- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2001

In his ambitious reform package, President George W. Bush has proposed applying things like standards, measured performance and market-style choice to American education. The education lobby, led by the bosses of the two major teachers unions, has blown a raspberry at the plan. Robert Chase, head of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, says the plan runs "counter to the goal" and relies in some parts on a "failed political gimmick."
But a nonscientific series of interviews with educators conducted by the nonpartisan Teacher Choice group with some of its 3,000 associates in Washington and around the country suggests that teachers themselves are considerably less hostile to many of Mr. Bush's ideas. Teachers themselves give the plan a passing grade, and then some.
One key element of the package revolves around what the president calls "accountability." By testing elementary school children between grades three and eight in math and reading, the president believes that successful teaching methods would be rewarded, and failing ones punished.
Dan Konieczko, an eighth-grade science teacher in the Portland, Maine, school district, enthusiastically supports the Bush concept. Students who do not achieve at grade level, he comments, may fall so far behind that "catching up is all but impossible," he says. "Annual testing is the only way to monitor, and to put in place appropriate remediations before it is too late for students to effectively benefit."
Some teachers say they support testing, but have operational concerns about making measurements fair and meaningful. A few say testing is wrong-headed even if it's well-designed. "Too much testing is going on now, and it takes up too much valuable instruction time," comments a Maryland teacher we spoke to. "It encourages schools and school systems to `teach to the test.' "
But Mr. Konieczko and many other teachers are unconvinced. "Opposition to standardized testing is a smokescreen for educators who are not convinced that their students can add three to five and come up with eight," he argues. A 1998 Internet survey found 52 percent of teachers responding by e-mail supported annual testing as part of an overall assessment package, with 24 percent opposed and the rest undecided.
"I always liked national testing when I was a student," says David King, a high school teacher in Winston-Salem, N.C. "It let you know where you stood."
Leveraging those test results to funding another key element of the Bush package is more controversial. "Some students don't take tests well," notes Norman Johnson, a teacher and principal at the Integrated Design Electronics Academy, a Washington charter high school. Mr. Johnson sees much he likes in the plan. But you have to look at more than tests, he suggests, before cutting off or reducing school funding.
Likewise, teachers applaud Mr. Bush's goal of making sure every child can read by the third grade, while having some doubts about the wisdom using a phonics-based approach in all schools.
"Whether you use phonics, whole language, or a mix," argues a first-grade teacher in San Francisco's public school system, "the key is to stick with whatever system you have and have regular measurements of progress. We don't have that now which is why my school, even though it's phonics-based, isn't teaching kids to read."
The most controversial element of the Bush package is its proposal for a small ($1,500) voucher to go to parents of children in schools that do not meet minimum academic standards.
This proposal resembles closely a school choice program in operation for the last 18 months in Florida. A survey of Florida public school teachers last year found more than half don't like the program. But 65 percent said it played some role in a significant improvement in the performance of Florida students when they were tested last spring in reading, writing and math. Only 17 percent said it played no role at all.
Nationally, perhaps 25 percent to 35 percent of public school teachers support school choice. "I think the kids who benefit most from vouchers are the ones who are in poor schools," comments Stephen Arnold, an American literature teacher at Parkdale High School in Maryland. "Either get it together in the public schools, or make it competitive."
This makes teachers considerably less hostile than the bitter, unremitting opposition to school choice of teacher union officials.
Washington's Norman Johnson, in fact, speculates that perhaps the school choice portion of Mr. Bush's plan should be strengthened. "Fifteen hundred dollars is not enough to support a child in a private school," he notes. If a tiny carrot and stick will help, why not support larger ones?
One thing many people we spoke to agree on is that the debate would benefit from a little less attention to education experts in Washington, and a little more to those who actually educate namely teachers. Mr. Bush's program appears to be highly unpopular with this class. But it's got some support from the people who hand out the books, read the reports and handle the kids every day.

Larry Parker is a senior reporter for Teacher Choice. Gregory Fossedal is chairman of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution and founder of its Teacher Choice project. The group's web address is www.adti.net/teacherchoice.

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