America's teachers affirm the federal government's goals of increasing student achievement, closing learning gaps and ensuring that every child is taught by a highly qualified teacher, said Becky Pringle, a member of the National Education Association Executive Committee.
Tennessee Education Association President Earl Himan, a Baptist from Jackson, with NEA board member Carolyn Crowder of Mustang, Okla., at faith/education summit in Memphis.
"You'll forgive me if I say the devil is in the details," Pringle, an eighth-grade physical science teacher from Harrisburg, Pa., quipped to clergy and educators at a faith/education summit last week in Memphis.
Launched in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act created for the first time a partnership among federal, state and local governments to address the larger agenda of confronting national poverty by targeting federal aid to poor students and schools. It has been reauthorized eight times, most recently in 2001 in the current version dubbed by President Bush as No Child Left Behind.
The NEA, which represents 3.2 million educators in public schools and institutions of higher education across the country, says "all children have a basic right to a great public school" but views the current version of ESEA as "fundamentally flawed." The teacher union has proposed a "positive agenda" for fixing the act, up for reauthorization in 2007.
"Our members knew from the start this was unworkable, unfair and punitive," Pringle said, adding in the five-plus years since its enactment "our worst fears were realized."
Among the "most egregious consequences" of No Child Left Behind, Pringle said, is excessive testing that has led to a narrowing of curriculum. Motivated by fear of being labeled a failure, she said, teachers concentrate on preparing for the test at expense of other forms of education. That, she said, has led to less respect for educators as professionals, adversely affected retention of teachers and does not acknowledge the diverse ways that students learn.
While some reports say test scores have risen and the achievement gap has begun to close, Pringle said, "Nothing could be further from the truth."
"Though we've seen some modest gains at the lowest levels," she said, "what we've really seen is a widening of the gap in those areas vital to 21st century skills."
Unfunded mandates, she said, force schools to move away from proven and effective programs. In order to improve schools, she said, America needs to address diversity, class size, ensure students come to school ready to learn through early childhood education and professional pay for teachers.
"And of course accountability," she added. "We've been accused at NEA of being afraid of accountability," she said.
"We're not afraid of tests," she said. "We're teachers. We love to give tests."
"We're just afraid of a system that punishes instead of rewards," she said. "We're afraid of a system that puts us last when we're making decisions. We're afraid of a system that is unfair and unworkable and under-funded."
NEA's priorities for ESEA reauthorization include:
--Accountability that rewards success and supports educators to help students learn.
--Smaller class sizes to improve student achievement.
--Quality educators in every classroom and school.
--Students and schools supported by active and engaged parents, families and communities.
--Resources to ensure a great public school for every child, including full funding of No Child Left Behind.
Pringle said more than 100 organizations have allied with the NAE calling for changes in ESEA, including 25 religious organizations.
"When I grew up, I had a whole support network around me," Pringle said. "My extended family, my neighbors, parishioners in my church, they all supported me and surrounded me and demanded the best."
"We need help in our public schools from our religious institutions to once again surround our children with love and support and encouragement," she said.
President Bush's 2008 budget eliminates 43 "low-priority or non-performing" programs, redirecting funds to other priorities. Programs proposed to be cut include, according to the NEA, education technology grants, school counseling programs, dropout prevention programs and federal funding for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
The president has proposed $993 million in increased funding for No Child Left Behind, but nearly a third, about $300 million, is for school vouchers, which the NEA says would divert public-school resources into unaccountable private schools. Without the voucher proposals, the president's budget increases NCLB by about 3 percent, approximately the rate of inflation.
"This budget is a political shell game," said Reg Weaver, NEA president. "Some money is moving from program to program, but, at the end of the day, students are still left empty-handed."
"We hear talk about teacher quality, but the budget cuts teacher quality grants," Weaver said. "We hear talk about dropouts, but the budget cuts dropout prevention programs. The rhetoric and the numbers don't match up."
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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