A Tale of Two Unions

November 01, 1998 6 min read

At their annual meetings this summer, the two national teachers’ unions both had reading on their agendas. But their approaches couldn’t have been more different.

As a giant Cat in the Hat danced to a New Orleans jazz band, the nearly 10,000 delegates to the National Education Association’s meeting donned matching red-and-white-striped hats like the one the Dr. Seuss character wears. The July 4 event celebrated the union’s “Read Across America” campaign, held on author Theodor Geisel’s birthday, to encourage adults to read to children.

A few weeks later, when members of the American Federation of Teachers arrived in town for their convention, the mood was more sedate. The delegates approved a four-page, single-spaced resolution on reading instruction, heavy on technical terminology. The policy spells out 14 ways the AFT plans to work to improve students’ early- reading skills.

Despite such stylistic differences, the leaders of both unions say they are in closer agreement about core education issues than ever before. They recently co-sponsored a conference on teacher quality that represented a big step in their drive to work more closely. “Things cannot remain the way they are,” Joan Baratz Snowden, deputy director of the AFT’s educational issues department, says of the current state of teacher-related policies. “The unions have to play a significant role. We have to work together and actually move some of this stuff because we are running out of time.”

Still, as the New Orleans conventions show, the two groups’ efforts to improve schools often move on different tracks. Indeed, the departments within the two unions that spearhead education reform--the AFT’s educational-issues department and the NEA’s teaching and learning division--have very different profiles.

Overhauled about six years ago, the AFT’s “ed issues” arm has helped propel the union into the forefront of the movement to set higher academic standards for students. Its staff of 16 is the largest of any AFT department in Washington, and its annual report on state standards has become a reference for policymakers nationwide.

The NEA, meanwhile, is in a period of transition. It recently disbanded the National Center for Innovation, launched in 1990 to beef up the union’s work in school restructuring. Now, the union is reorganizing its staff to support three priorities: teacher quality, student achievement, and school-system capacity to support the first two objectives. The union plans to add 17 professionals to a staff of 35 in the teaching and learning division, which would put it on par with the government-relations division.

“We’re serious,” says Lynn Coffin, director of teaching and learning for the 2.4 million-member NEA. “I think everybody is delighted to have a focus. This is a terrific focus for us organizationally.”

Until recently, the NEA has favored projects like a teacher education initiative involving seven universities, a program to help affiliates launch charter schools, and an effort to study district-level change. The NEA has also created a tool called KEYS--or Keys to Excellence in Your Schools--that members can use to diagnose the health of their schools.

In the future, Coffin says, the department’s work is likely to focus less on specific projects and more on collaboration with outside groups. The NEA will also step up its support for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the privately organized group in Southfield, Michigan, that is building a system of advanced, voluntary certification for teachers. The union announced this summer that it will wage a national campaign to encourage teachers to attain certification, including awarding grants of up to $5,000 to 15 state affiliates for forums to help prepare candidates.

T he contrasting styles of the two unions are apparent in their work with the Learning First Alliance, a group of 12 education organizations committed to improving student learning in math and reading. Ruth Wattenberg, director of the educational-issues department for the 980,000-member AFT, played a leading role in drafting the alliance’s position paper on reading. The AFT has been “very focused and clear” about the group’s direction, says Shirley Sagawa, executive director of the alliance. Because of the NEA’s far more complex governance system, Sagawa says, “it’s harder for them to be laser-like.”

Traditionally, it’s been the AFT that has been out front, agitating for change. Recently, it has been campaigning for educators to use research-based programs and practices, particularly when trying to improve low-performing schools. A number of its initiatives grew out of a union task force on failing schools. In many of the big cities where the AFT has local affiliates, district officials have threatened to disband entire faculties of persistently low- performing schools, a practice known as “reconstitution.” In response, the union has written a detailed handbook on how to identify poor schools and treat their teachers fairly.

Though some educators have criticized the AFT’s support of packaged programs as a threat to teachers’ freedom to be creative, Wattenberg says such complaints have abated. “As the focus becomes more and more on schools that are in deep trouble,” she says, “most people do not think it’s responsible to reinvent the wheel. Kids need to learn to read in 1st grade, or they will have failed lives.”

The federation is also now working on issues relating to teacher standards, including a detailed policy on “the union role in assuring teacher quality” that it passed this summer. This follows its years of work as a leading champion for higher academic standards under its late president, Albert Shanker.

“They have a really strong staff and a staff that gets out and is frequently seen in forums around these issues,” says Christopher Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates high academic standards. In contrast, the NEA’s “profile is very low,” he says. “I rarely see NEA’s work in these areas.”

Though the AFT is actively promoting certain pedagogical approaches, the NEA takes a more hands-off view. A description of its KEYS program, for example, notes that the union “makes no recommendations on the techniques, curriculum, or goals of the school, but it does provide helpful information tools that build the capacity for school faculty to make good decisions on those issues.”

The NEA’s muted voice in these areas is also the result of its governance structure, which is more unwieldy than the AFT’s. NEA leaders must constantly strive to win the support of the membership for the changes they want to make and the initiatives they want to launch.

The NEA is “reaching out and trying to engage,” says Willis Hawley, executive director of the National Partnership for Excellence and Accountability in Teaching, a federally funded venture to build a research base for improvements in teaching that involves both unions. “There’s always tension between keeping things together inside and building the bridges it takes to make things work on the outside.”

NEA President Bob Chase, whose call for a “new unionism” helped spark the union’s new focus on teacher quality and student achievement, is still campaigning for backing among union leaders. Recently, he met with state affiliate presidents and executive directors to discuss the NEA’s new top priorities. “The support among those two groups is overwhelmingly positive,” Chase says. “What we’re trying to do is create the atmosphere where this kind of activity is the norm, that it’s the type of thing people realize we have to become involved in. It’s crucial.”

--Ann Bradley