Student Achievement

With Grants, NEA Fund Paves Its Own Path to Reform

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 12, 2010 5 min read
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Three urban school districts—Springfield, Mass; Durham, N.C.; and Columbus, Ohio—will receive an equal share of $3.75 million from the foundation of the National Education Association to improve instruction, close achievement gaps, and stimulate parental involvement.

That additional funding is the first major scaling up of the foundation’s 6-year-old, $6 million Closing the Achievement Gaps Initiative.

Details of the districts’ new plans differ, but they share common elements, including setting up teams of teachers and administrators in selected schools to review student-achievement data, urging teachers to visit students’ homes, and establishing joint labor-management panels to oversee the work.

“The three sites we have picked have shown district capacity to collect ... and look at data in ways that can drive instructional change,” said William Miles, the program director for the NEA Foundation, which announced the new funding this month. “We think a kind of rut districts get into is in looking into the same data and drawing the same conclusions from that data. If you put a collaborative process in place, and you ask questions about the sources and analyses of data, you’ll start to see the problem differently, in ways that will move you to some different solutions.”

The NEA Foundation, a 501(c)3 charity, operates independently of the union, although it is financed partially from members’ dues. Dennis Van Roekel and John I. Wilson, respectively the president and executive director of the NEA, sit on the board of directors, but the board’s majority is not directly connected to the 3.2 million-member union.

Despite that independence, the foundation’s approach to school reform—improving schools from within—reflects the NEA’s overall philosophy on educational change, and differs somewhat from a federal focus on incentive programs such as differentiated pay.

Expanding Scope

Edward Rowe talks to his class at Dalewood Middle School in Chattanooga, Tenn., a pilot site of the NEA Foundation grants.

In Columbus, officials will use the grant to focus on elementary and middle schools that feed into two struggling high schools, said Gene T. Harris, the superintendent of the 52,000-student district.

“We want our high schools to work deeply with middle schools and elementary schools, to understand they are not individual little islands, that they must collaborate, and that these are our children all the way through the 12th grade and AP classes,” Ms. Harris said.

The goal, she added, is to use data to determine why students are falling short of the state’s academic-proficiency standards and to put in place more-effective coaching that will improve teachers’ capacity to get students to reach those standards.

Beefing up ongoing teacher training will involve expanding a peer-assistance and -review program, in which novice teachers receive professional development and are evaluated by master teachers.

Officials in the 25,000-student Springfield district will pick a half dozen schools for help through a competition, said Tim Collins, the president of the local teachers’ union. Each school will use data from a variety of sources, including surveys of working conditions in those schools, to pick two or three areas to target for improvement.

A large part of the program will include the expansion of “parent teacher” home visits designed to increase parental involvement and community engagement in student learning, Mr. Collins said.

Durham, N.C., will move forward with similar community-engagement and professional-development pieces. In addition, the 32,000-student district will institute “culturally responsive” teaching methods developed by Ron Walker, a researcher with the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color.

Both Ms. Harris and Mr. Collins attributed their districts’ selection for the funding from among five semifinalists in part to having a record of collaboration between administrators and the union.

“For far too long, every reform interaction has been written by politicians,” Mr. Collins said. “With this grant, we’re really trying to let the educators and school buildings be the architects.”

Each of the three grants will be overseen by a joint panel of teachers and administrators chosen by the head of the teachers’ union and the superintendent.

Mirroring NEA

The foundation derived its guiding principles for the grants from the $6 million it invested in pilot initiatives, said Mr. Miles.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., for instance, the foundation homed in on middle schools. The work dovetailed with the much-heralded Benwood initiative, which focused on a coterie of elementary schools, and a Carnegie Corporation of New York grant to improve high schools. Those initiatives focused primarily on improving the effectiveness of teachers in those schools through professional development, and with the blessing of the local teachers’ association. (“Failing Schools Showed Progress With Most of the Same Teachers,” April 9, 2008)

The pilots, Mr. Miles said, “really helped to expand our vision of what were some possible ways for labor and management to come together in some new ways.”

Mr. Miles said the foundation also wants to coordinate its work with a project announced last fall by the NEA to put $6 million, over six years, into “priority schools.” Many of the goals of the two initiatives are similar, but there are some important distinctions. For one, the foundation, unlike the union, is not prohibited by policy resolutions from supporting incentives such as higher pay for teachers of certain subjects or for their performance. In fact, Mr. Miles said the foundation would support the districts in exploring such options as part of their plans, though for now that is not an objective in any of the districts.

The overall thrust of the funding also reflects what appears to be a focus by both national teachers’ unions on initiatives that are predicated on joint union-labor management panels.

“The new foundation grantees are tangible evidence that NEA is serious about making public schools great for every student,” said Mr. Wilson of the NEA.

Over the past year, the idea of union-management collaboration has been a major theme of the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers. Randi Weingarten, however, has been more explicit than NEA officials in stating that such efforts could also tackle such hot-button issues as compensation.

Charles Barone, the vice president of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee, has praised the AFT’s $3.3 million Innovation Fund grants for taking on such issues as the appropriate use of student test scores for teacher accountability. (“AFT Announces First Recipients of Innovation Fund,” Oct. 14, 2009.)

But he was less sanguine about the NEA and its foundation’s work.

“If NEA won’t address those issues voluntarily,” he said in an e-mail, it “can look forward to politicians stepping into the vacuum and to continued marginalization in state and local school reform efforts.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 24, 2010 edition of Education Week as With Grants, Union’s Foundation Sets Its Own Course to Reform

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