Making The Case For Public EducationFounded in 1857 “to elevate the character and advance the interests of the profession of teaching and to promote the cause of education in the United States,” the National Education Association has a long history of fighting for the rights of educators across the nation. That type of activism continues today as the challenges facing educators at all levels continue to mount. Black Issues sat down with NEA President Reginald Weaver to address pressing educational issues including assessment, vouchers, funding for the No Child Left Behind Act, parental responsibility in the education of their children and to suggest possible improvements. BI: What is the biggest barrier that the nation faces as a whole in terms of (public education)? What is the thing that you would tackle first?RW: What I would do is get the commitment of the policy-makers and tell the policy-makers that I want them to make sure that every kid has what 85 percent of the richest parents have for their children. Eighty-five percent of the richest parents in this country send their children to a public school, and they send them to that public school because that public school has smaller class sizes, state-of-the-art technology, qualified and certified teachers, … counselors, parental involvement, adequate and equitable funding. And I’m saying if it’s good enough for 85 percent of the richest, then why is it that it should not be good enough for all children? BI: Do you think that the phrase “A Nation at Risk” (the title of a 1983 report that brought the country’s attention to a broken education system) was an overreaction or was it really a much-needed wake-up call?
RW: I think it was basically a political statement, because many of the things that they talked about we have been talking about for years, but nobody would ever listen to us. Even now, with the so-called “No Child Left Behind,” we support the goals, because those goals are ours — closing the achievement gap, hiring qualified teachers, high standards of accountability. Nothing is new. The issue is they did something that I couldn’t do, and that is to implement it. We didn’t have the authority or the funds to implement it, and that’s where they got us. Now, they only find out that they can’t implement this in the district either because they don’t have the funds. One thing that I have learned, as an educator, is that reform without resources does not work. And so, to say that a nation is at risk because of the poor public schools, well, I think that the people who are making those statements, they know what the issues are. The question is, do they have the commitment to put all of the resources there and do something about it?BI: The No Child Left Behind Act places a great deal of emphasis on the use of testing as an assessment tool. Can you improve education through assessment?RW: It depends on what you use the assessment for. I believe that as long as an assessment process is used appropriately and as long as the assessment process has input from people who are going to be using it, and as long as it is not abused, then I think that assessment has a place. In cases of standardized tests, if in fact young people are prepared to take them, if they are aligned with the curriculum, I believe that they can be useful. And, if they are used for purposes of pointing out to the teacher where instruction needs to be different or improved/enhanced; pointing out to the students areas that they need more assistance in; showing the parents where they can be helpful, yes, assessment helps.
I think the problem with assessments is the fact that people think that is the only way that you can measure success. So we all get pushed into the corner by outside forces, by politicians, and believe that is the only way that we can determine success. Then what we find is that one assessment tool is used to measure kids in rural areas, urban areas and suburban areas. And you know, the conditions that many of these kids go to school (in) are quite different. … A child’s future should not be determined by the results of one high-stakes test. It should not be. But in far too many instances it is.BI: Can reasonable people who are all committed to education philosophically disagree on solutions, like vouchers? How can you find common ground when people are polarized over these solutions?RW: I believe that there are times when people’s philosophical differences might be different than mine. I accept that. The question is how they go about espousing what they believe in and at what expense do they go to try to prove their point at my expense. Now, if in fact they come out with something that I know is not true, that is diametrically opposed to what I believe in, that is doing nothing but furthering their goal and their argument at my expense, I come down hard. I come down hard.
BI: How do you think Anthony Williams, the mayor of Washington D.C., coming out in support of vouchers has affected the NEA’s platform? Does that mean that there is a leak in the dike? RW: Oh, there’s been a leak in the dike for a long time. I used to be preaching to the choir when I would talk about the need to have quality public education for all the kids and trying to get there. But now that choir is divided, and I believe that the people who are doing it know exactly what they’re doing in terms of splitting our community, splitting the African American and Hispanic community off. Because they know that all parents want the same thing for their kids, that is to have their kid have the best possible education. However, are they willing to put the commitment there and the resources? The answer to that is “no.” Now, I resent it, I resent it to the hilt.
And as it relates to Anthony Williams, Anthony knows better than anybody else, being a mayor, that their schools need certain kinds of things. And when you talk about having a bill that gives $13 million to 2,000 kids who are going to a voucher school, and $13 million to 27,000 kids to a charter school, and then $13 million to 167,000 other kids; come on now — what is the class size there? $13 million for 2,000? You know you can do more than that. So the question is, why is it that people such as Anthony, as well as others, are succumbing to the voucher argument? I think it is political, not educational, because you are talking about providing something for a few kids.BI: Has the NEA reconsidered the way they’ve organized themselves, especially at the state and local level to tackle the issues that you speak to so passionately?RW: We have started that, and we have what we call “Great Public Schools for Every Child.” And it is designed to get down to the local levels because that’s where the action is. It’s designed to help build our association so that they can provide the kind of assistance and service to the members who are working with the kids on a daily basis. It’s designed to help us give to the members, and it is designed to help us with a message, a message that will resonate out there as to what we can do together to make it possible for these kids to have a quality education. BI: How would you describe the momentum, the pendulum if you will, in terms of the ideological battle about the issues that we are talking about — testing, vouchers. How would you describe where that wind is right now? RW: I’d say that wind is blowing. The wind is blowing. And I think there are some groups, some individuals who are putting a lot of effort behind the wind. And I think that there are some groups that are trying to put up windshields to try to prevent the wind from doing further damage. I believe that a lot of it is political in terms of who is in power. And when you look at who is in power, you know that the ideological issues are surfacing as it relates to issues that typically African Americans, Hispanics and educators agree with. And as a result, when they surface, we find that we have to address them so as not to allow the public out there, that they’re addressing, to believe that what they are saying is right. BI: So you’re saying that you are on the defensive, then. RW: No, I’m saying that we’re on the offensive. I’m saying that we are on the offensive in terms of getting a message out there to the public as it relates to what it means and what it takes for them to have a role to play in terms of making it possible for us to be able to have a successful opportunity to work with their kids. “Great Public Schools for Every Child” and the fixing and funding of “No Child Left Behind.” That’s an offensive strategy. We have about 47 technical amendments that we have given to every member of Congress, and if you noticed, in the news in the last few months since we went on the offense, you have a number of op-eds, a number of editorials, you have administrative school board members, educators, politicians speaking out in terms of this thing needing to be fixed and funded. …
What we want to do is to educate the parent and to educate the policy-makers that it is their responsibility to help us to be able to do what they want for their kids. Stop talking about it and let’s do it, let’s work in partnership. Let’s work with these parents because, in many instances, these parents are sending their kids to us because they don’t know what to do with them. … We don’t spend the time to work with those parents. Many of these parents are some of the greatest parents who could be our greatest asset if we spent time with them to bring them up on the issues so that they would be able to offer us the help and assistance that we need to educate their kids, keeping in mind what they want is the same thing the parent in the suburb wants for their kid — that is … to receive the best possible education.BI: How do you translate that into a positive vote for tax increase, because that is that disconnect that you are talking about?RW: Make it in their self-interest. These folks, despite what many people think, these folks are intelligent. Can I go to them and disrespect them and diss them and expect them to give me their support? If, in fact, you treat them with the respect that you would like to be treated, as a person, educate them, and let them know what it is you would like for them to do, in most instances they can be supportive. Many times the parents won’t do it because they don’t know what to do. BI: How would you rate HUD’s Teacher Next Door program? It’s a program that offers deep discounts for teachers to help them get housing in areas where they cannot afford to live. It helps attract smart people to the profession.RW: I don’t necessarily want the best and the brightest. Because the best and the brightest may not be the one that can relate and respond to the kid (in a way) that needs to be done. I want somebody who knows how to interact with the kids, knows how to relate with the kids, knows how to disseminate the information to the kids. I want somebody who’s gone through a teacher education program … one that is certified and qualified like that. The best and the brightest, fine. But a lot of times it’s not the best and the brightest. I want somebody that can really identify with these young people, and I think we made a mistake by always saying that we want the best and the brightest. For the best and the brightest may not be the one who wants to come into our profession. …
Recruiting and retaining is absolutely critical. And what we’re finding is that about 30 percent of the teachers who come in leave within the first three years, and in urban areas it’s 50 percent. We find that a number are leaving because they don’t have the support, they don’t have the status, and they don’t have a salary. We just did a survey of the status of the American schoolteacher. Thirty-eight percent said that they would leave teaching before retirement. With males, I believe it was 41 percent. With African Americans it was 50 percent, and with folks 30 years old and under, it was about 41 percent. So if, in fact, we are going to recruit and retain the kind of people that we want in our profession, we have to give them respect, we have to give them the support and we have to pay them. BI: What is it that higher education professionals are not doing that they should be doing to address these issues for K-12 education?RW: We have a higher education group that is very active, and we have a committee called the membership advisory committee, where we have seven ESP (education support professionals), seven K-12, seven higher education, … and I say that to you because there were many people who thought that this group that consisted of these various constituencies would not be able to work together. … But what happened was that I brought them together to let them see that some things that happen in K-12 happen in higher ed. So the K-12 folks can’t pretend that higher ed is not impacted by what you do. Higher ed cannot think that what happens in K-12 is not impacting you. So what we started to do was to recognize that regardless of whether you are in higher ed or K-12, what happens impacts us all. BI: What do you see as the legacy of Reg Weaver’s NEA administration?RW: I hope my legacy is that we have been able to move closer to making it possible for every child to have access to a quality public education that is free from intimidation and harassment, and has an atmosphere that is conducive to good teaching and learning. And if we do that, that will be good enough for me.
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