Professional Development Opinion

Response: Hopes For The NEA’s “New Action Agenda”

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 03, 2012 13 min read
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Though I’m receiving plenty of reader questions (but could always use more!), I periodically instead decide to respond to a “Question That’s Been On My Mind.”

This is another one of those times (I’ll be returning to reader questions on Friday).

My question related to the major report and “new action agenda” announced by the National Education Association in December. The report, developed by a NEA-initiated group of teachers called the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, made a number of recommendations.

My question was:

What were the most important aspects of the Commission report, and what might be its practical effects?

I’m particularly interested in two areas:

The professional development recommendations (developing new leadership roles for teachers) seem very similar to the “Teacherpreneur” concept being promoted by my colleagues at The Teacher Leaders Network and The Center For Teaching Quality.

I found the proposals around teacher evaluation particularly interesting. It emphasizes the idea of Peer Assistance and Review, known as PAR. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve read about how that works in different communities (and hope we will get it instituted at the District where I teach), and have included links to related resources at The Best Resources For Learning About Effective Student & Teacher Assessments.

In order to learn more about the NEA’s plans, I invited three guests to share their responses today: Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association; my friend and colleague Renee Moore, who was a member of the Commission; and Steve Owens, an NEA leader from Vermont. I’ve also included a reader comment, and a reply to it.

Response from Dennis Van Roekel

Dennis Van Roekel, is president of the National Education Association. He is also a 23-year teaching veteran and longtime advocate for students and quality public education. A high school mathematics teacher from Phoenix, Ariz., he believes collaboration--among educators and with education stakeholders-- is key to boosting student achievement:

By this time everyone should realize that the current approach to teacher preparation isn’t working for students.

Most teachers are well-prepared, but others are just thrown into classrooms without the training, knowledge or experience they need. Then, when they struggle, we act surprised and try to weed out those who are the most overwhelmed, while half of new teachers leave the profession within five years.

It’s time to do something different. It’s time to empower teachers to raise the bar and ensure excellence in our own profession, and to take a more active role in decisions that affect students.

In December the National Education Association unveiled a three-point plan for Leading the Profession. The three main components are:

• Raising the Bar for Entry
• Teachers Ensuring Teacher Quality
• Union Leadership to Transform the Profession

To raise the bar for entry, we believe that every teacher candidate needs one full year of residency under the supervision of a master teacher before earning a full license. We also believe that every teacher candidate should complete a quality preparation program and pass a rigorous classroom-based performance assessment before being fully licensed. NEA will begin to advance this agenda by urging broad expansion of the Teacher Performance Assessment now being piloted in states across the country.

To ensure quality in our profession, we will advocate for a new career path with different responsibilities for Novice, Professional, and Master Teachers, offering extra pay for additional work. In a hospital, a resident physician wouldn’t be expected to perform the most complicated surgeries. A law firm wouldn’t assign a junior attorney as the lead on its most important case. By the same token, it makes sense for the most experienced teachers to take on the challenges of the most difficult-to-serve students.

We will also advocate for more local affiliates to embrace evaluation systems based on Peer Assistance and Review. Data show that these systems can help teachers become more effective if they are negotiated and developed through consensus.

Finally, our union must play a larger role in preparing our members to be leaders on education issues. Accomplished teachers must have a voice when policies are debated and decisions are made.

This ambitious agenda won’t be completed overnight, especially in the current environment where resources are scarce. But NEA is committed to empowering educators, and we’ll constantly be looking for ways to help our members Lead the Profession.

Response From Renee Moore

Renee Moore, NBCT, 2001 Mississippi Teacher Of The Year, has taught English for 21 years. She is a member of: Mississippi’s Teacher Licensure Commission; the Board of Directors of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards; and the Teacher Leaders Network. Renee is also a published author and education blogger, You can follow here on Twitter at @TeachMoore. Renee was a member of the Commission that wrote the report for the NEA.

When I was asked to serve on a commission being pulled together by NEA about effective teaching, I initially said, “No, thanks!”

Part of my reluctance was the timing. Already involved with several large projects and looking at what I already knew was going to be an extremely full teaching year, I was not enthusiastic about spending precious time on yet another education commission.

There has been no shortage of committees, panels, commissions, reports, books, and mandates on what needs to be done to improve American public education, but precious few of them have been done by the people who are the true education experts: successful classroom teachers. However, I realized that this Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching would be a passionate, vocal, and highly knowledgeable group for whom education reform was not just some intellectual exercise, but rather something we and our students live out daily in our classrooms.

In our deliberations, we asked some very tough questions, examined troves of data, and made disturbing revelations. We sometimes found ourselves at odds with the NEA staff, and even disagreeing with the very distinguished advisory committee that we had invited to give us feedback on some aspects of our work. We conducted hearing-style interviews with a wide range of education experts, some of whom expressed ideas that were repugnant and hard to hear. Nevertheless, we listened, we questioned, we debated, we studied, and we examined the many ideas in relation to our own experiences with students and colleagues.

Ultimately, it was each member’s commitment to our three guiding principles, our respect for each other, and our desire as teachers to refocus the national conversation around education reform back to what really matters, that kept us together and working on this project.

Here’s a sampling of the CETT’s recommendations:

• Creation of a National Council for the Teaching Profession, led by effective teachers, that will be responsible for defining and setting the standards for a national system of preparation, licensure, and certification of all teachers AND teacher educators.

• Develop a peer review preparation program that will select, train, and support peer reviewers with the goal of preparing at least one accomplished teacher as a qualified reviewer for every ten teachers in U.S. schools.

• Collaboration of the between the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and other education stakeholders in pursuing a shared vision of transformation for the teaching profession through the establishment of a National Council for the Teaching Profession.

• Called on U.S. Department of Education to engage Internet service providers in efforts to develop and implement state-level plans to ensure Internet access in all schools and to all students at home.

We also made some very thoughtful and bold recommendations to school districts, state education agencies, and our fellow teachers. Our ideas stunned some education reform leaders, including some who consider themselves advocates for the teaching profession.

Now, as I review our published report, Transforming Teaching, I am grateful to have been part of the Commission. Some of the ideas we put forward, as our chair, Maddie Fennel noted, are not entirely new, but they are radical because they come from teachers.

My main hope is that this report will not end up on a shelf like so many before it; or shoved aside in favor of ideas from those with more power and prestige, but rather that it will serve as a catalyst for much broader discussions among teachers ourselves and between us and policymakers over changing the direction of education reform.

Response From Steve Owens

Steve Owens is a National Board Certified Teacher from Vermont who teaches music in two rural elementary schools. A 2010 Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the US Dept. of Education, he is also an NEA activist, serving as a local president and member of the VT-NEA board of directors. He participates in the Teacher Union Reform Network, and is a member of the Teacher Leader Network Forum of the Center for Teaching Quality. His blog, Education Worker, features union reform ideas.

In “Transforming Teaching,” the NEA recognized one incontrovertible fact: you cannot coerce reform. There is reform done to teachers (we’ve seen a lot of that lately), reform done by teachers (think NBPTS, CTQ or TURN), and reform done with teachers. “Transforming Teaching” calls for the latter: deep organic reform rising from within the profession with meaningful and realistic cooperation from other stakeholders.

Good reform is ultimately about changing teaching practice in order to achieve better student learning. Without the full force and participation of the teaching profession this simply cannot be done.

A couple of settlements ago, our school board demanded and got a 7.5 minimum hour day. Administration immediately designated that the time before and after school as “collaboration time” and created uniform start and end times at all schools. In my school there was widespread resentment over what one teacher called “forced collaboration.” People watched the clock. The minimum became the maximum. The scheme backfired, producing far less collaboration than might have occurred by creating a great climate where people want to stay and collaborate because they love their jobs.

This story illustrates principles of human psychology and group dynamics. Multiply that by three million, the size of the teaching profession in the United States. You can’t do it to us, as satisfying as that might seem at times; you have to do it with us.

The NEA recognized the psychology of the teaching profession by forming the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, a group of master teachers charged, among other things, to tell NEA a few things it did not want to hear. What emerged is a picture of systemic reform by and for teachers to elevate teaching into a true profession.

“Transforming Teaching” calls for real reform by demanding the conditions that create great teachers: professional responsibility and collaborative autonomy. Notice that I said responsibility. Much has been made lately of that fact that there is no word in the Finnish language for accountability in the sense that we use it in American education. If we aspire to the level of the best performing systems we need to embrace an essential principle that drives these systems: collective responsibility.

Yes, “Transforming Teaching” makes demands on other stakeholders: on the unions and their professional staffs, on the US Department of Education, on legislatures, and on school districts. But read the document closely - given professional responsibility, we teachers are far harder on ourselves than any outside entity. Why? Because we work for and with kids and our lives are better when their lives are better. Teachers live reform and are the ones who must ultimately create it.

Reader Response

Here is an excerpt from a comment by “Labor Lawyer” (you can see his full response here). A response from Renee Moore follows it.

Two points re the Commission report -- one positive, one negative.

1. Positive: The Commission’s recommendation for peer-review-based teacher evaluation is the obvious answer to the problem of identifying/assisting/discharging poorly-performing teachers.

Montgomery County (MD) has used a peer-review system similar to that described in the report for 10 years with excellent results -- 200+ teachers discharged; 300+ teachers resigned in lieu of peer review; union supports program; few litigation challenges to the discharges; teachers generally view program as fair; no high-stakes-testing; minimizes opportunity for principal to harass/discharge a disfavored but excellent teacher....

2. Negative: The report completely ignores (at least I didn’t see any references) the issue of improving low-income/inner-city schools...

Renee Moore’s Response To Readers’ Comment:

In response to the second part of the comment:

The Commission’s charge was to address how to transform the teaching profession, so in our limited time we tried to remain true to that focus. The Commission did not ignore these serious problems facing inner-city schools; the needs of these students and their schools were very much in our thoughts and discussions, since the majority of the Commission members are teachers, many of us in high needs urban and rural schools. Nor have these schools and their particular problems been totally ignored by other education reformers; in fact, there have been many attempts to address them. In some places there has been limited success; others have seen little progress.

One well-documented feature of high needs urban and rural schools is they are more likely to be staffed with the least qualified, least prepared teachers and administrators (see data from EdTrust, USDOE, others). They also tend to have the highest turnover, which contributes to an already unstable learning environment. Our vision is to create a critical mass of highly qualified teachers across the board, serving in all our public schools, not just a select few. In those high-needs schools where the teaching quality has been significantly upgraded, student attendance and motivation also measurably improves. Furthermore, an important characteristic of highly accomplished teaching, is increased outreach and engagement with parents and community (this is one of the criteria for National Board certification, for example). Similarly, high-needs schools over the past decade have been more likely to institute one reading program after another, usually designed more as low-level test preparation, than stimulating higher level critical skills and a love for reading. These pre-fabricated programs were deemed necessary because so many of the people being placed in those classrooms were underprepared to teach the necessary subjects or skills. Having properly trained, supported, and evaluated teachers throughout their educational journey will help more of our students develop necessary foundational and advanced skills.

I am thankful for your thoughtful reading of our report, and hope you continue to participate in this important discussion both nationally and in your local school community.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Dennis, Renee, Steve and “Labor Lawyer” for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” on Friday.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.