Bold Vision Needed for Education Platform

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for March 17 and thereafter
750 words

INDIANAPOLIS — As they develop their policy initiatives for Indiana schools, candidates for governor should take a page from Rod Paige’s playbook: Be bold, be creative and don’t be afraid to take on the teachers" union.

Though Paige’s sense of humor backfired last month when he likened the National Education Association to a terrorist organization, the U.S. secretary of education gets high marks for speaking out against the 2.7 million-member union, whose resistance to change has often impeded school reform.

During a visit to Indianapolis in 2002, Paige was just as candid on the subject of collective bargaining, which he said handcuffs states from trying innovative programs to attract and reward teachers.

You don’t hear that innovation talk much in Indiana where politicians of both stripes play it safe rather than risk upsetting the Indiana State Teachers Association, Indiana’s NEA chapter. Even Republican candidate for governor Mitch Daniels, known for strong convictions and pit bull tactics as head of the Office of Management and Budget under President Bush, seems to be playing it safe with education.

His plan, unveiled with Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen Reed at a March 11 news conference, calls for all-day kindergarten, changing the kindergarten entrance cutoff date, more charter schools, changes in ISTEP testing and making the school superintendent position an appointive post. Not much controversy here, except possibly wanting to take away an electoral option from voters so the governor can exert more control over education policy.

If he were running for Indiana governor or school superintendent, Paige would surely be bolder. His plan for Indiana public schools might include something like this:

End collective bargaining. Under current law, school districts and the union must bargain over wages, hours and terms of employment. The resulting pay scales make it impossible for schools to address areas of critical need because all teachers with comparable experience must be treated the same. Indiana administrators can’t use such tools as hiring bonuses, science and math salary differentials or "combat pay" for schools with the toughest disciplinary problems. The consequences are severe in inner cities, where shortages of math and science teachers are greatest and where inexperienced teachers are most likely to end up.

Eliminate teacher licensing at the high school level. Replace the licensure requirement with a rigorous content knowledge test that candidates would have to pass before stepping into a classroom. Why is this needed? Because in Indiana, a mathematics professor at Purdue University couldn’t teach high school math unless he went back to school for a teacher’s license. A chemist at Eli Lilly couldn’t teach high school chemistry. This restriction keeps many qualified retirees and career changers from sharing their extensive knowledge. Schools should be able to recruit the best and brightest in their fields to become teachers. A license system should be retained at the elementary level where knowledge of child development and different learning methods is important.

Abolish the textbook adoption system. Let schools pick the books teachers want without having to jump through hoops. To save money, allow school districts to enter into group purchasing agreements for instructional materials. Few arms of the education system are as pointless as textbook adoption. The Department of Education creates lists of textbooks that meet certain requirements and school systems must then select their books from these lists. Though Indiana has unique academic standards, the books are geared to California, Texas and Florida, which account for 30 percent of the K-12 market, a market dominated by just four publishers.

"The result is an increasing trend toward texts that are long on visual gimmicks, short on factual information and homogenized in content," says Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington D.C. "And this result is having a "trickle down" effect, weakening the classroom instruction by teachers who are more often than not reliant upon these books for a de facto lesson plan." Of the top 10 performing states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Allen notes, only one has a statewide adoption program for textbooks. Of the bottom 10, nine have state textbook adoption, "underscoring the importance of wider flexibility in choosing texts that are right for children."

Would these three proposals improve test scores overnight? Of course not. Would they give schools more flexibility to do what’s best for kids? Absolutely.

Why aren’t any candidates talking about these things? Because they would upset the teachers’ union or the education bureaucracy. And, in an election year, that’s risky business.



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