- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2009

To prepare students for the 21st century economy, we must transform our public schools. This transformation will happen at the local level — state by state, district by district — but the federal government must also play a role by supporting transformation efforts.

The National Education Association (NEA) generally supports local control of public schools. Education in the United States has always been a state responsibility that is implemented at the local level. That isn’t going to change.

Yet our nation has also had a long-standing commitment to public education as the key that unlocks the door of opportunity. It was in the U.S. that the movement for universal high school first took hold. It was here that the G.I. Bill sent millions of veterans to college, and the National Defense Education Act helped to lay the groundwork for the technology explosion of the past few decades.

That national commitment to public education has served us well. In the 20th century, the American people attained the highest level of education of any citizens in the world. Today we are losing our edge in education, but we have the ability to regain the lead — if we renew our national commitment.

More than 50 million children attend our public schools. Many of them are receiving a first-rate education — as fine as any in the world. Too many others, however, attend schools where the classrooms are crowded, the teachers are the least experienced and there aren’t enough textbooks, much less computers.

In a nation dedicated to the premise that “all men are created equal,” this disparity in education is fundamentally unfair. The NEA believes that every student in our country has a right to a great public school. This right should not be subject to a game of geographic roulette, where some children win and others lose just because of where they happen to live. Children in inner cities or small rural towns deserve the same opportunity to succeed as their counterparts in affluent suburbs.

Our nation has recognized the inequity of this situation. That is why Title I programs to help disadvantaged students were created more than 40 years ago. Title I and programs such as Head Start are intended to level the playing field, so poor children have a better chance to succeed in school.

The No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), which was enacted seven years ago, was also supposed to address inequities in education. Unfortunately, its main effect has been to distort and imbalance the federal role in education.

NCLB has distorted what goes on in our classrooms today. With high-stakes tests focused on math and reading, those subjects are emphasized at the expense of everything else — science, social studies, art, music, even physical education. Instead of trying to engage each child as an individual, teachers have been forced to adopt a “drill and kill” approach that takes the fun out of learning.

At this critical time in our nation’s history, we must restore balance to the federal role in education. NEA has proposed a new framework for the partnership between our federal, state and local governments — a framework that will reflect our nation’s commitment to public education while retaining control at the local level.

We believe the federal government can be most helpful to local districts by focusing on six core functions:

• Support the profession of teaching — including standards, compensation and working conditions. While respecting state and district responsibilities, federal policy should support teachers at every stage of their development.

• Guarantee federal funding for authorized Title I and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act programs. Only with predictable resources can we provide the programs that students need.

• Protect and promote students’ equal access to education services and opportunities without ever losing sight of the fact that the richest country in the world can provide every student with a quality education.

• Support state-based school transformation and state accountability plans that encompass the conditions necessary for every student to succeed: access to pre-kindergarten, to reasonable class size and to safe facilities.

• Establish high-quality education research and development as essential to educational improvement. The aim of research is not just to stockpile knowledge but to achieve a deep understanding of what education means in today’s world and how it can be strengthened. To paraphrase former IBM chief executive Louis Gerstner, it is not only about predicting rain, it is also about building arks.

• Support innovation and best practices to accelerate state improvement efforts and improve student learning. The Education Department should expand its services as a clearinghouse for best practices to help educators better teach their students and to help develop strong school leadership.

We all know that our nation is facing many critical challenges today — a frightening economy, two protracted wars and the need for a reformed health care system, just to name a few. But the need to transform public education for the 21st century is every bit as urgent as any of these problems.

We can only achieve that transformation if we renew our nation’s traditional commitment to public education and create a more balanced partnership between our federal, state and local governments. The administration and Congress must be partners in the transformation of our public schools. The stakes are too high and the job is too big for them to sit on the sidelines.

Dennis Van Roekel, a 23-year teaching veteran, is president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, the nation’s largest professional organization representing public school educators.

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