Special Report
School & District Management

NEA at Odds With Obama Team Over ‘Race to the Top’ Criteria

By Stephen Sawchuk — August 25, 2009 6 min read
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Call it the seven-month itch.

After emphasizing its agreement with President Barack Obama’s education reform agenda for more than half of his first year in office, the National Education Association has finally taken to the offensive, formally announcing its opposition to core elements of the Obama administration’s proposed guidelines for the $4.35 billion Race to the Top program.

Among other areas, the NEA says it cannot support the fund’s endorsement of using test scores for evaluating teachers, increasing the number of charter schools, and bolstering what the union calls “fast-track” alternative routes to teacher licensure.

In a strongly worded letter accompanying its comments on the guidelines, the union questioned U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s pledge to promote school improvement by being “tighter” on goals, but giving states and districts more flexibility to achieve reforms.

Excerpts From Comments

On the Overview of the ‘Race to the Top’

“We cannot support yet another layer of federal mandates that have little or no research base of success and that usurp state and local governments’ responsibilities for public education.”

On Alternative Certification

“In most alternative certification programs ... the candidates are not fully certified for two years. And in one program, Teach For America, candidates are scheduled to leave teaching just as the two years are completed. ... [Race to the Top] plans should be designed to attract and retain the best-prepared, fire-tested, career individuals who plan to be there for the duration. Alternative certification candidates should be the last ones assigned to schools targeted for real reforms.”

On Teacher Evaluations

“By requiring teacher evaluations based on test scores as a condition for receiving RTTT funds, the federal government again attempts to interfere with collective bargaining laws and with contracts, memoranda of understanding, and other agreements already in place in thousands of school districts that provide for negotiation of evaluation procedures.”

On Assessments

“What is being proposed is simply tweaking the current top-down, federally mandated insistence on hewing to standardized-test scores. We know that model is not working, so basing even more educational decisions on these same test scores is counterproductive and counterintuitive. Enough is enough.”

On Charter Schools

“Well-designed charters are not the only way to innovate, and we need to embrace and champion other models such as magnet schools. ... Taking the caps off charter schools means LESS accountability, as monitoring agencies would not have the time and resources to ensure that every charter school would be held to high standards.”

SOURCE: National Education Association

“The administration’s theory of success now seems to be tight on the goals and tight on the means, with prescriptions that are not well-grounded in knowledge from practice,” Kay Brilliant, the NEA’s director of education policy and practice, wrote in the letter to Duncan. “We find that top-down approach disturbing; we have been down that road before with the failures of No Child Left Behind.

The Democratic-leaning NEA spent years and numerous resources on fighting elements of the 2002 NCLB law and its implementation under the Republican administration of President George W. Bush. The union expected greater support from the Democratic administration of Mr. Obama for its own plans for renewing the law.

But President Obama has pushed aggressively in areas associated with the prior administration, including greater accountability for teachers, more charter schools, and tough love for failing schools. As a result, the relationship between the 3.2 million-member union and the administration it helped elect appears to be growing increasingly complex.

Although much of the Aug. 21 letter reiterates long-standing NEA policies, the union’s intimation that the Race to the Top and the NCLB law are cut from the same cloth is potentially risky for its relationship with the administration, observers said.

“In Washington, it’s all about whether you have access,” said Jack Jennings, a former aide to House Democrats and the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research group. “I think NEA has decided at this point to risk access because the administration isn’t giving them the policies they want, and teachers are frustrated.”

Devil in the Details

Before the guidelines were released on July 31, NEA officials said they agreed with the goals of the Race to the Top program, which is oriented around four “assurances” for the education portion of the federal economic-stimulus legislation: to improve teacher and principal effectiveness, turn around the lowest-performing schools, bolster standards and assessments, and update data systems. (“Rich Prize, Restrictive Guidelines,” Aug. 12, 2009).

Mr. Duncan, in addresses before members of both the NEA and its sister union, the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, promised to involve teachers in school improvement efforts rather than impose reforms on them.

But the proposed guidelines for the Race to the Top conflicted directly with NEA policies, making strife with the union all but inevitable. For instance, the guidelines propose giving a competitive advantage to states that eliminated caps on charter schools. The union strongly supports caps.

“Despite growing evidence to the contrary, it appears that the administration has decided that charter schools are the only answer to what ails America’s public schools,” the NEA letter states.

The criteria also put a premium on using test scores for evaluating, paying, and granting teachers tenure. NEA resolutions eschew the use of student test scores for evaluating teachers, and its California affiliate is opposing attempts by legislators there to rewrite a law that bars student data from being tied to individual teachers.

In its comments, the NEA also raised the specter of legal challenges, stating that the program’s priority on overhauling teacher evaluation, pay, and tenure might contravene local collective bargaining agreements. The administration must require that reforms to policies involving teachers be set in contracts, the union wrote.

So far, the AFT has kept a lower profile on the Race to the Top. Its president, Randi Weingarten, has said that it is possible to use student-achievement information in evaluations as long as the process is done fairly and with teachers’ consent. But she has also expressed reservations about the lifting of charter caps and the linking of student and teacher data.

‘Fast-Track’ Concerns

Teacher-workforce issues have long been sensitive for unions. But a number of observers expressed surprise at the NEA’s criticism of alternative-certification programs that allow teachers to earn their credentials while teaching.

Many programs, including the popular Teach For America, use this model, in which candidates typically complete several weeks of intensive preparation. Then, they teach on a provisional license as they take select pedagogy courses toward a full license.

The NEA supports alternative tracks to teaching, but only those that require teachers to take pedagogy coursework and have a full clinical experience before entering the classroom as a licensed teacher of record, Ms. Brilliant clarified in an interview.

But such programs are sometimes indistinguishable from traditional teacher education routes, said Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based research and advocacy group.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the union doesn’t even give ground on this issue, which is not at all a threat to membership,” Ms. Walsh said. “A member is a member is a member.”

Mr. Jennings, of the CEP, surmised that the comprehensive list of objections in the NEA letter reflected frustration that has been building among teachers since President Obama’s election.

“They provided a lot of the muscle to get Obama elected,” he said. “He brought help to prevent layoffs, and maybe that’s not being appreciated enough, but he is not talking about extra help for them to do their jobs.”

Ms. Brilliant, though, downplayed potential conflicts with the administration, saying the union remains optimistic that the U.S. Department of Education will revise the application.

“We’re not at ‘No,’ we’re at, ‘Let us help,’ ” Ms. Brilliant said. “We’re hopeful that when [administration officials] see something that doesn’t resonate, they’ll take a careful look at it.”

The AFT had not yet filed its formal comments on the guidelines at press time, but there are hints that it may offer some criticisms, too. According to an internal newsletter, a union lobbyist described the Race to the Top in a briefing last month to local affiliates as an “overly prescriptive” program that could stifle local innovation.

Many of the union-related issues on the table for the Race to the Top could bleed into other policymaking areas as well.

In 2007, concerns raised by the NEA and the AFT about the use of tests for performance-based compensation and about collective bargaining helped derail congressional attempts to renew the NCLB law.

A version of this article appeared in the September 02, 2009 edition of Education Week as NEA at Odds With Obama Team Over ‘Race to the Top’ Criteria


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