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Preparing Our Schools for Tomorrow's World

By Tim Walker

As the threat of recession looms in 2008, politicians and economists are debating how to "jump start" the sluggish economy. That may take care of the short-term picture, but what about the long-term? NEA president Reg Weaver has been telling audiences around the country that long-term solutions, risk-taking, innovation, and the ability to change and meet new challenges are key to the nation's economic future.

"What worries me most, what keeps me awake at night," Weaver said in a speech to the Wisconsin Technical College System in Green Bay, Wisconsin, last fall, "is the danger of losing our ability to compete in a new economy."

Weaver says public schools should never forget the vital role they play in shaping the nation's future, especially as they struggle to adapt to the changing world and the global economy.

The economy of the future will be dominated by industries in microelectronics, telecommunications, robotics, and biotechnology—not to mention new fields that haven't even been predicted.

"Nobody knows exactly what our economy will look like in the year 2030. But there is one thing we know for certain," says Weaver. "If we want our children to succeed and prosper in the knowledge economy of the 21st century, we must support and strengthen our public education system." Boosting our competitiveness, Weaver says, will require focused, large-scale economic investment that reflects a true emphasis on quality education.

The American people recognize that a 21st century education must incorporate a different set of skills that reflect changing economic demands, and they strongly believe that schools can and must play a role in preparing students for these challenges.

A 2007 survey by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, for example, revealed that an overwhelming 80 percent of voters say that the skills students need to learn to be prepared for the jobs of the 21st century are different from what they needed 20 years ago. And a majority of Americans also say that schools need to do a better job of keeping up with changing educational needs.

Weaver believes great public schools need innovators and risk-takers who understand that to bring quality education to every student, we must acknowledge that a one-size-fits-all education does not work.

"Our schools need to reflect the world in which our children live," Weaver says. "They need to help students become well-rounded individuals with skills to compete in a changing world and contribute to the rich, diverse societal fabric." This includes providing opportunities beyond high school and breaking down the traditional barriers between preschool, K–12, and higher education.

And in the case of those children who live in communities that are stricken by poverty and unemployment, Weaver says, we simply cannot start too soon. The glaring achievement gaps between minority students and their nonminority counterparts and the economic marginalization it creates will jeopardize the country's future economic prosperity. The disparity between the resources in urban schools, or those in rural areas, and schools in the affluent suburbs is vast.

"In the economy of the 21st century, economic success will increasingly depend on human capital," Weaver says, "and if we want to maintain our standard of living and a place of leadership in the world, we must rise to the challenge and see to it that all students benefit so that they can help keep America competitive in this new century."

Despite all the changes, the new technologies, and uncertainty in the world, Weaver told the Illinois Labor History Society in November, one irrefutable fact holds true: the labor movement and public schools have always been leaders in the struggle for equality and opportunity for all.

"That struggle must continue so we can ensure that every child in America is able to compete in the 21st century economy."


Pay for educators

Some Shortchanged, Others May Tutor

The West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) and other teachers unions are challenging Gov. Joe Manchin's proposed salary increases, calling them misleading. Leaders of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, and WVEA say the proposed 5.5 percent salary increase is an inaccurate projection because the governor's proposal requires counties to use local share funds to cover the pay boost.

In Washington, Gov. Christine Gregoire wants to keep a record budget surplus of $1.2 billion in state savings accounts through mid-2009. Washington Education Association (WEA) President Mary Lindquist says she is disappointed the governor didn't use some of the surplus to make up for the pay raises the Legislature failed to give teachers in 2003–05.

Report Card

We check out who's making the grade—or needs improvement—in education across the country.

Central Consolidated School District: F
This Shiprock, New Mexico, district failed to pay NEA members increases in stipends for sponsoring or coaching extracurricular activities. Nonunion members involved in such activities received a 5 percent increase.
Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell :A
To rectify a $6.9 billion liability in the pension system, Rell authorized the sale of $2 billion in bonds and the full funding of the Teachers' Retirement Fund. These provisions will help ensure the security of the pension system. and protect members' benefits.
Principal Doris Alvarez: F
After an audit determined she likely knew of or directed more than 400 inappropriate grade changes over six years, Alvarez resigned from the Preuss School, a prestigious charter facility in La Jolla, California. She denies the charges.

And in Ohio, the CEA Foundation, a nonprofit subsidiary of the Columbus Education Association (CEA), is competing with more than 270 companies to offer tutoring this year through Supplemental Educational Services, a federal program under the No Child Left Behind law. Students at schools that have missed federal math and reading goals for at least two straight years are eligible. "The CEAF tutors are competent, caring, highly qualified teachers who will make sure Columbus City Schools students are competitive with their peers at large," said CEA President Rhonda Johnson. The Foundation will hire the teachers and oversee the curriculum and funds. About 13,000 students at 42 Columbus schools are eligible for free tutoring. Foundation tutors will work in the schools where they teach. Like outside vendors, the union will pay a fee to use the buildings. Tutors can earn $30 an hour.

School Bus Safety

Damaged, Unsafe Buses Pose Risks

Some Salem-Keizer school bus drivers in Oregon are complaining that buses damaged in a 2006 fire cause headaches, coughing, and burning noses and throats. Several drivers have taken sick leave for symptoms they attribute to the 15 buses. Six drivers have filed workers compensation claims, which were denied. In response to complaints, the buses, which were previously cleaned and tested for toxins, will be retested. "The district has worked very hard on this to resolve it," says Janet Sanders, president of the Salem-Keizer Association of Classified Employees. No students have reported symptoms.

Worn tires and non-functioning speedometers are included in a class-action grievance by a Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) local. In addition to unsafe buses, members of the Weslaco TSTA/NEA documented poor restroom facilities and a hostile work environment toward employees by supervisors.

After an audit determined she likely knew of or directed more than 400 inappropriate grade changes over six years, Alvarez resigned from the Preuss School, a prestigious charter facility in La Jolla, California. She denies the charges.

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