Current Events: In Brief

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Clinton Pushes Teacher Training

Most of the attention paid to the Clinton administration’s education agenda has centered on its push to set rigorous academic standards and create a new system for assessing students’ progress. But the administration also is placing a major emphasis on professional development, arguing that teachers need more sustained, intensive training to prepare them to teach to higher standards.

The focus on professional development is most obvious in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and in the administration’s proposals for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. But other initiatives are under way, as well. The Education Department, for example, has formed a task force that will recommend ways to make better use of the professional development money already appropriated under existing federal programs.

Congress recently signaled its interest in the issue when it added a professional development goal to the six national education goals negotiated by the Bush administration and the National Governors’ Association. The new goal calls for teachers to have access to “programs for the continued improvement of their professional skills.”

Administration officials point to a growing body of research suggesting that without attention to teachers’ knowledge and skills, reform efforts may be wasted. “If what we’re trying to do is change teaching and learning,” U.S. Undersecretary of Education Marshall Smith says, “the most important thing we can do is try to help teachers get the training they need to be able to work with students in an effective manner.”

While many educators welcome the attention, there are disagreements over how the government can best encourage professional development that goes beyond the typical one-shot workshops. Good professional development, researchers say, brings teachers together to wrestle, over time, with important issues. But others note that teachers need coaching and follow up on how to use new practices in their classrooms.

The Goals 2000 law enacted earlier this year requires states applying for federal school reform grants to spell out just how they will help teachers provide high quality instruction centered on content and performance standards. The Education Department’s proposals for reauthorizing the ESEA also stress professional development, calling for it to become “a vehicle for reform.” So far, Senate and House versions of the bill make it clear that professional development activities should be linked to challenging content and performance standards. But the legislation is flexible, providing not mandates but a list of possible activities that differ somewhat between the two versions. The money could be used, for example, to develop new ways of assessing teachers for licensure, to support local and national networks of teachers, or to provide incentives for teachers to become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. In addition, school districts could use the money to release teachers from their classrooms for development activities.

The administration also has proposed consolidating more than 50 technical-assistance centers now funded under Chapter 1, bilingual education, drug free schools, and other categorical programs into a system of 10 regional centers. These centers would help states and districts with professional development and school reform. Both the Senate and House versions of ESEA endorse the consolidation.

Improving professional development and the way it’s delivered “is going to be hard,” undersecretary Smith concedes. “The only way to get going is to start to stimulate it by showing examples, reinforcing and rewarding, and providing resources when people need it.”

Converging on Merging?

Delegates to the National Education Association’s summer convention voted to explore for another year the possibility of merging with the American Federation of Teachers. Debate was short and polite before a majority of the 10,000 delegates officially voted to extend merger talks with their archrival organization.

Several members said they consider merger a “foregone conclusion”—a matter of working through logistical details and winning over the handful of state and local affiliates that have openly questioned the unification move. But others said they see storm clouds on the horizon. They predicted that next year—when the NEA’s leadership is expected to present members with a merger package—widespread opposition will surface.

“Much of the sentiment that’s been expressed here is toward continued talks—not necessarily merger,” said Sybil Connally, one of two classroom teachers on the seven member NEA panel investigating the merger possibility. The group has met with an AFT panel half a dozen times over the past year, primarily to compare the structures of the two organizations. “There are still too many unresolved issues” for members to take a stand yet, Connally added.

Last year, when the 2.2 million member NEA voted to open the talks, the debate was heated. Opposition was loudest from the New York state and New Jersey delegations. This year, however, Gregory Nash, president of the NEA New York, spoke out on the floor in favor of seizing “the opportunity to share information with the AFT.” But in an interview later, he cautioned that the state’s delegates are still worried about whether the leadership will protect such cherished NEA policies as secret ballot elections and guarantees of minority representation. Although only a few voting blocs—most notably Illinois, Missouri, and New Jersey—pushed this year to cease talks, “there are many, many others who have concerns,” Nash said.

Still, merger supporters are gaining strength in a number of states—California, Florida, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, among them. Doug Tuthill, president of the Pinellas County (Fla.) Classroom Teachers’ Association, said the prospective merger “has a lot of momentum now. If union leaders bring back a good package, it’s a done deal.”

Speaking this summer to his own rank and file, Albert Shanker, president of the 850,000 member AFT, said he was proceeding with caution on a possible merger. “Don’t get the idea that it has happened, that it must happen, or that it will happen,” he told delegates attending the union’s convention. Longstanding differences between the two organizations, he said, could make agreement difficult. The AFT’s affiliation with the AFL-CIO could be a major sticking point (the NEA values its independence) as could its election rules and procedures; AFT balloting is not secret, and there is no limit to the number of terms officers can serve.

Shanker also noted that the makeup and prevailing interests of the two unions are at odds. Most AFT affiliates are in urban areas, while the NEA tends to dominate suburban and rural districts. Moreover, the AFT represents state and municipal employees other than teachers as well as health care workers, while the NEA, Shanker said, “feels strongly about being only for educators.”

Court Finds Favoritism

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a New York state law that created a public-school district for a village of Hasidic Jews is a form of “religious favoritism” that violates the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion.

In a 6-3 decision in late June, the court held that state lawmakers acted illegally in 1989 when they established a school district to serve children with disabilities in the village of Kiryas Joel, a community of Satmar Hasidic Jews about 50 miles northwest of New York City. [See “Testing the Boundaries,” May/June.]

Writing for a majority of the court, Associate Justice David Souter said the New York law “is tantamount to an allocation of political power on a religious criterion.” The “unusual” law, he added, “crosses the line from permissible accommodation to impermissible establishment” of religion.

Educators nationwide were watching the case (Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District vs. Grumet) not only because of the novelty of the Hasidic enclave but also because it provided the Supreme Court with another opportunity to alter its key precedents regarding government aid to religious schools. Although the Kiryas Joel decision did not break with precedent, it may presage a significant change in school law; five justices indicated that they would be willing to consider overturning a 1985 ruling that barred public school teachers from providing remedial instruction on the grounds of private religious schools.

In a dissenting statement, Associate Justice Antonin Scalia declared the majority’s decision “astounding” and said it “takes to new extremes a recent tendency in the opinions of this Court to turn the establishment clause into a repealer of our nation’s tradition of religious toleration.”

Meanwhile, in early July, New York state lawmakers approved a measure that may effectively allow the village of Kiryas Joel to skirt the Supreme Court’s ruling. The new law permits municipalities that meet five criteria to establish their own school districts. Lawmakers seized on a passage in a concurring opinion by Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who said the district might have passed constitutional muster if it had been created under a general state law.

Louis Grumet, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association and the person who filed the legal challenge against the Kiryas Joel district, said he was pleased by the high court’s ruling but “stunned” by the state legislature’s response. An analysis of the new legislation, Grumet says, shows that only the village of Kiryas Joel would meet the five criteria. He has already filed suit to block the measure. “This law has been revealed for what the association has always known it to be,” Grumet said, “a sham.”

Rural Route to Success

It’s common knowledge that rural schools in recent years have been getting by on less and less. What is perhaps not as well known is that, despite these tough conditions, rural schools and districts have managed to boost their students’ academic performance over the past decade. In fact, rural schools have been so successful that a new federal report says they should be looked at as a model for national education reform.

Rural schools, the report notes, have seen their students’ test scores climb to the point where they generally match or top national averages. Between 1984 and 1990, for example, the scores of rural 4th graders rose from 25 points below the national mean to three points above it on the writing section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Similarly, the scores of rural 9-year-olds climbed nine points, to one point above the national mean, on the mathematics section of NAEP.

These schools, the new report states, “have achieved so much with so little.” The document makes clear that the improvements have had little to do with the national education reform movement, which has not really found its way into rural communities. It suggests that more study is needed to determine what did spark the improvements. Particularly helpful, it says, would be an examination of how rural schools compensate for their fiscal woes with creativity and a “supportive ethos.” These schools, the document suggests, could provide “a model of strength” for others.

Researchers, pulling together dozens of published studies, took more than four years to prepare the report. While breaking little new ground, it does present for the first time a state by state breakdown of the nation’s 6.9 million rural students. Such students make up more than 30 percent of the enrollment in a total of 12 states, the researchers found, but less than 10 percent in seven others.

Test Results Delayed

After discovering problems with some of its scoring procedures, the national organization developing a system for certifying expert teachers announced that it will delay releasing test results for about half of its initial candidates.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which was scheduled to name its certified teachers in the early adolescence/English language arts field in October, now plans to release the results in June 1995. Teachers of early adolescents who piloted a battery of assessments for “generalists” will still learn this fall if they passed.

James Smith, the board’s senior vice president, says the group decided to delay the announcement for language arts candidates because it had concerns that the scoring process devised by faculty members at the University of Pittsburgh was too lengthy and complicated and potentially too expensive. “We concluded that the [scoring] system was inadequate in its current form,” Smith says. The Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., will now be handling the scoring of candidates.

The privately incorporated board has been working for seven years to devise a system for recognizing outstanding teachers. This past school year, a group of teachers field tested the system for the first time, undergoing a rigorous set of assessments that included compiling a portfolio of their best classroom work and visiting an assessment center for a round of activities. [See “Test Pilots,” May/June.]

Anthony Petrosky, a professor of education and English at the University of Pittsburgh who worked on the scoring process, says the board’s search for a streamlined scoring system may fail to reflect the complexity of the candidates’ work. “We felt that rating systems, given the board’s constraints, weren’t the way to go,” he said. “Teachers need more individualized, customized feedback.”

Board officials, on the other hand, said the university’s procedures did not appear to be a good fit with the standards the board had set as the basis of the assessments.

The board was also concerned that the longer, more complex scoring process proposed by the university would require such high fees that teachers would be discouraged from participating. Board officials and others involved in the field testing say they view the holdup as a natural part of an experiment. “This is brand new,” Smith says. “Nobody knows for sure how to do this.”

Vol. 06, Issue 01, Pages 8-11

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