NEA’s Chase Charts Evidence of Union’s ‘Reinvention’

By Ann Bradley — March 10, 1999 5 min read

Two years after he called for a new kind of teacher unionism, the president of the National Education Association reported last week that the movement to reduce labor-management conflict and improve school quality has taken hold.

Bob Chase returned to the National Press Club here to extol his union’s progress since 1997, when he used a lunchtime address at the same forum to admit some of the NEA’s failings and call for a “reinvention” of the union. (“Seeking ‘Reinvention’ of NEA, Chase Calls for Shift in Priorities,” Feb.12, 1997.)

Noting that he had challenged the news media to watch the NEA closely and not just take it at its word, Mr. Chase argued that real change has occurred in state and local affiliates throughout the country.

“The new NEA is not just concept,” he said, “it’s also bicep. It is a concrete reality in countless school districts all across this country.”

One of the most vivid examples of change is the NEA’s embrace of peer-assistance and -review programs, which are now in place in more than a dozen communities, Mr. Chase said.

But in California, where Gov. Gray Davis is seeking the nation’s first statewide program, the California Teachers Association is fighting the Democratic governor’s attempts to induce districts to adopt peer review by withholding some state funding from those that failed to do so.

300 Projects

To showcase its members’ efforts, the 2.4 million-member NEA released a report last week detailing initiatives in five areas: enhancing teacher quality; addressing the conditions of children; promoting community and parental involvement; improving the conditions of schools; and redesigning education through such undertakings as charter schools and “reconstituting,” or restaffing, poorly performing schools.

The report, “Stepping Forward: How NEA Members Are Revitalizing America’s Public Schools,” briefly describes some 300 programs and projects. Not all are exemplary, and some may fail, Mr. Chase writes in an introduction. But they are evidence of an “aggressive new dynamic” spreading throughout the association, he argues.

NEA President Bob Chase touts a new report detailing union members’ efforts in education reform.
--Benjamin Tice Smith

Mr. Chase praised a partnership between the Long Beach Unified School District and the Teachers Association of Long Beach, along with higher education institutions, to draft an eight-year plan to improve the quality of education in the Southern California community.

And he credited NEA members who have started charter schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Phoenix, and San Diego, as well as teachers in Montclair and Dumont, N.J., who are turning two high schools into professional-development academies.

At the national level, he noted, the union has hired 15 professionals for its teaching-and-learning division, which deals with teacher quality and staff development.

The NEA is expected this summer to announce an initiative to help new teachers adjust to their jobs. Union leaders have been meeting to discuss mentoring programs, which have been found to help keep teachers in the profession, and long-standing district practices that contribute to driving them out.

New teachers are given the same number of courses and students as 25-year veterans, Mr. Chase observed, and are often assigned to teach the most difficult classes or the most taxing schedules.

“None of that makes sense,” he said in a press conference after his speech. “They ought to be given one or two classes fewer.”

Teachers’ salaries also must be made more competitive if talented young people are to be attracted to and stay in the profession, he said.

No ‘Sacred Cows’

Besides leading efforts to change, the NEA needs to get out of the way of other reformers, Mr. Chase said. “We can’t allow union sacred cows to block the path of members who want to pursue their own vision of school quality and reform,” he said.

In most places, collective bargaining is too narrowly focused on the terms and conditions of employment, he argued, and needs to be “liberated” and used as a way to improve schools.

Over three decades of defending members against abuse, Mr. Chase said, the teachers’ unions built “a great palisade of protections” that now can have the unintended effect of blocking necessary changes.

The NEA president called for local affiliates to negotiate contracts that “empower and enable” teachers to do their jobs better, in cooperation with superintendents and school boards willing to think differently.

That message was a welcome one for Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association.

Mr. Chase’s speech was “a refreshing and important accountability statement,” Ms. Bryant said. “It was good to hear him say concisely and concretely what the NEA is doing.”

But Myron Lieberman, a longtime union critic, wasn’t persuaded of the NEA’s sincerity in addressing teachers’ needs for better professional development.

Nationwide, districts spend millions paying teachers to take additional courses, Mr. Lieberman said, and unions fight to allow teachers to have as much flexibility as possible in their choice of studies.

“They bargain the right to take patsy courses,” he said. He asserted that Mr. Chase’s support for improved teacher learning was “phony.”

‘Lack of Will’

While most of Mr. Chase’s speech was devoted to explaining the NEA’s work and urging Americans to support high-quality teaching, Mr. Chase also touched on a perennial target of the teachers’ unions: school vouchers. Such tuition aid is a “reckless experiment” that, he said, is “self-destructing in Cleveland,” which has a nationally watched private-school-choice program.

Many of the questions from his audience, which included reporters, policymakers, and representatives of other national education groups, touched on vouchers, charter schools, and the entry of for-profit companies into public education.

None of those developments is likely to produce better education, he contended, but better teachers will. “It’s not a mystery. There is no great secret about how to teach kids,” Mr. Chase said. “What there has been is a lack of will on the part of a whole lot of people in a whole lot of areas.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as NEA’s Chase Charts Evidence of Union’s ‘Reinvention’