Seeking Profession's 'Soul'

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The nation's two teachers' unions have embarked on a dramatic quest to redefine the nature of the teaching profession that is leading each to reconsider what it means to be a teacher, or a union that represents teachers.

According to many observers, this historic shift toward a new vision of teachers and teaching is still in its infancy.

But there are already notable differences in how the two unions are proceeding at the national level, based in part on differences in their size, governing structure, political power, and leadership.

"Without a willingness on the part of organized teachers to take risks, to experiment with new forms of agreement and cooperation, there will be no genuine reform," wrote Gary Sykes, in the September issue of Educational Researcher.

"Within both the National Education Association and the American Feder6ation of Teachers, a struggle is underway for the soul of the organization," Mr. Sykes argued.

So far, according to most observers, the aft has been the more risk-taking of the two unions, exhorting its affiliates to carry out a number of unorthodox proposals for restructuring schools and teaching.

By contrast, they say, the nea has been more reactive and cautious about advancing in new directions.

Although the union has not discouraged its affiliates from innovating, it has neither prodded them to do so nor highlighted those that have, according to some nea officials.

As a result, says Arthur E. Wise, director of the rand Corporation's center for the study of the teaching profession, "the American Federation of Teachers is out in front right now on the professionalism agenda, at least as it pertains to changing the way school districts do business."

"Clearly, the aft has been much bolder in its willingness to experiment with different kinds of interactions with management," agrees Charles T. Kerchner, associate professor of education and public policy at Claremont Graduate School in California and co-author of a forthcoming book, The Changing Idea of a Teachers' Union.

"They have had an internal philosophy that it is all right to discuss anything," he adds, "and that it's basically all right to experiment with new forms of labor relations."

But as Mr. Sykes and others note, major changes in teaching will not occur without equally strong leadership on the part of the nea

With its nearly 2 million members, the union is not only one of the most powerful organizations in education, but one of the strongest political forces in America.

The positions held by the two national unions may not reflect what is happening at the local level. There are nea affiliates engaged in broad-based experimentation, just as there are aft locals still embroiled in acrimonious "bread-and-butter" disputes with management.

But what their parent organizations espouse will undoubtedly play a central role in how far the movement toward "teacher professionalism" progresses.

Mutual Goals

Over the past two years, both national organizations have advocated steps to make teaching a true profession.

These include: higher salaries for all teachers; more say in issues that affect practice and working conditions; the ability to set standards that determine who enters and leaves the field; greater responsibility for the welfare of both students and the school system; and the creation of a more collegial community of practitioners, bound by a shared body of knowledge and research.

Both unions have made major efforts to get new information about teaching and learning into the hands of their members through publications and conferences.

And both have supported the establishment of the new National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Mastery in Learning

But a major focus of the nea's efforts has been the creation of autonomous state standards boards, controlled by teachers. Such boards would be legally empowered to set the standards by which teachers in each state are licensed.

The aft has remained ambivalent about the creation of such boards, and has charged that the nea's interest in them is a veiled attempt to gain "political control" of licensure at the state level.

A number of local and state nea affiliates--including those in Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Iowa, and Virginia--are experimenting with career ladders, incentive pay, and mentor- and master-teacher programs.

But at the national level, the union remains officially opposed to any hierarchical staffing systems within teaching. It also opposes peer evaluation, merit pay, and any other alternative compensation plans.

Another major nea effort is called "Mastery in Learning," a research project in which teachers in 27 schools in 19 states are involvedin decisionmaking at the school site.

"We want to be able to talk convincingly to policymakers about what [school-based decisionmaking] looks like," says Robert McClure, director of the project, "so that they begin to shift away from this preoccupation with centralized bureaucracy."

"The nea is trying to apply the scientific method to education reform," notes Doug Tuthill, a teacher in a mastery-learning high school in St. Petersburg, Fla., and a board member of the state nea affiliate. "Education reform should be based on scientific research and not the latest fad. The process is conservative, but science is conservative. You don't replace an idea until you are sure you have an idea that is better."

Nea officials expect that the lessons gained from their mastery-in-learning program will eventually influence the kinds of professional issues negotiated at the bargaining table and advocated at the state level. But they say they are hesitant to raise those issues in negotiation without carefully documented findings in hand.

Innovative Contracts

At the same time, a handful of aft affiliates--with the blessing and encouragement of the union's president, Albert Shanker--have forged ahead to negotiate sweeping changes in their bargaining agreements that include differentiated staffing for teachers, peer evaluation, and other fundamental changes in members' roles and responsibilities.

These agreements--in places like Rochester, N.Y.; Dade County, Fla.; Cincinnati and Toledo, Ohio; Pittsburgh; and Hammond, Ind.--have gained higher salaries and more decisionmaking authority for teachers. But they have also introduced avenues for flexibility in the contractual relationship.

"These new agreements represent the playing out of the concept ofteacher professionalism," says Mr. Wise. "They represent the beginning of the changes in school management that will be necessary to accommodate a profession of teaching."

Perception of Dangers Ahead

The unions' differing approaches to change derive, in part, from the threat they perceive to be facing teachers.

"I don't believe it is possible to move too quickly," says Mr. Shanker. "There is some risk involved, but I think that the other risk that is there is probably even more dangerous. The public is getting wrapped up in the failures of public education, and that could lead us to a system of vouchers and tax credits that would eventually destroy public education in this country."

"There's nothing like having everybody stick their necks out to get everybody working hard as hell to make it succeed," he adds.

Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the nea, sees the risks differently.

"We are willing to take risks," she explains. "But we are willing to do it on our own terms, using sound educational research, our own knowledge, our own experience, and work it out. We realize we may stumble and sometimes fail, but we don't want wholesale failure like we have had in the past."

"There are too many instances when we didn't jump but were thrown into the pond and told, 'You sink or you swim'," she adds. "And when it didn't work, we were blamed. What we are saying is, 'We aren't going to have anyone else throw us out there again."'

Size and Diversity

The size and composition of the two unions also influences how quickly they can move at the national level.

With 1.86 million members and nearly 13,000 locals, the nea is nearly three times as large as the 660,000-member, 2,000-local aft

And its organizational infrastructure is far more complex.

In addition to 538 national staff members, the nea's national and state organizations jointly employ some 1,200 "uniserve" staff members, who provide services and support to local affiliates.

By contrast, the aft has 150 staff members at the national level and "dozens" of locally hired organizers, according to union officials.

Moreover, the bulk of the aft's membership is concentrated in large urban areas, with a strong history of collective bargaining.

The nea's members are spread out across a wide spectrum of school districts, including major metropolitan areas and rural communities with no collective bargaining. In some states, such as Texas, nea affiliates still include both teachers and administrators among their members.

"The nea's membership is far more complex than the aft's, and there are enormous differences in the attitudes of the nea's membership toward bargaining," says John N. Dornan, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina and a former state executive director within the nea

"That means that the nea's job of keeping its members together and united around positions is a much more difficult one than for the aft,'' he explains.

Gary A. Griffin, dean of the college of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago agrees: "I think there is a problem with any huge organization, such as the nea, that is membership-driven. It has to make decisions at a national level which, in the best wisdom available, say 'these are not only good decisions, but they're palatable decisions.'

"In any organization that gets larger and larger and larger," he adds, "the temptation is to become blander and blander."

'Layers of Governance'

Observers both inside and outside the nea describe the union as having a more "cumbersome" and labyrinthine governing structure than the aft has.

Both the nea's size and its emphasis on gaining consensus among its members contribute, they suggest, to the complexity of the decisionmaking process.

Across the nation, the nea has some 85,000 elected building representatives and more than 40,000 committees and governing boards. Some 8,050 delegates attended the 1987 annual convention.

The New Jersey Education Association alone has 43 committees--involving more than 700 members--that help set union policy.

"When you're as big and diverse as the nea, it's more cumbersome, more time-consuming," concurs James P. Connerton, executive director of njea, "but the end product is a whole lot better."

"I don't think it's necessarily that people are constrained by the nea," says Susan Moore Johnson, assistant professor of education at Harvard University. "But the messages that come out from the nea leadership are somewhat constrained by being in a larger, more complicated organization, which is very bound by democratic procedures. The aft is a bit freer to move quickly in response to someone's ideas."

"I'm inclined to think that Mary Futrell is as dynamic and forward-looking a leader as Mr. Shanker is," adds Mr. Sykes, who is professor of teacher education at Michigan State University. "She's working, however, with a very different organization. A much larger, more bureaucratic, and more entrenched organization that has a whole set of complex procedures, and that relies much more on grassroots democratic decisionmaking."

Too Little Longevity?

That strong democratic tradition also requires systematic turnover in the elected leadership--a factor that many say puts the organization at a disadvantage compared with the smaller aft

Until 1986, the national president of the nea was limited to two two-year terms in office. That has since been extended to three two-year terms, making Ms. Futrell the longest-reigning president in nea history.

Similarly, most state and local presidents of the union serve a maximum of two to four years.

The effect, nea watchers note, is that officials are forced to step down just as they are gaining experience and political savvy. The most seasoned union members are thus the hired staff, who have substantial sway in the organization but limited authority to set policy.

"You have a different context for making policy in an organization that has a long tenure in its leadership," notes Linda Darling-Hammond, director of the education and human-resources program at the rand Corporation.

"In the nea," she says, "the executive-director position was probably the more powerful one, whereas the president was, until they had Mary, more symbolic. By the time they could master the issues, their term was up."

She adds: "It takes a certain amount of both tenure in the job and credibility in the organization to move any organization toward examining new positions that may have at one time been viewed as threatening."

Mr. Shanker, on the other hand, has been national president of theaft since 1974. Many local aft presidents can also serve for unlimited terms in office.

'Linchpin' Reform Role

Mr. Shanker's long tenure is said to have given him the power and authority to take risks within the organization. But critics have accused him of losing touch with classroom teachers and of setting union priorities almost single-handedly.

Most observers agree, however, that Mr. Shanker has used a strong personality and keen intellect to keep his union at the forefront of school reform.

"You just cannot ignore the linchpin role played by Shanker," says Mr. Griffin of the University of Illinois. "Because of his stability, he has been able to create a platform and to put it together plank by plank and make it fit, if you will, the national mood and the national concern for the quality of education."

The view that longevity makes a difference in how much risk-taking a union can engage in is buttressed by the case of the Columbus Education Association, whose president, John Grossman, has served in his position for 10 years.

Mr. Grossman says his tenure "has made a tremendous difference in my ability to work in the district and work with my teachers on the issues."

The Columbus union has charted a course that, in some instances, runs against current nea policy.

It has negotiated a peer-review program in which reviewers can recommend termination for fellow teachers. And it is currently working to develop a career ladder that would give some teachers different responsibilities and roles within the school.

Mr. Grossman has worked closely with local aft affiliates--such as those in Toledo, Ohio, and Cincinnati--in developing such programs, "and we're not ashamed of that at all," he asserts.

"I know that there are many elements within nea that want to aggressively approach these issues," he says. "Our role is to try to establish either a symbolic group or a demonstration group that shows that they can work, and that we ought to get about it."

Political Clout

It is at the state level where a fundamental distinction between the two unions is most visible. There, immense political power is wielded by the nea, while the aft is typically a minimal presence.

Eighty-four percent of New Jersey legislators responding to a recent survey by the Associated Press, for example, identified the New Jersey Education Association as the most powerful lobby in the Capitol.

"Nobody even sits in the same ballpark with them," says one state senator.

The result, according to some observers, is that state nea affiliates have little incentive to take risks, particularly when they must satisfy local unions with widely differing needs and circumstances.

The same conservatism filters up to the national level, where union leaders cannot take positions that would, in the words of one nea executive-committee member, "become political baggage at the state level.''

In contrast, observers note, without having to respond to the needs of 52 state affiliates, Mr. Shanker is far freer to make controversial statements and has far less to lose.

The nea's political clout at the state level also helps explain why the national organization has made one of its highest priorities the creation of autonomous standards boards at the state level that would govern teacher licensure.

As envisioned by the nea in policy documents prepared on the subject, a state professional-standards board would be directly responsible to the legislature, with no other agency having veto power over it. Precollegiate teachers, nominated by the "majority teachers' organization" in the state, and appointed by the governor, would constitute a majority.

The aft, in particular, has tried to paint the nea's pursuit of such autonomous standards boards as a blatant power play.

Professionalism's 'Centerpiece'

That view is hotly contested by nea officials, who assert that most other professions have both state and national boards to determine who enters their ranks. The union views creation of the boards as the "centerpiece" of professional self-governance.

Observers also note that the nea's cautious stance toward the current wave of teacher reforms, may stem, in part, from its experience with earlier "top down" initiatives. These included minimum-competency tests for practicing teachers and merit pay.

Notes one nea staff member: "Over all, the teachers' perspective on education reform is that it is teacher bashing." The nea's positions, he suggests, "are really reflective of the very defensive, in the trenches, besieged kind of attitude of a lot of classroom teachers."

Adds Mr. Dornan: "In nea's defense, there was a need to be very cautious about a number of early proposals. Many of the nea's fears about unworkable systems or systems that would start and not be funded have in fact been borne out."

Historical Shift

But while the union is cautiously weighing change, the professionalization issues have emerged at a time when some nea affiliates are still grappling with notions of traditional unionism.

Throughout the 1960's, debate raged within the nea over whether teachers should engage in such "union" activities as negotiations and strikes. The union's shift toward collective bargaining eventually led most administrators to withdraw from the organization in the early 1970's, allowing a more "militant" union faction to take over.

That struggle for the "soul" of the organization has left its mark, experts say, making it difficult for the nea to shift gears yet again to support a blurring of the lines between teachers and administrators.

Peer evaluation, for example, could lead one union member to institute a grievance against another union member. Legal precedent is also unclear about whether teachers who assume management responsibilities could still be represented within the bargaining unit.

For the aft, adaptation to the new uncertainties may proceed more smoothly, experts say, because its credentials as a union are well established and it operates within a somewhat different context. For example, its longtime affiliate, the afl-cio, has also begun to experiment with change in worker-management relations.

Ms. Darling-Hammond of rand suggests that the two national organizations "may be at different 'comfort zones' with certain ideas around what it means to be a union, and what it means to be a professional association, and how it is that a union can also be a voice for professionalism."

Says Mr. Kerchner about the nea: "Their version of teacher professionalism is, so far at least, separate and distinct from collective bar8gaining and labor relations. They have a group of people who worry about professional issues and a different group of people who do collective bargaining, and it's not clear to me that the inherent connection between one and the other have yet been joined in that organization."

Internal Talk of Empowerment

But that posture may be changing.

The nea's executive committee recently agreed to distribute among its state affiliates and "uniserv" representatives a paper on the advantages and disadvantages of school-based decisionmaking and its implications for collective bargaining.

Although the paper does not advocate that local affiliates rush to create employee-based decisionmaking programs, it notes that if used wisely such programs can expand the scope of collective bargaining and vice versa.

"Through collective bargaining, teachers can secure a role in decisionmaking at the building level. ... Rather than producing rigid organizational systems and well-defined rules for labor-management relations, collective bargaining can ... become a vehicle to initiate a forum for change and communication between labor and management," the paper notes.

Educational Focus

The nea's leaders acknowledge that its focus on professional issues declined during the late 1960's and early 1970's--at the height of its organizing drive--but they argue that its attention is turning back to such issues now.

Says Ms. Futrell: "What I think we did is that we probably tilted, and now we have balanced a little bit more. ... We have come full circle. In the late 1970's, we started hearing again that we need to start addressing more of these professional, instructional-type issues. But we don't abandon the union issues. The two are very complementary."

That same shift is occuring within the aft, where the educational issues department has grown from two to seven members since Mr. Shanker took office. The union also has an educational research and dissemination program in place in more than 200 districts.

In fact, many people suggest that Mr. Shanker has been remarkably adroit at repositioning his union as the more "professionally oriented" of the two organizations.

"Up until six or seven years ago, the perspective was that the aft was the trade union and the nea was the professional union," agrees one nea member. "You're talking about a real change when those are reversed."

While that aboutface will not necessarily gain the aft new members in nea strongholds, experts say, it has served to "nudge" the agenda of the larger organization.

Comments Mr. Tuthill of Florida: "You have the aft leadership taking either bold or reckless steps, depending on your perspective."

"Al Shanker is part of the whole process," he says. "The two organizations are playing off each other in a way that is really good. It is really moving the agenda."

Others suggest that the nea is too responsive to Mr. Shanker, rejecting most of his ideas out-of-hand. "Sometimes I think, if Shanker's for it, there must be a problem with it," one nea official says. "It's almost a knee-jerk reaction to him."

But at the local level, experts say, the two unions may look more similar than different.

Locals: A Different 'World'

"The world of a local union is shaped by local priorities and local personalities, local history," observes Theodore H. Sizer, chairman of the education department at Brown University. "Those issues are much more important than the debates in the house of delegates or the view of the state or national union leaders."

He adds: "In many cases, when you see how a local community operates, you wouldn't be able to tell any more than I would whether it is an nea local or an aft local."

Agrees Bill Honig, superintendent of schools in California: "You can find people in both unions who are really in the forefront of trying to move their union into taking a more progressive position. There are also people who are just fighting this tooth and nail."

Both national unions, according to Mr. Honig, "understand that we have to do this. And there are local counterparts who understand that we have to do this." But he and others note that these pioneers will have to overcome a substantial "old guard" within each union still wedded to more traditional views of labor-management relations.

The move toward teacher professionalism, insists Mr. Sykes, has the ''potential" to transform the basic ways in which teachers' unions operate.

"It's clear that there are going to have to be some significant changes," he says. "I think what we're looking at is some kind of hybrid that hasn't emerged yet."

Vol. 07, Issue 09

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