Teachers' Unions Urge Members To Take Risks for Reform
Embracing a "risk-taking'' posture, members of the nation's two teachers' unions have endorsed proposals that encourage their affiliates to engage in widespread experimentation within schools and districts.
Although differing in detail, the plans adopted by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association at their July national meetings are remarkably similar in intent.
Each encourages local affiliates and individual teams of teachers to forge ahead with changes in the way their schools are managed and structured, with a tacit promise that the national associations will not stand in their way.
"We must be risk-takers,'' Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the NEA, said in her keynote address to the more than 8,000 delegates. "Let us unleash our creativity. Let us dare to break old molds.''
Adoption of the proposals cements several years of discussion during which both unions have signaled an increased willingness to re-examine traditional schooling, provided teachers are centrally involved in planning and carrying out such changes.
Until recently, the AFT and its president, Albert Shanker, have been the most visible advocates for reorganizing the schools.
But the NEA delegates' adoption of the "new business'' item indicates that the larger union hopes to give the AFT stiff competition on that front, by aggressively pushing its members to experiment with new ideas.
The new-business item also is indicative of a broader shift occurring within the NEA, according to Doug Tuthill, a teacher in Pinellas County, Fla., and a member of the union's special committee on restructuring.
In the past, he said, the national organization has tended to tell local affiliates what their educational policies should be.
"This is turned around now,'' he said. "The NEA is becoming more interested in emphasizing process and in making sure people have the skills and knowledge they need to make decisions locally, rather than trying to mandate what those decisions should be.''
"Member empowerment,'' he added, "is the way the organization is beginning to see its purpose.''
Two Strategies for Change
This summer marked the first time that rank-and-file union members had a chance to vote on their leaders' proposals for school restructuring, which were first unveiled in the spring.
The NEA plan, which Ms. Futrell announced in March, calls on each state to designate at least one school district as a "learning laboratory.'' Working through their union, school employees in these districts would join with school boards, parents, and other community leaders to "systemically and fundamentally restructure the way our schools function,'' she said.
Local affiliates and school boards within these districts would agree to be "flexible'' regarding existing regulations and agreements that could impede reform. The relevant stakeholders in public education should be "free to turn their school systems upside down or inside out,'' according to Ms. Futrell.
The union has earmarked $450,000 in planning grants and technical assistance for the project in 1988-89, with the understanding that proposals would be carried out in the next three to five years.
The AFT proposal, which Mr. Shanker first presented during a luncheon at the National Press Club in April, would enable small groups of teachers and parents to create their own innovative schools within larger school buildings.
Under the AFT plan, local unions and their school boards would create a policymaking body--such as a joint panel of union and district representatives--to which any group of six or more teachers could submit a proposal for a "school-within-a-school.'' If approved, each such school would receive the same per-pupil allocation as that for other students within the building. Entire schools could also apply.
Districts would agree to protect and leave such schools alone for at least five to 10 years, as long as the teachers continued to teach there, parents continued to enroll their children, and no "precipitous'' decline in educational performance resulted.
During his union's convention in San Francisco, Mr. Shanker portrayed the proposal as a way to speed up the pace of school reform. "I hope,'' he told the more than 3,000 delegates, "that when we come back two years from now, in addition to the relatively small number of districts that are now engaged in pioneering efforts ..., we've got 300, 500, 700, 1,000 places where there are 6 or 8 or 12 or 15 or 20 teachers who, with the support of their union and the support of their faculty and the support of their school system, are trying to make a system that will work better than the one we have today.''
To help support such initiatives, the AFT announced creation of a new "center for restructuring,'' which will "critically examine the assumptions upon which traditional schools have been based'' and provide practical assistance to AFT locals working for change.
Although the policy statements underline a new boldness on the part
both teachers' unions, they passed with minimal comment and almost no resistance. In contrast to previous years, the 1988 conventions were notably quiet and low-key.
National and state officials within the NEA attributed the smooth passage of the new-business item to intensive behind-the-scenes negotiations.
"There was a real healthy dialogue going on in the weeks that preceded the convention,'' said Dennis N. Giordano, president of the New Jersey Education Association. "We reconciled our differences before the vote came up, so that you didn't have a couple of states looking like the dissidents in the crowd.''
At first, some state affiliates had been apprehensive about freeing school districts to innovate without a better idea of what such experimentation would entail, Mr. Giordano said. But the national organization assured state leaders that it would consider a learning laboratory in a local district only if the state affiliate recommended it.
"We now have assurances that it won't create mischief in our own backyard,'' Mr. Giordano said.
The Right Direction
In 1986, the AFT endorsed its initial report on school reform, "The Revolution That Is Overdue,'' only after prolonged debate on the convention floor.
This year, the resolution on school restructuring passed with only one amendment, which states that the AFT will "continue to seek adequate federal, state, and local funding for education reform, including increased teacher salaries, per pupil allocations, and ancillary services.''
"Two years ago, there was some hostility,'' said Patrick O'Rourke, president of the Hammond (Ind.) Federation of Teachers, "but people have had two years now to think about things.''
"There is a sense at the convention that this is the direction we should be going,'' he added, "but there is no panacea and there is no cure-all.''
The real challenge, according to most delegates, will be moving from broad, general agreement regarding Mr. Shanker's ideas to implementation in a wide variety of settings. Many delegates said they agreed with the proposals in principle but would need additional money or stronger administrative support to try them out.
Another major issue at both union meetings was the race for the U.S. Presidency.
During the NEA's meeting, its board of directors followed the lead of the union's political action council and endorsed Gov. Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts as the Democratic candidate for President.
The NEA plans to poll delegates to the union meeting again in late August to determine who it will endorse in the general election. It will announce its endorsement Sept. 8.
The AFT has agreed to withhold any endorsement until the AFL-CIO's general board meets Aug. 24.
Delegates to the AFT convention will mail their Presidential ballots to their national headquarters by Aug. 20. The executive council will use those results to recommend a candidate at the AFL\CIO meeting.
After that date, the union's executive council will call a special meeting to endorse candidates for President and Vice President.
Despite the union's decision to withhold any endorsement until later this summer, Rachelle Horowitz, political director for the AFT, said it was "99 percent sure'' that the union would endorse Mr. Dukakis in the general election. The Republican contender, George Bush, "has no support here,'' she said.
It also appears unlikely that the NEA will back Mr. Bush in the
general election. The union theoretically has left that option open.
But while it could have endorsed a candidate for the Republican
convention, it chose not to do so, technically, because Mr. Bush failed
to participate in the union's endorsement process.
The NEA's Republican Educators Caucus, in a letter drafted during the convention, chided the Vice President for his decision not to participate in the process.
The letter, which carried 485 signatures, expressed the delegates' "frustration and disappointment'' with Mr. Bush, and urged him to meet with Ms. Futrell in the near future.
"Educators are highly active citizens and voters,'' the letter noted. "By failing to address this constituency, your campaign has missed a viable political opportunity.''
Of the NEA's more than 1.9 million members, more than 600,000 are Republicans. Twenty-eight NEA members are slated to attend the Republican convention as delegates later this month.
Roughly 140 AFT members and 290 NEA members attended the Democratic convention as delegates.