Teaching Profession

Union Plan for Revising ESEA Differs From Obama Blueprint

By Stephen Sawchuk — April 20, 2010 5 min read
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The National Education Association has put forward its most detailed recommendations to date for the overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“We think there is a real opportunity for policymakers to change the framework of what’s in the statute,” said Donna Harris- Aikens, the director of education policy and practice for the 3.2 million-member union. “I don’t think there was an appetite for doing that during the last time around. It probably doesn’t mean every single word [in ESEA] is going to change, but we’re using this as a way to start a discussion.”

The union’s close engagement in the law stands in contrast to the rewrite that resulted in the current version of the ESEA, the No Child Left Behind Act, which became law in 2002. Teachers’ unions were widely considered to have been left out of that reauthorization. (“Unions’ Positions Unheeded On ESEA,” Nov. 6, 2002.)

“Even if they bring something to the Hill and it’s rejected, they have to keep fighting for it, for their constituency,” said Jack Jennings, the president and chief executive officer of the Center on Education Policy, a research group in Washington.

The 170-page document aligns in large part with the union’s “positive agenda” for the ESEA, introduced in 2006, and includes sample legislative language around most of the law’s hot-button issues, including testing, school accountability, and teacher quality.

Many of the union’s recommendations differ significantly from the Obama administration’s blueprint for the law, continuing a divergence that began with the union’s objections to the shape of the $4 billion Race to the Top Fund. (“NEA at Odds With Obama Team Over ‘Race to the Top’ Criteria,” Sept. 2, 2009.)

The NEA document, for instance, does not refer to the idea of “teacher effectiveness,” as measured by evaluations that incorporate student academic growth. And although the union, like the administration, wants to focus school improvement on only a coterie of schools, it seeks far less prescriptive interventions than the four options for school turnarounds championed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The NEA’s approach to the main federal education law is similar to that of the American Federation of Teachers’.

A former House education staffer contended that the NEA recommendations break little new ground.

“It’s predictable,” said Charles Barone, now the director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee. “Eight years into a law, and they’re still ducking the tough issues. They still want to insert variables into the accountability equation to confuse people, to water things down. There is no plan to distribute teachers, no clear plans for what should happen to schools when they’re chronically low-performing.”

New Provisions

Unlike the Obama administration’s blueprint, unveiled last month, the NEA proposes far fewer standardized tests. States would be required to administer one in the 4-6 grade span and one in the 7-9 span—less than half the testing required under the current law.

Ms. Harris-Aikens said, however, that the recommendations wouldn’t preclude states from requiring tests in other grades.

“The states could opt to do it every year, but we want the mandates to be broad enough to make sense and to leave space for states to develop other things around them,” she said.

Under the union’s plan, states could use a variety of measures, including nonstandardized ones such as portfolios of student work, to gauge school progress.

Schools would be judged on growth toward an annual performance target and on their progress in closing achievement gaps. Schools that fell below the 5th percentile on one of those indicators would be subject to school improvement, which would be locally designed and involve the input of external “school review” teams. Schools below the 25th percentile could, at the discretion of the state and district, also receive help.

At the high school level, schools that didn’t make progress toward a 90 percent cumulative graduation rate also would face school inspections and interventions.

The plans reflect the union’s $6 million “priority schools” campaign, and a similar initiative, also costing $6 million, begun by its independent foundation. (“With Grants, Union’s Foundation Sets Its Own Course to Reform,” Feb. 24, 2010.)

On teacher quality, the union supports adopting the Teacher Excellence for All Children legislation sponsored by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House education committee, as the basis for revisions to the $3 billion Title II state teacher-quality formula-grant program. The so-called teach act would authorize funds for career ladders, induction, and a host of other discretionary programs. But the union would not endorse the bill’s performance-pay program.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has made the alignment of professional development and compensation with teacher evaluation the centerpiece of his teacher-quality agenda, and he has said that academic achievement should be one of multiple measures of teacher performance. But using test scores for that purpose runs counter to NEA policy.

In recent months, for instance, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel has said that teachers should be measured not on the basis of student-test outcomes, but on whether they improve their teaching practices.

The union’s document focuses on stricter entry standards and changes to the law’s current “highly qualified” teacher designation. The NEA advocates requiring all teachers to pass a performance-based exam to be deemed highly qualified. Few states now use such a test, although 20 are working to craft one through a partnership with the Council of Chief State School Officers and Stanford University.

No Return

The union also seeks to put new requirements on teachers entering the profession through alternative routes. Most such routes operate as on-the-job-training programs, and current ESEA regulations permit teachers in alternative routes to be deemed highly qualified—as required of all instructors of core academic classes—for up to two years if they are making progress in such a program. The NEA plan would cancel that flexibility and require all such teachers to spend at least 450 hours student-teaching before becoming teachers of record.

C. Emily Feistritzer, the president of the National Center for Alternative Certification, an information clearinghouse, said she doesn’t think that proposal would gain traction in a preparation market that has embraced such paths.

“Some 600 alternate-route programs across the country are producing 30 to 40 percent of all new teachers, with high retention rates and evidence that they are as effective as traditionally trained teachers in increasing student achievement,” she said. “There is no turning that clock back.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2010 edition of Education Week as Union Plan for Revising ESEA Differs From Obama Blueprint

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