By voting last weekend to support development of a national standards board to certify new teachers, the nation's two teacher unions have quietly taken steps that, observers say, may significantly change the structure of American education over the next 20 years. A ``national standards board'' doesn't sound like a particularly glitzy idea. But according to analysts such as Arthur Wise of the Rand Corporation and Charles Kerschner of Claremont College, the decisions made at the conventions of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association last week open a new era -- one in which teachers will begin to exercise control over their own ranks and, in turn, will have more say in the way education is delivered in schools. It's being called an era of teacher ``professionalization.''
``The limits of the old labor-management model have been felt by everybody,'' says Mr. Wise. Every other occupation that calls itself a profession has control over its own members, he adds, noting that if the effort to professionalize teaching is taken seriously, ``then the role of principals, superintendents, school boards, and others will go through a change as well.'' The teacher would take a more central role in the operation and decisionmaking process within schools.
The time is now ripe for such an amplification of the teacher's role, Dr. Kerschner feels. ``There is a universal sense of discontent'' throughout the teaching profession today, he says; a feeling that the teacher can no longer be a second-class citizen.
All spring long, the education community has waited with interest to see what would happen when the AFT and the NEA held their conventions in Chicago and Louisville, Ky., respectively.
The interest was triggered by the landmark report submitted in May by the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy. Presidents Mary Hatwood Futrell of the NEA and Albert Shanker of the AFT were both members of the Carnegie commission, which outlined the need for a national standards board, a major overhaul of teacher education, and more interaction and professional discussion among teachers in schools. The report initiated a second wave of school reform.
The first wave came in 1983 when the now-famous ``Nation at Risk'' report causeda national hue and cry over the decline of public schooling. Since that time, education reformers and state leaders have learned that the business of fixing schools is complicated, and that schools will not improve until teaching improves. Larry Cuban of Stanford University points out that the general model for teaching hasn't changed in 100 years.
The Carnegie report offered a detailed plan of action for teacher reform -- one that recognized the complexities involved. It also linked teacher reform to important emerging trends: With a major teacher shortage ahead (a million new teachers needed by the mid-1990s), stiffer economic competition abroad, and a shift toward greater minority populations in schools at home, it is vital that the nation recruit higher quality teachers than it is currently recruiting. In 1986, we can't afford not to reform and professionalize teaching, the commission said, since the alternative would be many substan dard teachers in the pipeline for 30 years or more.
Teaching, then, is at a historic juncture.
Certainly Albert Shanker takes this view. At the AFT convention in Chicago, Mr. Shanker presented his union with two carefully worded reform proposals, both of which embody the Carnegie ideas of greater teacher accountability and greater teacher freedom. If schools are to move beyond a ``factory model,'' where teachers play the role of assembly-line workers, teachers will have to become more responsible -- prove they can share in managment tasks and govern themselves, he argued. Already, teachers in AFT districts in Toledo, Ohio, Miami, Rochester, N.Y., and Hammond, Ind. are proving this, he noted.
The AFT delegates endorsed the new proposals -- following much debate and caucusing -- with the understanding that reform not be mandantory or prescribed.
The highly focused AFT approach was in contrast to the NEA meeting in Louisville. The NEA is one of the largest deliberative bodies in the world, and its political, social, and educational agenda is about as broad. It has been notoriously slow to move on reform, say educators.
But ``teachers know they need to change,'' said President Futrell, in an interview with the Monitor. Mrs. Futrell was the guiding force behind the NEA's adoption of the national standards board concept, and, following a rules change that will allow her to run for a third term next year (which she is expected to win handily), is said to be coming into her own as a reformer within the NEA.
Still, most of the Louisville delegates interviewed by the Monitor had very little idea of what was involved in the Carnegie report. It was not debated (or even mentioned) at the convention, although Futrell had told the press in May it would be. Further, many delegates were misinformed about what the national standards board meant. One Californian, for example, thought it was a mandatory test for current teachers (it is voluntary).
NEA officials say their ``Open Letter to the Public,'' composed in 1984, is their own version of the Carnegie report, and indicates they have been out in front on issues of teacher evaluation and reform.
Yet experts note that the ``Letter'' is a general response to ``A Nation at Risk,'' and has none of the specific strategy of the Carnegie approach. ``It's a very soft document,'' said one official.
Taking the long view, however, the joint agreement to support a national standards board means the shift from unionism to professionalism is underway, says Wise.