Teaching Profession

NEA Relaxes Evaluation Policy, Endorses Obama

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 12, 2011 6 min read
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In what represents a small but significant step in a new direction for the National Education Association, its governing body has approved a policy statement on teacher evaluation, specifying for the first time that teachers should be required to demonstrate their impact on student learning.

Before its approval, however, union officials significantly modified the statement, adding language that puts additional caveats on the use of test scores as one measure of teacher performance.

And despite continued frustration with the Obama administration’s education agenda, the NEA’s Representative Assembly approved an early endorsement for the re-election of President Barack Obama, a move that puts its considerable resources behind the incumbent.

Both decisions were made here during the union’s annual convention, held July 2-5, but they were hard-won victories for its leaders, following an unusual series of twists that had even union observers unsure of their outcome.

Internal Pressure

The convention ultimately displayed a union still deeply dissatisfied with the president’s education policy, busy responding to attacks from Republican candidates, dealing with a first-ever loss of membership and budget decline, and trying to define its place in an education debate that has come to be dominated by talk about teachers’ influence on student academic success.

The teacher-evaluation policy statement, approved July 4, was hailed by NEA leaders as a way to better position the union to lead in discussions about teacher effectiveness. Among other tenets, it spells out standards for evaluation, including a mix of observations and student-achievement measures, and a process for giving support to teachers with subpar evaluations.

Originally unveiled in May, the policy underwent significant revisions even before it was presented to delegates. The original language appeared to endorse the use of standardized tests as one of several measures for judging teacher performance, a stance the union had long opposed. (“NEA Proposes Making a Shift on Evaluation,” May 18, 2011.)

But under pressure from internal groups, such as the National Council on Urban Education Associations—a membership body representing the NEA’s large, urban affiliates—the drafting committee added a significant number of new caveats to the use of tests.

“We were actively engaged with people who were discouraged with the language, trying to craft language that would work,” said Dean Vogel, the California Teachers Association president and a co-chair of the panel that drafted the statement. “It probably changed four or five times prior to completion.”

The final version of the framework retains the test-score language, but notes that unless the tests are shown to be “developmentally appropriate, scientifically valid, and reliable for the purpose of measuring both student learning and a teacher’s performance,” they may not be used to trigger dismissal of a teacher.

NEA leaders repeatedly said that no current standardized test meets those criteria and underscored the proposal’s focus on teacher improvement. They held out the possibility that new tests that might meet the bar could be developed.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel pointed out that the new language also gives the union some additional flexibility. Under a prior resolution, which now must be updated, the union would not engage in any discussion of the use of test scores, nor could it offer assistance to state and local affiliates under pressure to face that issue. With the new statement, he said, the union will be able to better guide its affiliates.

“Now, we’re willing to get into that arena,” he said. “Before, we weren’t.”

Throughout the four-day meeting, delegates condemned a wave of measures spearheaded by Republican-dominated state legislatures to curb collective bargaining for teachers. They approved a $10-per-member special assessment that will be sent to state and local affiliates to fight similar efforts.

Obama Debate

But they also saved some harsh words for the Obama administration, targeting their ire at U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

They passed a blistering item, sponsored by the union’s board of directors, declaring that the NEA was “appalled” by Mr. Duncan’s actions and listing 13 specific points of difference with the education secretary.

Among other complaints, the union criticized the administration’s support of charter schools, competitive-grant programs, support of evaluations based on standardized-test scores, and what it perceives as the administration’s failure “to respect and honor the professionalism of teachers.”

Mr. Van Roekel sought to distinguish the disagreements the union has with the administration from those the union has with Republican candidates.

“Obama’s vision for America and NEA’s are exactly the same. I don’t mind fighting with this administration on how to get there; out of that comes good ideas,” he said in an interview. “What I don’t want is to go back to a time where the fight is the destination.”

Echoing Mr. Van Roekel, Vice President Joe Biden emphasized areas of agreement with the union in an address to the 8,200 delegates in attendance, characterizing tensions between the administration and the union as a family squabble. He sought to reassure the union that President Obama supports its aims.

“He will, and I will, and we will fight alongside you, and we will fight for you, and occasionally in the privacy of the family, we’ll fight with you,” Mr. Biden said. “But this is about the same fundamental vision for this country.”

Partly at stake was the union’s early endorsement for Mr. Obama, a move that triggers the flow of PAC dollars. NEA leaders, pointing to a “toxic” political environment, said such supports were needed early. Because the union’s Representative Assembly must approve any endorsement, the alternative was to wait until next year’s convention—just four months before the presidential election—or mount a costly ballot-mailing process.

Mr. Biden’s soothing words didn’t convince some delegates, who feared that by giving its endorsement early, the union would lose any trump card it had to influence Obama administration education policy.

“I think by giving it now, we’re losing our leveraging ability with Obama to come through on some of our needs,” one delegate, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said before the vote. “I think we need to wait a little longer and hold it over his head.”

In private meetings, state caucuses within the NEA largely pushed for the endorsement, delegates said. Supporters of the early endorsement cited GOP attacks on bargaining rights as the primary reason not to delay.

That was a compelling argument for Amy Penna, a delegate with the Illinois Education Association.

“It’s important to endorse early,” she said. “With the anti-union climate going on now, we need to take a position with someone supporting education, even if we don’t agree on every little thing.”

In the end, delegates narrowly defeated a measure to delay an endorsement vote, and 72 percent of the Representative Assembly approved the early endorsement in a secret-ballot vote. Though the figure represents a relatively high margin, it fell below the 79 percent of the assembly that voted to endorse Mr. Obama in 2008.

Questions Remain

Uncertainty remains about whether either of the two decisions will notably shape the union’s internal movement on evaluations. And it remains to be seen whether NEA members will turn out to support the campaign in other ways—as flier-affixers, doorbell-ringers, and phone-bank-staffers.

Pam Hopkins-Witzel, a delegate from Tennessee, said she’d like to see some additional evidence that President Obama will listen to NEA concerns—such as an appearance, in person, at next year’s Representative Assembly, set to take place in the District of Columbia.

Teachers still can change their minds before November 2012, she noted, and a lack of engagement could cost Mr. Obama votes.

“Teachers are the sleeping giant,” she said. “We can rock the boat.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 13, 2011 edition of Education Week as Relaxed NEA Evaluation Policy Incorporates Many Caveats

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