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Published in Print: July 13, 2005, as AFT Follows Separate Path in Changing Law

AFT Follows Separate Path in Changing Law

The smaller national union is focusing on NCLB reauthorization.

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While the National Education Association attacks the nation’s chief education law in the courts, the American Federation of Teachers is pursuing its own strategy aimed at refining the law and correcting the provisions its leaders consider unfair and unworkable.

“NCLB—Let’s Get It Right” is a multifaceted education and advocacy campaign focusing on the aspects of the 3½-year-old federal legislation that have been giving teachers and school districts the most trouble, in the AFT’s view.

"There have been some welcome changes to the No Child Left Behind Act, but not in ways that address the fundamental problems," says AFT President Edward J. McElroy.
—Christopher Powers/Education Week

Launched in May, the campaign includes print advertisements in national policy publications and radio spots in several large metropolitan areas. Spanish versions will also be broadcast in selected markets.

The message highlights four pieces of the law: adequate yearly progress, teacher and paraprofessional quality, school improvement, and funding. Details of the AFT’s complaints about those provisions are also featured on the union’s Web site.

“The evidence shows that AYP targets are not merely challenging, they are unrealistic,” say union materials. “By 2014, almost all schools, very many of them high-performing, will have failed AYP. Indeed, no nation has been or is close to meeting the kind of standard that has been set by NCLB.”

AFT President Edward J. McElroy reiterated the themes of the “Let’s Get It Right” campaign during his speech last week in Washington at the union’s QUEST Conference, a biennial professional-development meeting. “There have been some welcome changes to the No Child Left Behind Act, but not in ways that address the fundamental problems with the law,” he said. “The stakes are too high for us to wait until the upcoming 2007 reauthorization of NCLB before we focus on the necessary improvements to this law.”

In spite of the stronger stance toward the law—the centerpiece of President Bush’s education agenda—Mr. McElroy said no changes to the overall tone of the conference and its emphasis on research and classroom instruction for teachers and local union leaders were planned.

“QUEST is built around those kinds of opportunities,” said Mr. McElroy, referring to research and instruction.

Different Strategies

Julia E. Koppich, a San Francisco-based author who is an expert on teachers’ unions, has analyzed both of the big national unions’ responses to the NCLB law and writes about them in the current issue of the Peabody Journal of Education, published by the education school at Vanderbilt University.

“The AFT’s and NEA’sconcerns about NCLB, thus, are much the same: underfunding of the measure; too great a reliance on standardized testing as the sole accountability measure; and, particularly in the case of the AFT, an absence of reasonable attention to the very real challenges of urban districts. But their strategies for securing change are quite different,” she writes.

Still, despite a steady barrage of doubts and complaints from the NEA, the similarities between the two unions’ handling of the landmark legislation have recently grown. While in the past year the AFT has been sharply and publicly critical of some parts of the law, the larger NEA has recently dubbed its No Child Left Behind campaign “The Right Answer for NCLB.” It has stressed, even while filing a lawsuit in April seeking to prevent the federal government from withholding money from states that do not comply with the law, that it does not seek to dismantle the legislation. Rather, the union says its mission is to “fix and fund.”

Like the NEA, the AFT has been in a difficult position.

“Teachers are getting hammered, and they’re saying to the union, ‘Do something!’ ” Ms. Koppich said in an interview, but added that AFT leaders don’t want to jeopardize the new federal funding for poor and low-achieving students “by saying, ‘We oppose, we oppose, we oppose.’ ”

So instead of just finding fault with the law, AFT leaders have been working to come up with suggested alternatives even before the reauthorization process, scheduled for 2007, begins. It featured, for example, articles by respected education experts on standards and accountability in the spring issue of its American Educator journal.

In one article, Richard F. Elmore, a professor of educational leadership at Harvard University, says that what is lacking in many schools that are likely to be labeled as needing improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act is the knowledge of how to improve achievement.

Raising achievement “will require the creation of systems to find people with expertise in subject matter, instruction practice and improvement, and getting them into the schools where they are needed,” he writes.

Ms. Koppich said she thinks the AFT-published magazine sends an important message: “It says we are on the right track, and what we need now are midcourse corrections,” she said. In contrast, she says about the NEA’s course of action, “I don’t know what it’s going to accomplish.”

‘A Moderate Approach’

AFT leaders say their approach also reflects the attitudes of most of their members. In a survey the AFT conducted last year, two-thirds of the respondents said they would rather see the law “fixed” than have it scrapped altogether.

Some leaders within the AFT, however, felt their union’s stand against the law—an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that aims to hold schools accountable for raising student achievement—should be just as strong as the one taken by the NEA.

“I was among those who urged a stronger response—more akin to the one NEA took and filing litigation,” said Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Association in New York.

But the AFT’s more balanced approach—one that mixes support for the attention given to raising standards with calls for correcting the way progress is measured—appears to be more in keeping with Mr. McElroy’s style.

“He threw his support behind a more moderate approach—not throwing out the whole thing,” Mr. Urbanski said.

Reaching Out

At the same time the AFT is refining its message to the public about the NCLB law, Mr. McElroy is apparently also trying to keep the lines of communication open with the Bush administration.

In a May 4 letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, Mr. McElroy called attention to the requirement in the law that all classroom paraprofessionals show that they are highly qualified by Jan. 8 of next year.

“All of the law’s other deadlines are timed to coincide with school year calendars,” he wrote, adding that some districts were even moving the deadline sooner. “A common-sense solution to this problem would be for the U.S. Department of Education to align the deadline for paraprofessionals with the end-of-the-year date now in place for teachers.” Teachers must meet standards for being deemed highly qualified by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

Mr. McElroy then followed up his letter with a meeting with Ms. Spellings.

Ultimately, in a June 17 statement, Deputy Secretary of Education Ray Simon announced that the deadline for paraprofessionals to meet the “highly qualified” status would be moved to the end of the coming school year.

“It’s unusual to have a deadline in the middle of the school year, and we believe that the paraprofessional and highly-qualified-teacher provisions should be consistent,” Mr. Simon said.

The NEA is also claiming credit.

“Due to your efforts, and with the extra help of the Idaho Education Association and Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican, we had a major victory and were able to convince the Department of Education to extend the deadline for paras to match the teacher deadline,” President Reg Weaver told delegates to the NEA’s annual meeting last week. Officials of the Education Department, meanwhile, declined to comment specifically about the AFT’s campaign about the federal law.

The frustration and bitterness among teachers over the federal mandates can be better understood when they’re put into a historical perspective, Ms. Koppich said.

“If you look at the original [ESEA],” she said, “the first 10 or 12 years of that law people were going nuts because the implementation was crazy.”

Vol. 24, Issue 42, Pages 3,17

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