NEA, AFT Strategies for Upgrading Quality of Teachers Drawing Nearer

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Reading was on the agenda for both national teachers' unions this summer, 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 annual meeting donned matching red-and-white-striped hats like that of the Dr. Seuss character. The July 4 event celebrated the union's "Read Across America" campaign, held on author Theodor S. Geisel's birthday, to encourage adults to read to children.

When members of the American Federation of Teachers arrived in town a few weeks later for their convention, the mood was more sedate. The delegates approved a four-page, single-spaced resolution on beginning-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. Indeed, this week they are co-sponsoring a conference on teacher quality that represents a big step in their drive to work together more closely.

"Things cannot remain the way they are," Joan Baratz Snowden, the deputy director of the AFT's educational issues department, said 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."

The meeting was put together by the AFT's educational issues department and the NEA's teaching and learning division. Although concerned with many of the same issues, the two departments 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 annual report on state standards, for example, has become a reference for policymakers nationwide.

The NEA recently disbanded its rough equivalent: the National Center for Innovation, launched in 1990 to beef up the union's work in school restructuring. Instead, 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 teaching and learning, which would put it on a par with the government-relations division. Educational issues, with a staff of 16, is already the AFT's largest department.

"We're serious," said Lynn Coffin, the 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."

Fewer Projects, More Focus

Until recently, the NEA has favored projects like a teacher education initiative involving seven universities, a program to help affiliates launch charter schools, and the Learning Laboratories, the union's effort to study district-level change. The NEA 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, Ms. Coffin said, the department's work is likely to focus less on specific projects--both the teacher education and charter schools work will end in the next two years--and more on collaboration with outside groups. The Learning Laboratories project also is being phased out and will shift to state affiliates that want to work with networks of districts.

Meanwhile, the NEA is stepping up its support for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the privately organized group in Southfield, Mich., 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 giving grants of up to $5,000 to 15 state affiliates for forums to help prepare candidates.

The larger union also is interested in improving reading instruction, Ms. Coffin said, but it plans to work primarily through the Learning First Alliance, a Washington-based group of 12 education organizations that have pledged to improve student learning in reading and mathematics. ("Groups Outline Steps To Boost Reading, Math," Feb. 4, 1998.)

The two unions' work with the alliance underscores their contrasting styles. Ruth Wattenberg, the director of the educational issues department for the 980,000-member AFT, played a leading role in laying out the alliance's position paper on reading.

Shirley Sagawa, the executive director of the alliance, noted that the AFT has been "very focused and clear about the leverage points that they see the potential for the alliance to work on." Because of the NEA's far more complex governance system, she said, "it's harder for them to be laser-like."

Using 'What Works'

The AFT, in fact, has been campaigning for educators to use research-based programs and practices, particularly when trying to improve low-performing schools. As part of the undertaking, called "What Works," the union has identified such promising reading programs as Success for All, which stresses themes and related literature along with skills instruction, and the more basic-skills-driven Direct Instruction.

Such endeavors by the aft grew out of a union task force on failing schools. Faced with the threat of school "reconstitutions" in many of the big cities where it has local affiliates, the union has written a detailed handbook on how to identify poor schools and treat their teachers fairly in attempts to overhaul them.

While some educators have criticized packaged programs as a threat to teachers' freedom to be creative, Ms. Wattenberg says such complaints have abated.

"As the focus becomes more and more on schools that are in deep trouble," she said, "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 AFT's "What Works" series, including an examination of designs for improving entire schools and a look at specific reading and language arts programs, has been enormously popular, she said. It also has been used in the AFT's established Educational Research & Dissemination program, which prepares members to act as teacher-trainers.

Teams from New York state's 20 lowest-performing districts attended training over the summer that examined beginning-reading instruction and reading comprehension, for example.

While 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 Standards Issue

The NEA also has not had much of a profile in the movement to set academic standards.

In contrast, the AFT, under its late president, Albert Shanker, was a leading champion of higher standards. The federation is now devoting more attention to teacher standards, including a detailed policy on "the union role in assuring teacher quality" that it passed this summer.

Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Council for Basic Education, a Washington nonprofit organization that advocates high academic standards, said the AFT publications showing examples from high school exams in other countries have been "extremely helpful" in the continuing debate about standards.

"They have a really strong staff and a staff that gets out and is frequently seen in forums around these issues," Mr. Cross said of the aft. In contrast, the NEA's "profile is very low," he said. "I rarely see NEA's work in these areas."

While the AFT's governance setup has made it easier for the No. 2 union to espouse strong views, NEA leaders must constantly strive to win internal support for the changes they want to make.

The NEA is "reaching out and trying to engage," said Willis D. Hawley, the 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."

EA President Bob Chase, whose call for a "new unionism" helped spark the change to an emphasis on teacher quality and student achievement, is still stumping for backing among union leaders. Recently, he met with state presidents and executive directors to discuss the NEA's new top priorities.

"The support among those two groups is overwhelmingly positive," Mr. Chase said. "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."

The conference, an example of the unions' joint work despite their failure to approve a merger agreement, is expected to draw some 700 people. It will focus on peer-assistance and -review programs, professional development, teacher education, licensure and recruitment issues, and the national teacher certification board.

Vol. 18, Issue 3, Pages 1, 14-15

Published in Print: September 23, 1998, as NEA, AFT Strategies for Upgrading Quality of Teachers Drawing Nearer
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