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School & District Management Opinion

I’m Skeptical But Intrigued By AFT Initiative, NEA Report

By Rick Hess — December 13, 2011 3 min read
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I’m skeptical when folks who’ve seemed to drag their heels offer up nifty new proposals and innovations. So, I don’t want to sound all “gee, whiz” here. At the same time, it’s important that skepticism not morph into reflexive dismissal. With that in mind, we’ve seen a couple noteworthy developments from the AFT and NEA in recent days.

First, in Minnesota, the Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools, a non-profit launched by the AFT local, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, has been approved to operate as a charter school authorizer. Supported by the AFT’s Innovation Fund, the venture will, in the words of MFT president Lynn Nordgren, seek to “authorize schools that rely on teacher expertise to identify and use effective teaching strategies, promote engaged student learning, create educational autonomy, ensure effective organization and develop shared management.” This is potentially a really interesting development, and one that ought not be merely brushed aside.

Last Thursday, in Washington, the NEA’s Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching released its notable new report Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning, (full disclosure: I served on the advisory committee). Chaired by Maddie Fennell (a former Nebraska teacher of the year) and savvily stocked with other accomplished educators (including nine other teachers who’d claimed their state’s teacher of the year award), the commission could easily have churned out one more tedious document. They didn’t. They explicitly embraced the notion that teachers should be responsible for student learning. The report endorses dismantling “state requirements [that] create barriers” to hiring good teachers and closing down lousy teacher preparation programs. It calls for differentiating professional development based on teacher experience and evaluations, among other criteria. It champions peer evaluation, promising that this will help ensure due process rights while expediting “dismissal” of ineffective teachers. It suggests that, in such a context, seniority should only be a factor in teacher retention or assignment when all other factors are equal. It calls for differentiating teacher compensation based on teacher effectiveness, the roles that teachers play, the difficulty of teaching assignments, and the length of the school year or school day. This is real stuff, especially when you consider the NEA’s history on these issues.

Now, there’s lots of room for skepticism. Will the Minnesota Guild prove to be a responsible authorizer? We’ve already got lots of problems with authorizer quality and Andy Rotherham has wisely pointed out that a proliferation of nonprofit authorizers raises lots of questions. How seriously will the MFT be about charter schooling? Is the AFT’s stance more about politics than enthusiasm for the charter concept? And what will the NEA actually do with its big report? Will the locals and state affiliates that drive the NEA take the effort seriously, or will it gather cyber-dust on the cyber-shelf? Is the national NEA serious about any of this, or is just an effort to deflect criticism and slow down the push for policies designed to reshape teacher evaluation or pay? How many teachers does it expect to actually be moved out of the profession under peer review? How seriously should we take its talk about removing licensure barriers or closing down lousy teacher prep programs?

All of these questions are fair and valid. But, at times like these, I find it useful to recall Ronald Reagan’s motto for dealing with the Soviet Union when it came to nuclear disarmament. “Trust, but verify,” the Gipper advised. If it was good enough for a Cold Warrior facing down the Soviets, I think it’ll do here.

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