Current Events: In Brief

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A Risky Approach To School Reform

In a radical, some say dangerous, move, Michigan lawmakers have set the stage for a comprehensive overhaul of the state's education and tax systems by voting to scrap all property-tax funding for schools beginning next year.

The measure, which moved through the legislature in July with breathtaking speed, creates a $5.6 billion vacuum in school funding without providing a clear idea how the money will be restored.

Backers of the legislation, which was signed into law by Gov. John Engler, say it cuts the Gordian knot of high property taxes and unequal school funding. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the Democratic legislator who first suggested the plan, believes it was the only way for lawmakers to overcome the state's ingrained school-finance problems. “We did not create a crisis,” Stabenow says. “We created a deadline for solving a crisis.”

But the unexpected action has unnerved educators and raised questions about districts' standing in the bond market. “It is shamefully reckless,” says David Olmstead, a school-finance analyst and former member of the Detroit school board. “They are really flirting with chaos.”

The law will cut residentialand business-property taxes by an estimated 65 percent. School districts will still be able to rely on property-tax revenue to service their debts but will not be permitted to use it for everyday operating costs. Most observers assume the state will move to restore schools' lost funds by raising income and sales taxes.

Aides to the governor, however, suggest that taxation will be the last issue state leaders address. First, they say, policymakers must look for ways to improve the state's schools and trim costs. Among other things, the governor would like to put a statewide choice plan in place. Others would like to see small schools consolidated and teacher tenure abolished. Only when a new system is agreed on, Engler's aides say, will policymakers debate how best to pay for it.

For those already disturbed by the legislature's action, the governor's stance has only added to the jitters. “A lot of people are wondering how we are going to get out of the mess the governor and legislature have put us into,” says Julius Maddox, president of the Michigan Education Association. “This is going to make it a good deal more difficult for many of our legislators to be the supporters of public education that they ought to be.”

But policymakers argue that the risk of doing nothing was greater than the all-out gamble approved by lawmakers. “What we did was to stop the train,” Stabenow says. “We've had 20 years of trying to solve the growing disparities in school funding and the increasing reliance on property taxes, and most of us realized we had reached a crisis point. We realized that, if we couldn't get to a point where everybody was trying to solve the same problem, nothing was going to get fixed.”


PBS Lends Math Teachers A Hand

The Public Broadcasting Service has unveiled a new telecommunications service designed to keep mathematics teachers up-to-date in their field and to spark interest in the subject among young people.

The service, called Mathline, will integrate numerous technologies to create an interactive system that will allow video, voice, and data transmission of information dedicated to new ways of teaching and learning math. “Mathline is public television's response to the national educational goal of becoming first in the world in math by 2000,” says Sandra Welch, PBS's executive vice president for education.

The AT&T Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American Telephone & Telegraph Co., has provided a $1.2 million grant for the first Mathline project—a program of inservice training for middle school teachers on the stan- dards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. WNET, a public television station in New York City, will produce a series of videos demonstrating teaching methods tied to the standards.

The project, which will be piloted next spring and then launched nationally in the fall of 1994, has the potential of reaching 25 percent of all middle school math teachers in the first year.


NEA And AFT To Talk Merger

After three years of debate over whether to pursue a merger with their chief rival, members of the National Education Association voted at their annual meeting in July to take a tentative step in that direction.

Acting on the recommendation of the NEA's board of directors, roughly 70 percent of the delegates to the convention in San Francisco voted to open merger talks with the American Federation of Teachers and to reconsider a 1976 policy barring NEA members from affiliating with the AFL-CIO, the giant labor confederation to which the AFT belongs.

The decision to approve the measure, which also bans NEA member organizations from merging with or challenging AFT affiliates while national talks proceed, brings the two unions closer to unification than ever before.

Keith Geiger, president of the 2.1 million-member NEA, says discussions could begin as early as this fall. The union plans to convene a 13-member committee to explore the issue and make recommendations, which members will debate and vote on at next summer's convention.

The leaders of both unions stress, however, that a wholesale merger of the two national organizations is unlikely any time soon. Geiger predicts that the NEA will recommend a strategy that allows its member organizations more flexibility to join the AFLCIO and merge with AFT affiliates on the local and state level.

“There is optimism on both sides,” notes Donna Fowler, a spokeswoman for Albert Shan- ker, president of the 820,000member AFT. “But it's a huge step, and these things can take a while.”

The current interest in merger began in 1990, after Geiger was elected president of the NEA. He and Shanker formed a cordial relationship that led to public discussions of merging their unions. The two organizations also began working more closely on matters of common concern, such as the 1992 presidential election.

Still, not everyone in the NEA welcomes the warming trend. During floor debates preceding the vote on merger, leaders from New York state—where AFT and NEA affiliates united briefly in the 1970s—and New Jersey made emotional appeals to the 9,000 delegates to reject the measure. Said Connie Eno, president of NEA-New York, “What will happen if this goes on a national level is that the NEA will disappear.”

Several other delegations also expressed a fear of being “absorbed” by the AFT and AFLCIO, which historically have been seen as more militant than the NEA, which was founded as a professional organization.

“Some states in the South still have trouble with the concept of organized labor,” notes Jeff Wright, president of the Florida affiliate of the NEA, which has long favored a merger. “They have a hard time accepting that we are a labor union.” Though several of those Southern delegations were silent during the debate, some predicted they would speak up when the merger committee submits its recommendations next year.


Three States And Two Firms Develop New Curriculum

In an unprecedented move, three of the nation's most populous states have jointly awarded a contract to a partnership of two companies to create a technologically based social science curriculum aimed at students with limited proficiency in English.

California, Florida, and Texas announced in May that they had awarded a $1.2 million development grant through the Los Angeles County Office of Education for a multimedia history and social studies curriculum called “Vital Links.” The curriculum—to be published in 1995 as an interrelated series of videodiscs, CD-ROMs, and print materials—will be developed jointly by Davidson & Associates Inc., a California-based software developer, and Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. of Reading, Mass.

“As far as we know, this is the first time that three major [textbook] adoption states have gotten together to develop a common curriculum,” says Bob Davidson, chairman and chief executive officer of Davidson & Associates. “This is also one of the first times that a leading technology and a leading text company have gotten together.”

Moreover, the initiative is a significant milestone in the movement by states to actively influence the market to ensure that software products meet their instructional needs. “In some senses, the states are acting as venture capitalists,” says Peter Kneedler, a consultant for the California education department on the “Vital Links” project.

According to Kneedler, the contractors have agreed to match the states' investment in the project with cash or in-kind contributions. The contractors will own the product, he says, with the contributing states earning a royalty from nationwide sales. Although the three states will have the option of adopting the materials, they will not be required to buy them.


Boys' Schools Join Forces

With the number of their schools dwindling and their enrollments falling, educators from many of the nation's remaining boys' schools have banded together to fight the trends.

The goal of the new group, tentatively known as the Boys' School Association, is to establish an educational network that will gather research on the benefits of all-male education and share that information with the public. “We need to present to the world...why boys' schools are beneficial to young men,” says Edward Kowalchick, director of admission at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., and a leader in the creation of the coalition.

Hill, which has become a clearinghouse for information about boys' schools, hosted the new group's first conference. The gathering drew representatives from roughly 50 U.S. boys' schools and several overseas.

Once the most prominent sector of private education in the United States, all-boys schools today represent a relatively small and shrinking share of parochial and independent schools. For example, 80—or 9 percent—of the 900 member schools of the National Association of Independent Schools cater only to boys, down from 96 in 1981-82; enrollment has dropped 26 percent over roughly the same period, from 36,712 students to 27,305.

Overall, enrollment in independent girls' schools has also been sliding, as a growing number of schools have admitted boys or merged with brother schools. By contrast, the 66 member schools of the National Coalition of Girls' Schools, an advocacy group formed in 1989, have seen their enrollments rise 2.8 percent in recent years. Their experience is one the new boys' school group would like to emulate.

NCGS has attracted national attention by sponsoring polls and holding symposiums. But the girls'-school group has also benefited from publicity about the educational needs of young women and research showing the benefits of single-sex schools.


District-Union Teamwork Draws Kudos In Florida

The Pinellas County, Fla., public schools have received a “Sterling Award” from Gov. Lawton Chiles for their efforts to mesh the principles of total quality management with education. In particular, the state's seventh-largest school district was recognized for its unusually cooperative relationship with the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

Created by Chiles, the Sterling Award was modeled after the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the nation's most prestigious industrial honor related to quality management. Education, health care, and public-sector organizations were eligible to enroll in the Florida competition in addition to manufacturing and service businesses. The Pinellas County school system was the only public-sector organization to win an award.

The district, which has 13,000 employees and 97,000 students, for several years has been implementing the principles of total quality management, which stress customers' needs and improving systems rather than evaluating individuals. Instead of engaging in traditional collective bargaining, the district and union now use a “strategic planning” process to identify and solve problems jointly. Teams made up of union representatives and district officials—and, in some cases, parents—work on issues. “We have taken the collective-bargaining process,” says Doug Tuthill, president of the PCTA, “and rolled it right into the quality transformation.” In doing so, he notes, teachers have gained a much broader voice in setting district priorities and allocating resources.

Adoption of the strategic-planning process does not mean that teachers no longer have a contract. But union leaders have talked about calling it a “handbook” instead, Tuthill says, reflecting their view that the contract is a tool that should constantly evolve to meet the goal of improving the district.

The state team that visited Pinellas County was impressed by the district's “very collaborative and very strong human-management relationship,” says Dione Geiger, executive director of the awards program. The union “is part of the process of long-term planning,” she says, “and that's what quality is. It's looking, long term, at where you're going.”


How U.S. Teachers Measure Up Internationally

A new study that examines the differences between teaching in the United States and other economically advanced nations has found that teachers in this country work longer hours and teach more classes than their counterparts elsewhere.

“American teachers are told that their workday is too short, that not enough time is spent on instruction, and that their summer vacation is too long,” the report by the American Federation of Teachers says. “By international standards, these conclusions are unwarranted.”

Elementary teachers in the United States, the report states, spend more time with their students than teachers in the 18 other countries studied. At the secondary level, teachers in the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands have the largest teaching loads—five classes, five days a week. The study also found that teachers in Japan and most European nations have more time for class preparation during the school day than their American peers.

The report, which was released this summer at the AFT's educational issues conference, examines conditions in 19 industrialized nations and is based on previous studies and data gathered by the union. Among its other findings:

* Only Japan, Ireland, and Spain have larger elementary classes than the United States. At the secondary level, U.S. class size is average, but, because American teachers teach more hours and more classes than most of their foreign colleagues, they teach more students overall.

* U.S. high school teachers have less training than teachers in other countries. American high school teachers need at least a four-year degree to become licensed. But in many European countries, teachers in the upper secondary grades are required to spend five or six years studying at a university before they can begin teaching.

* Teachers in the United States work a shorter year—185 days, on average—than the international average of 190 to 195 days. But U.S. teachers work more hours per week than those in other countries.

* American teachers enjoy a standard of living that is generally comparable to that of their counterparts in other nations.

Copies of How U.S. Teachers Measure Up Internationally: A Comparative Study of Teacher Pay, Training, and Conditions of Service are available from the Research Department, AFT, 555 New Jersey Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001; (202) 879-4428.


2,000 Teachers Try For National Certification

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which has been primarily concerned with research and development since its founding in 1987, is now preparing to offer the first national certificates to highly accomplished teachers.

At a meeting in Indianapolis in June, the board hired the San Antonio-based Psychological Corp. to field-test its first two assessments for the voluntary certification system. Those assessments are for teachers of early adolescents, specifically those who are “generalists” or who teach language arts. About 2,000 teachers will participate in the field tests, which begin this fall.

Each assessment package contains two parts: a portfolio to be compiled at the teacher's own school and a set of exercises to be completed at an assessment center. The teachers participating in the field-testing will begin assembling their portfolios at the beginning of the school year and will visit the centers next March.

If the assessments are found to be valid, reliable, and fair, teachers who pass them will become the first board-certified teachers in the nation. The board plans to offer a total of 33 different certificates. All are expected to be available by 1997-98.

At the meeting in June, the national board's directors also established new policies clarifying what circumstances will trigger automatic denial or revocation of certificates. In a nutshell, people who misrepresent or falsify any information, who have been convicted of a felony, or who have had their teaching licenses denied, suspended, or revoked because of child abuse, job-related crimes, or violent crimes will not be allowed to become or remain certified.

In addition, the directors issued a four-page statement clarifying how national teacher certification should and should not be used. The statement says, for example, that the board will oppose any effort to make certification mandatory. It also says that any reward or incentive attached to national certification must be appropriate and adequate.

National certification, the directors state, should not be viewed as an end in itself, but “as a means for enhancing opportunities for teachers to continue to hone their professional skills.”


National Board Tops The List Of Grant Winners

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards received more grant money between 1990 and 1991 than any other group in elementary and secondary education, according to a new publication issued by the New York-based Foundation Center. During that period, the board won 10 grants totaling $7,075,000.

The group receiving the largest number of grants in precollegiate education over the same time period was Teach for America, an organization that recruits top college graduates to work in hard-pressed rural and urban schools. It won 27 grants with a total dollar value of $3,454,000.

The figures were reported in Who Gets Grants/Who Gives Grants: Nonprofit Organizations and the Foundation Grants They Received, released by the Foundation Center in June. Although the center has published a listing of foundation grants by subject area since 1972, this is the first time it has published a directory focusing on the nonprofit organizations that receive grant dollars.

The new, 1,353-page directory lists the top 1,000 grant-winning organizations in the nation, based on the dollar value of grants received. It also breaks down the top-50 grant winners in 19 subject areas, including precollegiate education, higher education, the arts and culture, civil rights, and the environment.

A number of groups that play an active role in education reform are also listed in the book under a separate subject heading: “Education, other.” The number-one grant winner in this category is the Michigan Partnership for New Education, which received three grants totaling $6,369,062. Drawing on ideas and resources from education, business, and government, the partnership is working to redefine the way classroom teachers are prepared and schools are operated.

Also on the “other” list are the Academy for Educational Development in New York, which ranked seventh, with seven grants totaling $1,794,000, and the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which ranked 13th, with eight grants totaling $1,270,000.

Vol. 05, Issue 01, Pages 9-13

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