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May 2003


Working Conditions Intolerable for Adjuncts

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ERIC On the Chopping Block?
Reauthorization Plan Drops Clearinghouses

Robb Scott, Editor, ESL MiniConferenceOn April 10, 2003, the U.S. Department of Education issued a draft statement of work for the ERIC system for the next contract period, which begins January 1, 2004. By all accounts, the proposed changes to the ERIC system as we know it are earthshaking. Instead of the current 16 subject-specific ERIC Clearinghouses, the new plan would be for a single, centralized, fully automated Clearinghouse or database. This would mean no subject-specific Clearinghouse Web sites, no live content experts to answer questions and perform searches, no further ERIC Digests and no bibliographies.

I recall when in 1983 I did my first ERIC search, using a modem hook-up where the telephone receiver was actually inserted into the modem. Over the years, I have benefited immensely from access to ERIC information, and I can appreciate the human intelligence and area-specific expertise required to make the ERIC system so logical and relevant.

Under the new plan, any additions to the automated ERIC database will be made by a group of clerks from a pre-approved list of journals, conferences, associations and organizations. Expert monitoring of the quality of research acquired for the database will be eliminated and important contributions from many colleges and independent scholars will no longer be part of the database.

My favorite ERIC Clearinghouse, on Language and Linguistics, published my Masters research in early 1985, making it possible for me to immediately join the professional discourse regarding my topic--the use of flowcharts to teach conversational skills in ESL. Again, in 1988, when I spent a year at my alma mater (Kansas) between teaching stints in Ecuador and Japan, my research on rhetorical approaches to teaching reading, writing and conversation skills made it into ERIC for wider dissemination of my ideas.

At our professional conferences, I have met many of the people who actively seek out new research on behalf of ERIC Clearinghouses. These individuals provide an essential function in the education profession. Now that I am working as a teacher educator in Western Kansas, I can appreciate the value of their contribution to our field even more deeply. I know that there are other regions in the United States where the ERIC Clearinghouse for Rural Education and Small Schools is like a lifeline.

In the context of No Child Left Behind, and increased pressure on schools and districts to perform (or get their students to perform) well on high-stakes yearly assessments, it does not make any sense for the U.S. Department of Education to dismantle the most relevant service it now provides to support educators on the ground across America. I know Secretary Paige just visited Alaska schools earlier this week and is well aware of the tough conditions faced by rural educators as they strive to meet the new requirements of NCLB. He is further aware that there is a bill, H.R. 1350, which has passed the House and is now before the Senate, which guts the funding for special education services which districts are legally and morally mandated to provide.

In some states, teachers working with English language learners are working under further constraints from English-only state mandates. Without the expert guidance available from the ERIC Clearinghouse for Elementary and Early Childhood, the ERIC Clearinghouse for Language and Linguistics and the ERIC Clearinghouse for Reading, English and Communication, these teachers could be missing important new research on strategies for making English immersion work.

There are many more examples of the crucial role the ERIC Clearinghouses play in the lives of teachers and students in America today.

Now, let me get this straight. Congress is busy trying to decide between a $300 billion and a $500 billion tax cut, while at the same time the Department of Education is preparing to drastically scale back ERIC Clearinghouse services for millions of teachers who are already contributing their own personal funds to shore up gaps caused by federal negligence. Districts are struggling to meet new federal mandates such as those under NCLB, yet states and local communities are being forced to foot more and more of the bill themselves as federal funding is reduced. Every child in the United States has a right to a free public education of the highest quality; while paying lip service to that principle, politicians--Democrats as well as Republicans--chip away at schools' ability to educate every time funding is stripped from mandated services.

I believe that Secretary Paige has a golden opportunity today to tell Congress and the Administration that there is no more blood to be squeezed from this stone. It is time that someone in Washington stood up for teachers and schools and the vital role they perform in educating the next generation of this precious American democracy.

Thousands of educators have contacted the Secretary leading up to today's deadline for public comment on the new ERIC contract. One viable alternative has been presented by Robert M. Hayes, Professor Emeritus at UCLA, who suggests that there should be two contracts: one for operating the comprehensive ERIC database and the other for managing the ERIC Clearinghouses, to preserve their current functions including selection of new materials for the ERIC database.

Perhaps the threat of reductions in ERIC services has awakened educators and reminded all of us not to take for granted the tools and resources we depend on in exercising our profession. Perhaps the responses from shocked and concerned teachers will be heard by our political leaders in Washington. Yet we should be asking serious questions about the competence of those leaders who came up with the idea of scrapping ERIC in the first place. This ranks right up there with Ronald Reagan's threat to abolish the Department of Education, or Rod Paige's [Reid Lyon: See correction on Letters page] comment that he'd like to blow up all the schools of education in America. Ted Kennedy is one of the primary instigators of this latest effort to dismantle ERIC.

At the very least, each of us ought to carefully consider the commitment to education of those campaigning for Congress and the presidency during the next 18 months. Let's make this round of elections "high stakes" for politicans who may have grown complacent about the public servant nature of political office.

Report by Robb Scott, Hays, KANSAS

2003 ESL MiniConference Online