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Teachers' Unions Appear To Trade Places on Reform

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The two national teachers' unions, in recent major shifts in their views on how schools should be made to work better, have essentially switched places.

The National Education Association, long viewed as cautious about many of the prescriptions for fixing schools, now touts its attention to teaching and learning and its support for innovation.

The American Federation of Teachers, which has a reputation as the more adventurous of the two, has embarked on a crusade for orderly schools and high academic standards that has been criticized for its traditional flavor.

Both unions have formulated their positions, in part, by blending past experience with readings of the current political climate. While the AFT has long been a leading force in the reform debate, the nea is seen as a welcome newcomer.

Each in its own way is struggling to figure out how to "protect not only teachers, but teaching," said Ann Lieberman, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Moving a Giant

The sea change at the AFT stems primarily from two factors.

The union was an early supporter of efforts to restructure schools and push decisionmaking down to teachers, but grew disenchanted when these reforms failed to bring substantial gains in student achievement.

And the union's leaders have been heavily influenced by the public-opinion surveys of Public Agenda. Two reports by the New York City-based research organization have spotlighted profound public dissatisfaction with faddish reforms and strong support for safety, order, and the basics in schools. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)

The nea, on the other hand, has decided to play up and expand its emphasis on school reform based on promising findings from pilot projects launched during the 1980s.

The union's top executives also acknowledge political concerns. What they viewed as a harsh political climate was made even worse by the 1994 elections, which gave Republicans control of Congress and many state legislatures. (See Education Week, July 12, 1995.)

Among many educators, the nea's decision to devote greater resources and attention to teaching and learning is considered more noteworthy.

The 2.2 million-member giant moves slowly, and even though it has not been very specific about what should be done in schools, its first tentative steps are seen as encouraging.

"The nea is gigantic. It's almost like the Democratic Party, with many, many layers," Ms. Lieberman said. "Their move to talk about teaching and learning is quite a change in stance."

Judith Warren Little, an associate professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley, praised the union's new willingness to explore.

The nea's previous focus on expanding the role of teachers in governing schools did not address "altered conditions of learning for either students or teachers," she said.

Perhaps most surprising is the nea's limited support for charter schools--an idea long viewed with suspicion by both unions.

The union plans to help members open charter schools in six states, then study the potential of such schools to improve learning. The union plans to use the knowledge it gathers to be a "forceful advocate for rethinking and reinventing public education," according to a description of the project.

The five-year project will begin in Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii and Wisconsin. The new schools, which will retain close ties to local school boards and districts, are scheduled to open next fall.

One reason the nea has embraced reform, said Cindi Chance, the assistant dean of the education school at the University of Memphis, is the movement's broader scope.

The earliest calls for school improvement, she said, were too narrowly focused on testing and factual learning to appeal to teachers.

"But now that we're looking at total renewal and restructuring and teachers being involved, I personally can buy into it more than I have in the past," Ms. Chance said. "It's getting down to the teacher level."

The 875,000-member aft's new campaign, on the other hand, has surprised few but angered some reform advocates.

Albert Shanker, the union's outspoken president, has long been a leading thinker in education and a champion of higher academic standards.

But the campaign, led by Mr. Shanker, that links high academic standards with a demand for safe, orderly schools is seen by many as a rejection of reform ideas the union once supported.

"They certainly have narrowed the range of what they are trying to promote," said Ms. Little. "For a long time, AFT stood for aggressive moves to reshape schooling."

Broader Union Roles

In their own ways, shaped by their distinct histories and traditions, both organization are trying to assume more responsibility for the quality of schools, said Mark Smylie, an associate professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"The AFT may be arguing for demonstrating the assumption of professional responsibility by taking the lead in the development of standards," he said. The nea, meanwhile, has responded by saying "'That's all well and good, but we want to open it up to teachers and professionals broadly to address local needs and assume professional responsibility that way."'

Charles Kerchner, a professor at the Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif., said that while the national unions have shifted their emphasis, change at the local level has come much more slowly.

Several AFT locals, he noted, remain deeply engaged in trying to restructure teachers' jobs and the roles they play in education, even if their national organization does not play up these initiatives.

Critics Attack

In its detailed prescription for what needs to be done in schools, the aft's "Lessons for Life: Responsibility, Respect, Results" campaign has run afoul of some educators.

This fall, the board of directors of the Council of the Great City Schools rebuked Mr. Shanker for, among other things, the campaign's emphasis on removing disruptive children from schools. (See Education Week, Oct. 11, 1995.)

In his recent remarks about academic tracking, which Mr. Shanker advocates in certain forms, the union leader also has offended educators who believe sorting students dooms some to unproductive lives.

If the AFT has been battered by left-leaning critics, the nea has had its hands full this fall dealing with conservatives upset with a union resolution supporting Lesbian and Gay History Month. (See Education Week, Oct. 25, 1995.)

The nea's reform plans also have their detractors. One of them is Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based clearinghouse on reform that promotes charter schools. She said the union is trying to "water down" the charter movement by setting up its own schools.

Although policies drawn up at the national level send important signals, many experts noted that much of the action remains at the state and local levels.

"What happens on the national level makes the newspapers, but it has much less of an impact on schools and on teachers' and kids' lives than what's going on in a district," said Nina Bascia, a professor of education at the University of Toronto in Ontario.

Ms. Little agreed. "I don't see the same enthusiasm or energy for reform," she said of California, where the California Teachers Association wields political clout. "The legacy of caution is still very much in place."

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