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Teachers’ Unions Vie for Professional Status, Back National Board

By Lynn Olson & Blake Rodman — September 10, 1986 10 min read

In their strongest bid yet for professional status for their members, the nation’s teachers’ unions have signaled their support for a national certification board, governed by teacher, that would set uniform standards for the profession.

By endorsing the concept of a national board at their conventions this summer, the American Federation of Teachers and the National I Education Association substantially shifted union priorities, placing the issue of professional standards on a par with traditional collective-bargaining concerns.

And at last month’s meeting of the National Governors’ Association, the presidents of the two unions made clear that they are ready and willing to work with governors on ways to professionalize teaching and increase teachers’ influence in school decision making.

Arthur E. Wise, director of the I Center for the Study of the Teaching Profession at the Rand Corporation, called the unions’ July meetings “watershed events.”

For the first time, he said, “the two organizations have demonstrated a commitment to assume responsibility over the quality of people who are to be called teachers.”

But education observers agree that the degree to which the two unions are moving to embrace educational reforms differs, stemming at least in part from the leadership style of their presidents.

Albert Shanker, president of the A.F.T., has often tried to get out in front in the reform movement, observers say, sometimes pulling his 630,000 members with him.

In contrast, Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the N.E.A., has been more cautious, working to build consensus among her 1.8 million- member constituency.

The Carnegie Report

Both Mr. Shanker and Ms. Futrell served on the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession, which in May proposed that an independent national board be formed.

They have since agreed to serve on the planning committee for the board, which is to be modeled after those used to certify architects, doctors, and lawyers. (See related story page 7.)

The task force’s report, A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21 st Century, advocates giving teachers higher salaries, more independence, and advancement opportunities in exchange for “real accountability for student performance.”

Many have expressed hope that the report will enhance the professional status of teaching in the way that the Carnegie-sponsored Flexner Report professionalized medicine around the turn of the century.

‘Powerful Boost’

Carnegie officials and others had considered the unions’ summer meetings a major test of the viability of the task force’s proposals.

And they hailed the unions’ acceptance of the board concept as a “powerful boost” to the task force’s work, which they said could not be carried out without the support of the nation’s approximately 2.3-million schoolteachers.

“What the report says is that you aren’t going to get reform over the dead bodies of teachers,” said Marc Tucker, executive director of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, which created the task force.

The unions’ willingness to support the idea of a national board follows several years during which members of both unions, and the N.E.A. in particular, have expressed their displeasure with some of the education reforms forwarded by governors and others, including literacy tests for I practicing teachers and merit-pay programs. Often, according to union members, teachers have had little say in fashioning such policies.

“We can’t expect that others are going to design the destiny of our profession,” said Marilyn Russell Bittle, president of the California Teachers Association, an N.E.A. affiliate. “We’ve got to be the initiators of the process, rather than the reactors.”

Differing Approaches

The way the two unions handled the Carnegie report during their conventions differed notably, however.

Mr. Wise said that although there was little difference in the concrete actions taken by this summer, “the A.F.T. has shown more interest in the larger agenda” for teacher reform laid out by the Carnegie task force.

“The N.E.A., on the other hand, seemed to prefer to remain silent on the larger agenda,” he said.

Revamping the teaching profession was the dominant theme of the A.F.T. meeting in Chicago. Delegates gave almost unanimous support to a resolution that “hailed” A Nation Prepared as “the most important contribution to the continuing public discussion of education reform.”

By passing the resolution, delegates signaled affiliates to “go ahead” and experiment with the Carnegie proposals, said Bella Rosenberg, a union spokesman. “For the A.F.T.,"she said, “that is a strong endorsement.”

A.F.T. Report

A.F.T. delegates also adopted their own carefully worded document, “The Revolution That Is Overdue: Looking the Future of Teaching and Learning,” which mirrors many of the Carnegie report’s proposals.

The union’s recommendations include the following:

  • Creation of a national teacher-certification board, with higher pay for those with advanced certificates.

  • State-mandated minimum salaries for teachers, with higher pay for those in shortage areas.
  • An alternative route into teaching.
  • Incentives to bring those who have left teaching back into the classroom, including retention of tenure, salary levels, and pension benefits.
  • A broad-based liberal-arts degree for prospective teachers, including at least one subject major, as well as a full-year internship under a practicing teacher.
  • A greater role for teachers as “instructional leaders” in the school, with salaries that are not limited by those paid to administrators.
  • In his state-of-the-union speech, Mr. Shanker encouraged delegates to “send the people of this country a message that the A.F.T. will still continue to take risks to bring about improvements in our profession and in our schools.”

    “By sticking our necks out and being willing to entertain new ideas,” he said, “and by showing that we were able to make some radical and drastic changes in the interests of our students and profession, we have in a very short period of time gained a respect, a respect that we have not had before, of political leaders and businesses leaders and the entire American public.”

    Open Letter

    In contrast, although virtually the entire text of the Carnegie report was distributed to delegates at the N.E.A. convention in Louisville, Ky., the document as a whole was neither discussed nor voted on.

    N.E.A. officials said that their big reform debate was in 1983 and 1984, when delegates adopted the report “An Open Letter to America on Schools, Students, and Tomorrow.” Since then, they said, the union has been working to carry out and refine those positions.

    Like the Carnegie report, the N.E.A.'S “Open Letter” advocates higher pay and greater decisionmaking for teachers.

    But it speaks strongly against creating different levels of teachers, as proposed by the Carnegie task force, and it does not advocate abolishing undergraduate education majors in favor of graduate-level study.

    ''We have our own reform document, and so we’re not going to derail our efforts to take on someone else’s,” said Ms. Futrell, in explaining the lack of focus on the Carnegie report during the convention. “That’s not what we normally do within the N.E.A.”

    Added Sharon Robinson, director of instruction and professional development for the union: “We kind of regard Carnegie as part of the genre of education-reform literature. We don’t regard it as the magna carta. There are other compelling ideas out there.”

    State Infrastructure

    In supporting the idea of a national board, Ms. Futrell stressed that it must operate in close conjunction with the states.

    “Education must be a national priority,” said Ms. Futrell, “but it will always be a state and local endeavor with the state retaining the right to license.”

    Since 1970, the N.E.A. has been working to create state-level professional- standards boards, controlled by teachers. Such boards now exist in 15 states, but are primarily advisory in nature, with limited autonomy and authority.

    The N.E.A., with almost three times the membership of the A.F.T., is the dominant teachers’ union in most states. Education observers note the N.E.A. is, therefore, in a better position to exert its influence if strong state-level standards boards exist in addition to a national structure.

    According to Ms. Futrell, other professions that have standards boards, such as medicine and law, have both state and national bodies. “Basically what they’ve said is they do not see how a national standards board could function without an infrastructure at the state level,” she said.

    Mr. Shanker has been less clear about whether a state infrastructure will be necessary once the national board is in place.

    “I’here can, of course, be state or regional bodies that are arms of the national board for administrative purposes,” Mr. Shanker wrote in his newspaper column just before the convention. But he argued that state-by- state standards do not work.

    “I’hat’s what we have had up to now,” he said. “Both teachers and the public are unhappy with the results.”

    Both union leaders have emphasized that once the national standards are in place, states will have to choose whether to adopt those criteria as their own for licensing purposes. The expectation, they said, is that states might choose to exceed those standards but would not fall below them.

    Despite the N.E.A.'S less intensive focus on the Carnegie report during its convention, Mr. ‘fucker said he was encouraged that the union went as far as it did.

    “The N.E.A. endorsed the proposal for a national board for professional I teaching standards,” he said. “They did not reject the Carnegie report. It was not in front of them. I take that to be a big step forward for the N.E.A.”


    At both meetings, however, opposition groups attempted to vote down or I soften the union endorsements for I some of the Carnegie proposals.

    Dennis N. Giordano, president of I the New Jersey Education Association, called the N.E.A.'S support of I the national-board concept “unfortunate.”

    “We don’t know what it will be,” I he said of the board. “New Jersey delegates had a lot of difficulty agreeing to something that they didn’t know the parameters of.”

    The New Jersey delegation spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to delete language supporting the national- board concept and to replace it with language that simply would have advocated the N.E.A.'S continued involvement ill the planning process.

    At the A.F.T. meeting, Ellen C. Lavroff, president of the Colorado Community College Faculty Federation and chairman of the union’s opposition caucus, said the Carnegie and A.F.T. reports have an “anti-union tone.”

    “There is mention in the A.F.T. executive council’s report of various forms of agreement with the administration that are not collective-bargaining agreements,” she said.

    “The floor of all active teacher unionists is the collective-bargaining contract. You cannot have a strong voice without it.”

    Continued Differences

    The two unions also remain divided on some key education-reform issues.

    The A.F.T. report endorses the idea of paying teachers in shortage areas more than their peers in order to attract able people into the profession.

    In a statement released during the N.E.A. convention, in which she generally applauded the A.F.T. report, Ms. Futrell criticized that recommendation as “no way to solve the teaching shortage.”

    She charged that it would create arbitrary salary distinctions and send the wrong message to teachers by implying that “the subjects they teach are only important if the marketplace says they are.”

    The two unions have also taken different stands on the issue of teacher evaluation.

    The N.E.A. is calling for regular evaluations of current and new teachers. But it makes a sharp distinction between “formative” evaluations-- in which teachers would evaluate each other in order to provide support and guidance-and “summative” evaluations--in which administrators or professional evaluators would judge teachers for purposes of hiring, firing, or promotion. The latter should remain a management prerogative, according to the union.

    The A.F.T. also advocates using experienced teachers to assess and assist new teachers, but it opposes the evaluation of experienced teachers, unless there are obvious problems.

    “Evaluating teachers only when they get in trouble is no way to ensure a quality teacher in every classroom,” Ms. Futrell said. “Teachers need feedback to improve. We need that feedback on a regular basis, not just when there’s trouble.”

    A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 1986 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Unions Vie for Professional Status, Back National Board


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