Unions Assail Teacher Ideas in NCLB Draft

By Alyson Klein & David J. Hoff — September 14, 2007 8 min read
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The two national teachers’ unions mounted a vigorous lobbying campaign this week to rewrite language linking teacher bonuses to student test scores and other incentive-pay provisions contained in a draft bill for reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act.

Members of the National Education Association circulated in the halls of Congress on Sept. 10 while the House Education and Labor Committee held a six-hour hearing on the panel’s draft of a bill to reauthorize the 5½-year-old education law. At the hearing, the panel’s Democratic chairman chastised union leaders for backing away from support for an earlier bill that had also included pay-for- performance language.

The day’s events demonstrated the difficulties lawmakers face in forging a consensus on the future of the law. Interest groups as diverse as teachers’ unions and business leaders disagree on fundamental issues such as teacher pay, student accountability, and other central elements of the law.

In a discussion draft of the teacher-quality provisions released Sept. 6, the House education committee would encourage districts to experiment with pay-for-performance plans and offer financial incentives to recruit teachers to hard-to-staff schools. Among other provisions, the draft calls for using student test-score data as one factor in determining whether teachers are eligible for bonuses.

See Also

Read ongoing coverage of the reauthorization process on our blog NCLB: Act II.

“Many of our state [affiliates] and locals are really open to looking at compensation and how compensation is addressed, but they’re not open to having it mandated to them,” Reg Weaver, the president of the NEA, which represents 2.5 million teachers, told the education committee. “They’re not open to having [federal law] indicate that it should be based on student performance, when in fact they might not have any control over the students that come to them.”

That statement and a similar one by Antonia Cortese, an executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, drew a sharp response from the committee’s chairman. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said that the unions had endorsed a bill with similar pay proposals when he and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., introduced it two years ago and again in May. Most of that bill—called the Teaching Excellence for All Children, or TEACH, Act—were included in the Sept. 6 discussion draft of NCLB’s Title II.

“You’re both aware that the language in the legislation is the language that NEA and AFT negotiated and accepted and has promoted and asked members of Congress to support over the last couple of years,” Rep. Miller said, after having asked few questions of the other 43 people to appear before the panel. “It’s identical to that language.”

Both Mr. Weaver and Ms. Cortese said that while their unions support the TEACH Act overall, they’ve long been wary of the language requiring that performance- based pay be based on students’ test scores.

Ms. Cortese referred to a letter the 1.3 million-member AFT sent in 2005 to Rep. Miller regarding the proposed TEACH Act.

“We clearly state that while the AFT is supportive of the overall [TEACH] bill, … we do have a specific concern about its support [for using] student test scores to evaluate teachers. Our position has never changed,” she said.

The NEA has issued similar caveats in letters to the education committee supporting the TEACH Act, Mr.Weaver added.

Other Issues on Table

The union leaders and other witnesses at the all-day hearing also addressed a myriad of issues facing Congress as it works to reauthorize the NCLB law, which is the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Rep. Miller has said he is aiming for his committee to approve a reauthorization bill this month.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., is working on a NCLB bill that he hopes to introduce by the end of the month, said Melissa Wagoner, the spokeswoman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Sen. Kennedy is the chairman of that committee.

The week before the House panel’s hearing, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and several other supporters of the law were critical of the draft House bill, saying that several of its provisions would make it easier for schools and districts to make adequate yearly progress—a key measure of success under the law—and wouldn’t hold them accountable for students’ performance in reading and mathematics. The draft would allow states’ accountability plans to consider test scores in other academic subjects, as well as indicators other than student test scores, such as graduation rates and college- attendance rates, in determining AYP. (“Spellings Takes Issue With NCLB Draft,” Sept. 12, 2007.)

But the teacher-pay proposals were the most contentious issues discussed during the Sept. 10 hearing.

NEA members from the congressional districts of every member of the House education committee roamed the halls and talked to members who took breaks from the hearing. Most wore red stickers saying “A Child is More Than a Test Score,” the same slogan that appeared on T-shirts at the NEA’s annual convention in July.

The overall effect of the bill is “a blatant attack on collective bargaining,” Dean E. Vogel, the vice president of the California Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate, said in an interview outside the hearing room. On the day of the hearing, the CTA launched an online advertising campaign against the House committee’s NCLB draft, targeting Web sites popular among grassroots Democrats.

“We’re ready in California to go to war,” Mr. Vogel said.

A Matter for Bargaining?

In interviews, several Democratic members of the House education committee said that they support the union members’ desire that all teacher-pay plans that might be adopted under NCLB provisions be approved by teachers, either through collective bargaining or local elections.

“Members [of the committee] are going to be insistent that that needs to be part of it,” Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said in an interview. Rep. Grijalva also mentioned that he would like the NCLB bill to include programs to improve middle schools, and that he would want assurances that programs under the bill would be adequately financed.

Although addressing the concerns of teachers’ union members may win Democratic votes for the NCLB plan, such accommodations could reduce Republican support.

“Unfortunately, the major teachers’ unions are throwing up roadblocks to even modest efforts at reform,” said Alexa Marrero, a spokeswoman for Rep. Howard P. “Buck”McKeon of California, the committee’s senior GOP member. “Mr. McKeon would not support their proposal to undermine teacher incentives, and he hopes to work with Mr. Miller to include strong new performance-pay initiatives in NCLB.”

In the hearing, the NEA’s Mr. Weaver and the AFT’s Ms. Cortese said that they wouldn’t be opposed to allowing local affiliates to work with their school districts to include student achievement in pay-for-performance programs. But they say a federal grant program would infringe on collective bargaining rights if it would require pay-for-performance or other incentive pay as a condition of receiving the grant.

The NEA and the AFT would like Congress to require that any alternative- pay program be subject to collective bargaining. The committee’s draft would only require that such programs be developed in consultation with unions.

In districts where collective bargaining by public employees isn’t allowed under state law, districts should have to get 75 percent of their teachers to approve any pay-for-performance programs funded by federal money, the unions say.

The Bush administration supports efforts to gain the endorsement of unions or nonunionized teachers for alternative pay plans, said Amanda L. Farris, the deputy assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education. But it also believes that all such plans should emphasize student test scores.

“Student achievement always needs to remain one of the key factors for all of us,” Ms. Farris said in an interview. “We want to make sure we don’t lose sight of that.”

Local Testing

While the teachers’ unions focused on the pay plans, several staunch supporters of the No Child Left Behind law testified at last week’s hearing in opposition to the draft bill’s proposal to add new elements to the NCLB accountability system. The current system centers on achievement in reading and mathematics, the two subjects in which students must be tested annually in grades 3-8.

The draft of the Title I proposal would allow schools to get partial credit for improving on tests in subjects other than reading and math, including social studies and science. And the draft would establish a pilot project permitting up to 15 states to use local assessments, in conjunction with state tests, for accountability purposes.

Dianne M. Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a Washington-based watchdog group, said the draft bill’s proposal for a pilot project permitting locally developed assessments would undermine the law’s accountability system.

“We believe this pilot has the potential to set back accountability and the movement for educational equity for years and perhaps decades,” she told the House lawmakers. “These assessments would be developed and scored by teachers and others at the local district, and then used to decide whether these same adults had done an adequate job teaching kids.”

But panel members, including Rep. Miller, noted that the local tests would have to be developed with expert assistance, be used along with state tests, and be approved by the federal Education Department.

“Nobody’s throwing out the statewide system,” the committee chairman said. “It’s a question of whether or not you want to make an effort to see whether you can construct an assessment system that is more helpful to developing the skills that most people who rely on this education system tell us they think students are going to need.”


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