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NEA President Says Achievement Gap to Go at Top of Union's Priority List

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The president of the nation's largest teachers' union declared July 3 that closing the achievement gap plaguing minority students and reaching out to their communities have moved to the top of his organization's agenda.

But Reg Weaver called on some 8,000 union activists gathered here for the National Education Association's annual meeting to do no more specifically to meet those goals than understand the concerns of minority groups and police the profession for bad apples.

For More Info
For further up-to-date news from the NEA conference read our reporter's blog, written by Education Week Assistant Editor Linda Jacobson.

"The credibility of each and every one of us is damaged when one of us is unprofessional, unprepared and/or unwilling," Mr. Weaver warned in his keynote address.

He also told the delegates to the convention that leaders of minority communities are "being courted by those who want to destroy public education, and, unfortunately, some are being persuaded" to support, for example, charter schools and vouchers. He blamed what he views as the foes' success, in part, on lagging achievement among black and Hispanic students compared with their white counterparts.

The 2.7 million-member union's convention comes 2½ months after it filed a lawsuit challenging the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The law was spurred in large measure by chagrin over the achievement gap Mr. Weaver highlighted. The law attempts to close that gap with state-designed systems of standards, testing, and consequences. The NEA argues that the federal government is breaking the law by demanding changes in schools without fully footing the bill. It also contends that the testing requirements undermine teachers' ability to be effective.

Indeed, Mr. Weaver drew solid applause from the convention delegates when he mentioned the suit. But the legal move also caps a history of NEA opposition to the law, which has gained it a reputation in some conservative and moderate quarters as obstructionist. It has also weakened its standing with some longtime allies.

The priorities trumpeted at the NEA convention seem designed as much to challenge that image and shore up the union's support as to direct the energies of the union's members.

Before his speech, Mr. Weaver also announced the start of a campaign to set a floor of $40,000 for teacher pay anywhere in the country, where beginning teacher salaries ranged last year from about $38,500 in Alaska to about $23,800 in Montana, according to NEA figures. He tied the proposed salary hikes to raising the achievement of minority students, saying it would help recruit and retain the teachers who are needed for that job.

Second-Term President

In addition to salary, outreach to minority groups, and closing the achievement gap, the union has previously named three other elements of the Great Public Schools program that it has been building since Mr. Weaver took office in 2002: recruiting new members, advocating at the grassroots, and fighting the No Child Left Behind law. The 67-year-old president, who previously served as the NEA's vice president, will start a final three-year term this summer. He faced no opposition and was re-elected by acclaim.

In his speech, Mr. Weaver sounded the theme that is often his take-home message to the public. "We recognize that you cannot separate quality public school education from public school educators," he proclaimed. "One will not flourish without the other."

He reminded the teachers of their credibility among the public as education experts, but cautioned that their standing would be undermined, especially among minority parents, if professional standards are not upheld by every teacher. "We must . be willing to assist, and support [colleagues who do not meet professional standards] because we don't want to lose them," Mr. Weaver said. "But we must also insist upon their growth and their commitment to our profession."

Despite those injunctions, the speech did not urge teachers to, for instance, improve their teaching methods or demand better support for high-quality instruction from administrators.

Nor does the NEA's budget for the year starting in August reflect a greater emphasis on raising student achievement. The department with that responsibility is to see its funding go up by less than 1 percent over the year, while the department handling collective bargaining and member advocacy is slated for an increase of almost 4 percent.

Still, the union has for years helped teachers examine their teaching practices, including at the convention. In a symposium on "critical issues for education" held July 2, teachers heard the latest on strategies for helping students whose first language is not English. Another session featured representatives of minority groups describing their perspectives on public education.

'Responsibilities to the Community'

Some teachers thought Mr. Weaver's emphasis on reaching out to members of minority groups was well-founded.

"NEA is not connected as well with minority communities as well as we think we are," said Donovan Mack, a high school teacher and state union official from Laramie, Wyo. "We have responsibilities to the community, and the responsibilities aren't exclusively in the classroom but with parents and the community."

Outside observers also applauded a renewed effort to communicate with minority groups.

"The good news in this is it is important for teachers to reach out to minority communities and low-income communities," said Dianne Piché, the executive director of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, a nonprofit watchdog group for federal civil rights policy based in Washington. "That's especially the case because, oftentimes, teachers don't live in the communities where they teach."

Nonetheless, she added, "it's very troubling to see the nation's largest teachers' union opposed to a federal law seeking to leverage better state policy for the most disadvantaged children."

As for setting a minimum $40,000 salary for teachers, Ms. Pichésaid that in the current political and economic climate, hefty across-the-board pay raises for teachers might be a difficult sell in many states and communities.

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