- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

The president of the American Federation of Teachers yesterday called on union members to get behind efforts to boost student achievement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, while promising to seek changes in its requirements for school improvement.

Without naming the rival National Education Association, which last week mounted a legal assault on the Bush administration initiative, AFT President Sandra Feldman said the members of her group should work to implement “high standards and sound practices” in classrooms envisioned by the school-reform law.

“If all we do is focus on the potential harm that can be done by the law, then we’ll be doing a disservice to our students, our profession, our union and to each and every individual teacher,” she told 3,000 teachers here for the union’s annual Quality Educational Standards in Training (QuEST) conference.

Ms. Feldman told reporters after her opening speech at the Washington Hilton Hotel that the AFT is not prepared to support a planned NEA lawsuit against the law on grounds that it imposes unfunded mandates on states and local school districts.

“We don’t know anything about the lawsuit except what we read in the newspapers,” she said. “So we have to take a look at it, and then we’ll make a decision. But we’re not going to stop taking the actions that we’re taking, which we think may result faster than legal action in a solution.”

The AFT plans to take lists of underachieving schools targeted for improvement, which the law requires states to issue later this summer, to marshal evidence that the statutory formula for “adequate yearly progress” by schools is flawed, Ms. Feldman said.

“If we can show when these lists come out, which they will in late August [or] early fall, working with the testing experts, that this formula is totally unworkable and arbitrary and unfair, we believe that we’ll be able to convince people with evidence and we would get it changed. And I think that we may even get support from both sides of the aisle” in Congress.

Ms. Feldman said school leaders around the country either condemn the law as designed to destroy public education or praise it as “medicine which, if used correctly, has the potential to save the entire public education system. As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.”

She warned of overreaction to the law, saying: “When anxiety … gets whipped up into a generalized, simplistic ‘down with the law’ mantra, it jeopardizes Title I,” the 38-year-old federal grant program for low-income school districts.

There were problems with laws that introduced nationwide education standards, testing and school-accountability measures in the 1990s, she said.

“We fought hard for the right way to do it then, and we’ll never give up this fight. But for all the problems and broken promises then and now, there is absolutely no question that the standards movement was, and is, the right way to go — not only for poor children but for all children — and that it has made a huge, positive difference.”

Ms. Feldman called on teachers and schools to encourage all parents to pay more attention to their children. Research shows high achievers get their advantage “mainly from the vocabulary and skills their parents had given them by reading to and talking with them,” she said.

“But advantaged children didn’t have a monopoly on those skills. When low-income parents engaged in those activities, their children acquired the skills, too. And once they were in school, their poverty didn’t matter as much when it came to academic achievement. Their teachers were able to bring them up to the levels attained by more advantaged children.”

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