Biggest US teacher union OKs national certification idea. But NEA otherwise ignores task-force reform proposals

Eight thousand delegates representing the nation's largest teacher union, the 1.8 million-member National Education Association (NEA), are leaving here today after a key vote to upgrade and professionalize the job of teaching. Despite some stiff internal opposition during NEA's annual convention here that began on July 1, NEA president Mary Hatwood Futrell convinced her union to support the development of a national certification board that would establish high-quality standards for teachers entering the profession. National standards would help facilitate teacher self-regulation -- the trademark of a profession -- experts say.

Under the NEA proposal, current teachers would not be required to obtain certification. But supporters of the measure observed that current teachers who voluntarily took the certification test and satisfied the board's standards would also gain greater professional esteem.

Marc Tucker of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy called the vote ``historic,'' as it may pave the way for further needed reforms in the profession that lies at the heart of American education.

Many union watchers are skeptical, however, that the NEA, a union traditionally slow to change, will give more than lip-service to reform.

Impetus for the vote came from an influential Carnegie Forum report released in May. Titled ``A Nation Prepared,'' the report outlined detailed strategies to improve the nation's teaching force. Ms. Futrell was a member of the task force behind the report.

The Carnegie report sharply defines the overriding issues now facing the teaching profession. Half of America's active teachers will retire by the mid-1990s, the report states, with the result that large numbers of young men and women will have to be attracted into a profession that does not currently enjoy a high reputation among people making career decisions.

Moreover, the report goes on, in order for the country to deal well with the economic and social complexities of the 21st century, the retiring teachers will have to be replaced by higher-caliber men and women than the profession is currently recruiting.

Among the Carnegie proposals for upgrading the teaching profession and attracting high-quality people are the creation of a national standards board, better working conditions, career advancement, different training, greater accountability, and higher pay.

(The NEA's rival union, the American Federation of Teachers, appeared ready yesterday to give qualified endorsement to most of the Carnegie proposals in its convention in Chicago. See story below.)

Ms. Futrell made it clear from the start of the NEA convention, however, that ``the Carnegie agenda will not be our agenda.'' Other than national certification, no Carnegie items were discussed.

An important NEA caveat to the proposed institution of national standards is that the certification procedure should be administered by state licensing boards. NEA's greatest strength is in its state and local lobbying groups.

But critics say that without centralized supervision of the certification process, many local union affiliates will not make the changes necessary to ensure that high-quality teachers fill the coming teacher gap.

In August, leading educators and NEA and AFT delegates will meet to begin formulating the national certification process.

Among other things, national certification will give unions a bargaining chip. ``You bet we're going to use this to bargain for more money,'' Futrell says.

Yet with the average teacher salary now topping $25,000, experts say the American public will demand further accountability from teachers before they command significantly higher salaries. The NEA opposes most current accountability measures.

For a more complete report on the AFT and NEA conventions, see the Monitor's Ideas Page on Friday, July 11.

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