. Education leaders, for their part, pledged to align college-admission requirements with new high school graduation standards.

The statement said participants would work to expand public school choice and the number of charter schools, but acknowledged that private school choice divided them.

The participants adopted the position statement as their final action at the two-day meeting at the IBM conference center here. One of the most notable aspects of the third National Education Summit, compared with its two predecessors, was the presence and participation of educators and the depth of the discussion.

Far fewer governors attended--23--in contrast to the 49 who were at the 1989 summit and 40 at the one in 1996.

The meeting also was free from some of the tensions that surrounded the 1989 and 1996 events.

“The difference between this one and the last, I think is stunning,” said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington-based nonprofit group that promotes standards-based school improvement. “That one was characterized by bitter conflict about whether or not there ought to be standards. At this one, not only is there no conflict, but there is consensus among all the groups here on a detailed agenda.”

At the same time, conferees acknowledged that the nation is a long way from achieving the national education goals that grew out of the 1989 summit by the now-imminent target date of 2000. “I think the goals were too high,” said Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, a co-chairman of the meeting and of Achieve. The organization, which was created by governors and business leaders to promote standards-based reform, sponsored last week’s meeting with several business and education groups.

“There were no teeth in [the goals], and even though they were good points to get out there, there was no way to get there,” said Mr. Thompson, a Republican and the only governor to participate in all three summits.

‘About Time’

Last week’s emphasis on teaching was a marked departure from the summits held in 1989 and 1996. The goals that emerged from the meeting in Charlottesville, Va., 10 years ago did not address improving the quality of the teaching force. Congress added that mission when it passed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act in 1994.

The 1996 meeting, also held here in Palisades, focused primarily on the need to set standards and create assessments to measure progress toward them.

“It’s the proper time, and it’s about time” for teaching to be on the agenda, said Bob Chase, president of the 2.4 million-member National Education Association.

“I think there’s a growing awareness of what works,” said Sandra Feldman, the president of the 1 million-member American Federation of Teachers. “What works among other things is having teachers with an infrastructure that helps them get the job done.”

The two union leaders--both of whom attended last week’s event--said they didn’t have a problem supporting experiments with performance-based pay, but they warned that the programs should not be narrowly focused on student test scores. Such programs, they added, should not detract from the professional development needed to help current teachers learn the content that undergirds academic standards.

“The main thing is [pay-for-performance plans] can’t be seen as a substitute for raising salaries of the profession in general,” Ms. Feldman said. In a recent survey of AFT members, she noted, 40 percent of those surveyed held a second job--in part, because they considered their teaching salaries too low.

On the last day, participants amended the action statement to also emphasize the need to improve the preparation and compensation of school leaders who can both improve instruction and manage organizational change. “I’ve never been to a great school where they don’t have a great principal,” said Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carper, a Democrat.

The Hard Part

States are at a much different juncture from where they were in 1996, when few had implemented high-stakes tests tied to their standards. Now that thousands of students are being denied diplomas or forced to repeat a grade because they have failed such exams, opposition to standards, assessments, and their consequences is growing. (“Standards at Crossroads After Decade,” Sept. 22, 1999.)

Many conference participants said they were worried about how to quell that backlash and stay on course.

“I think it would be a mistake to give into those fears,” President Clinton said in an address that opened the summit. He urged governors to send a message to students who are held back that “we’ll be hurting you worse if we tell you you’re learning something that you’re not.”

“We’ll be basically participating in a fraud,” he continued, “which ultimately will cost you more personally, physically, and, of course, eventually, financially, than any pain that comes in the moment.”

“It’s going to be tough,” Mr. Gerstner of IBM said. “Institutional change always is. But we have to bear with the pain of transition.”

While he and others stressed the need to maintain, and even accelerate, the focus on accountability, Mr. Gerstner also suggested that states may have moved too quickly from standards to consequences without building public support.

“Maybe we haven’t explained the standards and why they’re important as much as we might have,” he said. “To me, there’s an opportunity here for some kind of broad-based commitment to make people understand why we’re doing this.”

‘Don’t See the Backup’

Perhaps the biggest question here was whether additional supports and time would be provided for students who are struggling to meet the higher standards.

“I think the reason parents are afraid of standards is because they don’t see the backup,” said Paula DiPerna, the president of the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation and a former classroom teacher.

That has been a critical question for front-line teachers, principals, and parents, who were not at the meeting here.

Whether it’s raising salaries for teachers or providing an extended school day and year for students, participants noted, such proposals cost money.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the federal government putting more money in than they do now,” Gov. James B. Hunt of North Carolina, a Democrat, said during the opening press conference. “Let me tell you,” he added, “it is hard to find the money at the local level, and it’s hard to find it at the state level.”

At the same time, he and other governors emphasized the commitments that their states have made to implementing the standards, including more spending for early-childhood education and class-size reductions in the early grades.

Mr. Chase of the NEA cautioned those gathered here that “we have a very, very important responsibility to ensure that we don’t just set standards ... but we provide the programs, activities, and the resources that are going to make it possible for all children to achieve these standards.”

Whether last week’s summit will actually move that agenda along or serve more as a symbolic statement remains to be seen.

“It’s very, very easy to say we’re going to get tough,” Ms. DiPerna of the Joyce Foundation said. “But at the end of the day, it’s the children that fail the test, and the adults collect their paychecks and go home.”

While the action statement talks about aligning resources and curricula with state standards, she said, it does not address the need to change governance and finance formulas to help schools that are not starting from a level playing field.

“We got into discussions of implementation and resources rather quickly,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. “I hadn’t anticipated that.”

To put their commitments in place, each of the state teams here pledged to develop a detailed response to the action statement within six months, with specific targets and time lines. The responses will be posted on the Achieve World Wide Web site (see “virtual summit” link below).


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