Despite the unified Democratic Party and teachers’ union support for the re-election of President Barack Obama, a philosophical divide over how to strengthen teaching quality in the United States remains. Will teaching and learning be improved through increased regulation, mandated standards, standardized testing of students, and test-based teacher evaluation, as the administration favors, or through more-rigorous selection, development, quality control, and peer oversight of teachers, as favored by the unions? What are the consequences of each approach for what and how teachers teach and students learn?
A highly visible bipartisan political coalition reached consensus, resulting initially in the No Child Left Behind Act and subsequently in a reform agenda that consists of test-based teacher evaluation and charter schools. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates and Eli and Edythe Broad foundations, this agenda, which was initiated by the George W. Bush administration’s NCLB testing requirements, was strengthened by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, among other initiatives. Teachers’ unions and other education groups had little influence. The noneducator-driven reform movement has cast considerable doubt on teachers’ unions and teachers themselves.
Teachers’ unions, on the other hand, argue that the countries that currently lead the world in educational achievement do not depend solely on standardized tests and their use to evaluate students and teachers. The unions believe that teachers should be held accountable for the performance of their students. The controversy is over the mechanism of accountability and its consequences.
In many ways, the story began in Virginia, a state with a history of test-based accountability that predates NCLB. In 1995, Virginia developed its Standards of Learning, or SOL, which outlined academic expectations for K-12 students in the major subject areas. The state then developed standardized assessments aligned with the SOL, making it clear to educators and parents that everyone—students, principals, and teachers—would be held accountable for their performance. Within a very few years, classroom instruction shifted to ensure optimal results on the SOL examinations. Teachers focused on what was to be tested, spending less and less time on teaching real-world activities such as writing, science experiments, reading for pleasure, and oral presentations.
Teachers, and their unions, generally prefer accountability systems that recognize that the best teaching prepares students for real-world performance—reading for knowledge and understanding, mathematics for analyzing and problem-solving, history for interpreting and citizenship, science for knowledge and experimentation, art and music for personal expression and enjoyment, and writing for advocating and communicating. Teachers prefer an accountability system that does not limit and distort instruction, but that supports the development of intellectual and practical skills and preparation for performance on real-world tasks.
Key to this form of professional accountability is ensuring that only caring, competent, and qualified teachers are in the classroom. This is achieved by demanding preparation programs, rigorous licensing processes, careful induction, continuous professional development, meaningful supervision, and the removal of incompetent personnel.
Both major teachers’ unions have supported more education and training for teachers. The National Education Association was instrumental in founding the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, or NCATE, the accrediting agency for teacher preparation. Both unions support upgrading teacher licensing and credentialing. The American Federation of Teachers and the NEA were instrumental in creating the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the private agency that offers advanced certification.
Both the AFT and the NEA now support programs in which labor and management collaborate to improve or fire low-performing teachers. Both organizations directly, and through their foundations, have supported many pilot projects, commissions, and studies based on the idea that states should take steps to strengthen professional accountability and engender confidence that those who receive the title “teacher” merit public trust.
The NEA, the AFT, NCATE, the NBPTS, and other organizations that share the vision of teaching as a profession, however, have achieved only partial success. They have created the mechanisms for professional accountability and quality control, but have failed to advocate for and secure their universal application. Other professions, such as law, medicine, physical therapy, and psychotherapy, have advocated and secured nearly full control over preparation and credentialing and, as a result, have engendered public confidence in the capacity and quality of their practitioners.
The NEA and the AFT have failed to use their advocacy, collective bargaining, political and financial strength to advance their ideas about professional accountability. Moreover, there is often a major disjuncture between the ideas espoused by these national organizations and the actions taken by their respective state and local organizations. Too often, the ideas advanced at the national level fail in the maelstrom of state and local politics, where long-term professional advancement is sacrificed for more immediate salary, job security, retirement, and other benefits.
Because both unions and their state and local affiliates have failed to advance professional accountability as a universal expectation with state legislators, a vacuum of quality control exists. And too many students fail. There is an insufficient basis for public trust in teachers as a group, particularly given the many problem-plagued urban and rural districts where student achievement remains distressingly low. Into this breach, legislators and others turn to test-based accountability—a seemingly objective and low-cost means to ensure that some learning is occurring.
Teachers’ unions are at a crossroads in their history. Would a merger of the NEA and the AFT strengthen the profession?”
Teachers’ unions are at a crossroads in their history. Would a merger of the NEA and the AFT strengthen the profession? At the state level, AFT and NEA mergers already constitute almost a million teachers in Florida, Minnesota, Montana, and New York. Locals have merged in San Antonio and Austin, Texas; Los Angeles; San Francisco; and Wichita, Kan.
NEA delegates rejected a complete merger with the AFT a decade ago, despite the support of the national leadership of both unions. Is the current assault on these organizations sufficiently threatening to compel greater solidarity? The times have changed, and a substantial number of teacher-organization leaders sense their vulnerability.
While the Republican Party has generally favored the test-based reforms, there is a split within the Democratic Party. It is well-known in Washington that the two unions have not been enchanted with some of the education policies of the Obama administration and its Department of Education.
Even prior to the 2012 election, however, there were signs of a rapprochement between the administration and the unions. The new district-focused Race to the Top program requires union sign-off on proposals. The Education Department sponsored two labor-management conferences that highlighted school systems in which effective collaboration was occurring between districts and unions.
As a concession to the unions, the department will seek to increase the influence of “teacher voice” by involving educators in the shaping of national policy. And the administration’s proposed 2013 federal budget included $5 billion for a program labeled RESPECT—Recognizing, Education, Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching.
Some thought these actions by the Obama administration were a sop to allies in an election year. Others thought they reflected the wisdom of experience. Perhaps the lessons learned were that durable education reform, a true profession of teaching, and real student learning will be achieved only with greater cooperation with teachers and the organizations which represent them.
A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2013 edition of Education Week as The Political Future of the Teaching Profession