Teachers’ unions push Congress for broader measures of pupil progress

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WASHINGTON - The nation's two teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have set enactment of wide-ranging measures of student progress in school - not just student performance on standardized tests - as their main legislative goal as Congress takes another crack at federal education law.

And both unions cautiously called the new education bill by Senate Education and Labor Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a good first step in that direction.

Harkin introduced his rewrite (S1094) of basic federal education law in early June. The last such rewrite, a decade ago under GOP President George W. Bush, saw an emphasis on "teach to the test," high penalties and withdrawal of funds for so-called "failing" schools, no matter how much progress they made in educating kids. It would then transfer that cash to private schools, a key right-wing cause.

That No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law drew the ire of both unions, but key congressional Democrats worked with Bush to push it through. Since then, dozens of public schools have flunked, several states - including Maryland and Ohio -- had to take over big-city school systems and complaints about "teach to the test" in the required subjects from parents and teachers grew in volume and number.

Harkin's law gets away from that, AFT and NEA say. It also returns more emphasis and federal funding for areas outside the two basics of English and math.

Writing a new federal school law is important because virtually every school district nationwide gets federal aid for its low-income students or students who get free or subsidized meals. Those two groups now are 48% of all students, AFT President Randi Weingarten says.

S1094 "sensibly helps public schools help all kids and recognizes the need to do things differently," she adds. "We're gratified that it provides more flexibility than the current law and offers more ways to fix, not reflexively close, schools." The AFT has spent weeks protesting mass school closings in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

"The bill requires a variety of measures to evaluate teachers, rather than making test scores the be-all and end-all," Weingarten, a New York City teacher, adds. "It also gives school districts time to implement the new Common Core-aligned tests before using the results to determine if schools need improvement interventions. Investments in early childhood education will help put our children on a solid path for success both in school and in life."

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, a Phoenix teacher, called the current Bush NCLB law "flawed." Calling federal education law by its original name, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), he urged lawmakers to follow Harkin's rewrite.

An attempted NCLB rewrite in the GOP-run House failed in the last Congress.

"We believe all children deserve great schools, and Congress must make the investments so we are ensuring opportunity for all children, not exacerbating current inequities," he said. "ESEA must address existing inequities in public education that harm students and communities, particularly students and communities of color.

"We are accountable for student success, and we must ensure ESEA changes its current focus from punishing students, schools and educators to helping those most in need. Every student deserves committed, caring and qualified educators in her or his classroom. For the law to work, we must empower educators so they can focus on what's important: Student learning and achievement. Educators spend their lives and careers teaching and protecting their students. ESEA must respect educators by empowering us and allowing us to focus on the kind of instruction that students need.

"As education advocates, our top priority is to make sure that what happens in Washington actually works for students and educators in classrooms and schools across the country," he concluded.

Photo: John Bachtell/PW

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