School & District Management

NEA Representatives Air Their Differences With Obama Agenda

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 07, 2009 5 min read
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Blessed by perfect, sunny weather, delegates to the National Education Association’s annual meeting here had plenty of chances to sneak away and visit this city’s world-famous attractions.

Most chose not to. The day before official business began at the Representative Assembly, nearly 7,000 of the union’s delegates packed into the city’s convention center to listen to Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education.

After Mr. Duncan had departed —and throughout the Fourth of July weekend—delegates proposed and debated resolution after resolution on elements of the Obama administration’s emerging education policy agenda.

In other words, this year’s convention, which ended last week, was marked by the NEA’s first major attempts at getting a handle on what the administration’s push into sensitive policy areas will mean for the union’s 3.2-million members. Issues on the table for the union, which represents mostly teachers and education-support personnel, include the expansion of charter schools, the “turning around” of low-performing schools, and now with Mr. Duncan’s latest address, structural changes to the way teachers are compensated and evaluated.

In his July 2 speech, the fourth he has given on the “assurances” states must meet in exchange for receiving funding through the economic-stimulus measure, the secretary called on teachers’ unions “to become full partners and leaders in education reform” and to be willing to collaborate with districts to create fair ways of incorporating student-achievement growth into evaluation and pay systems.

“Test scores alone should never drive evaluation, compensation, or tenure decisions. That would never make sense,” Mr. Duncan said. “But to remove student achievement entirely from evaluation is illogical and indefensible.”

Moreover, he said teachers’ unions must be willing to reconsider seniority provisions and tenure processes, two hard-won rights unions have long defended.

“When inflexible seniority and rigid tenure rules that we designed put adults ahead of children, then we are not only putting kids at risk, we’re putting the entire education system at risk,” Mr. Duncan said.

Role of Test Scores

Delegates applauded Secretary Duncan’s calls for continued federal funding for education, better training for administrators, and improved teacher-mentoring experiences. But they booed and hissed when he mentioned tying pay and evaluation to test scores.

Mr. Duncan sought to reassure teachers that he would seek reforms to the teaching profession in collaboration with them. But he also appeared to acknowledge teachers’ hesitancy to engage on some of those issues, especially given the union’s poor relations with the prior administration.

“You can boo; just don’t throw any

shoes, please,” he quipped partway through his speech, to laughter and applause.

During a town hall-style meeting with Mr. Duncan following his remarks, delegates raised concerns about the use of test scores.

“In too many cases, our state boards of education, our local boards of education are not getting that message” that pay programs should be based on multiple measures of teacher performance beyond test scores, one delegate said.

Others were more frank about their dislike for performance-based pay. “Quite frankly, merit pay is union-busting,” said another delegate, to applause from her peers.

Officially, NEA policy allows for pay bonuses for teachers who hold advanced certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, for those who take on additional responsibilities such as mentoring less-experienced teachers, and for teachers serving in hard-to-staff schools. It does not endorse higher salaries for math and science teachers or for performance-based pay. And it eschews the use of test scores in pay and evaluation decisions.

State and local affiliates are free to experiment with other types of pay and evaluation plans, including those that incorporate student-achievement data. But they cannot receive support from the parent union to do so.

Clarification Needed

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel assured delegates that he would seek further clarification on the use of student-achievement data for pay and tenure decisions.

In an interview, Mr. Van Roekel said he hopes to clarify the administration’s purpose in urging states to use stimulus funds to build data systems to link individual teachersto their students’ test scores, a key requirement for including student-achievement information in teacher evaluations and pay decisions.

“I hope to create the engagement and the conversation [with the administration] so we don’t debate positions yet,” Mr. Van Roekel said. “If you can’t get agreement on the purpose of the systems, then the details will never work.”

Data systems should be used for teacher improvement, not punitive purposes, and teachers have reason to be wary of them, he added.

“What makes it hard is that teachers don’t have a blank [slate],” Mr. Van Roekel said. “They have been subjected to the misuse of data systems for seven years under [the No Child Left Behind Act].The union’s sentiments about the administration’s other plans emerged as delegates debated a number of new proposals. They approved two on charter schools, including one proposal directing the union to oppose any initiative to “greatly expand” their growth.

Delegates supporting that item spoke critically about the Obama administration’s use of discretionary “Race to the Top” fund grants under the stimulus program to pressure states to lift caps on charter schools, even though Mr. Duncan has also called on the charter community to better police its own schools.

Other delegates, especially those from Wisconsin, a state with unionized charters, voiced concerns that putting further restrictions on NEA’spolicy around the independent public schools would prevent the union from effectively representing teachers in them.

The Representative Assembly voted down a proposal to organize a campaign to inform teachers and the public about charter schools’ funding, operational costs, salaries, curriculum, and “intrinsic problems and corruption.”

On school turnarounds, delegates agreed to allow the NEA to attempt to influence policy on the $5 billion, five-year school turnaround plan recently proposed by the Education Department.

As for compensation, the administration put an additional $200 million into the Teacher Incentive Fund, a federal performance-payinitiative, in the stimulus program. In addition, the administration is requesting $517 million for TIF in the fiscal 2010 budget. (“Obama Budget Choices Scrutinized,” May 20, 2009.) But several potentially controversial issues remain outstanding in that program, such as whether districts receiving the grants would have to bargain the pay programs collectively with their local unions.

NEA officials would prefer increased funding for Title II teacher-quality state grants rather than putting additional money into TIF.

Title II provides funds to every state and can be spent on initiatives such as class-size reduction or professional development, in comparison to the narrowly defined and discretionary TIF program.

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as NEA Representatives Air Their Differences With Obama Agenda


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