Saying Goodbye: Bob Chase is stepping down after serving two terms as the president of the National Education Association, whose members did not always embrace the new style of unionism that he championed. NEA delegates will choose his successor next month.
Anyone listening to Bob Chase his first year in office knew his words would someday be thrown back at him. In his now-legendary speech at the National Press Club in February 1997, the National Education Association president pledged to “reinvent” the NEA as a new organization that pushed for school improvement as vigorously as it did for teachers’ rights. To skeptics, he challenged: “Watch what we do, not what we say.”
But with less than three months remaining in his second and last term, the Chase years appear likely to be remembered more for the conversations he started than for the deeds of the union he led.
True, he did reorganize the NEA’s Washington headquarters to better focus its varied operations on student performance and teacher professionalism. He also redirected the energies of the staff toward new projects aimed at improving reading instruction and the plight of inner-city students.
When it came to steering the 2.7 million-member organization as a whole, however, Mr. Chase’s reach often exceeded his grasp. He brokered a plan to merge the NEA and its longtime rival, the American Federation of Teachers, only to see the proposal go down in flames when put to delegates at his union’s annual meeting. The same assembly later rejected a measure he had backed that would have supported experiments in performance- based pay for teachers.
“I think Bob has a very difficult task within his own union,” said Bob Wehling, a former Procter & Gamble executive who has been active in national school improvement efforts. “When he stood up and gave his reform message, there wasn’t always a standing ovation.”
Still, the mixed record of the past six years says less about Mr. Chase than it does about the difficulty of changing such a large and democratically governed institution, many observers and NEA leaders say. In fact, many credit his mild-mannered but determined leadership style with getting the union to move at all.
The NEA president didn’t always get what he wanted, but when rebuffed, he usually came back and found some way to gain as much ground as he could.
“I think that Bob has made public for the NEA a number of issues that were pretty much hidden in their closet for years and years,” said Julia E. Koppich, a San Francisco-based education consultant. “I don’t think you can ever get that genie back in the bottle.”
When Mr. Chase began his first three-year term as president in September1996, he knew he had his work cut out for him. That year, the NEA commissioned a Washington consulting group to assess the union’s image, and the picture that came back wasn’t pretty. In no uncertain terms, the internal document described an organization perceived even by many of its own leaders as being too partisan, too much of a naysayer, and too willing to defend the status quo.
“The impression,” said the report, “is that the NEA will study anything, but it will not bring hard, results-driven solutions to the table because these items might inconvenience their members.”
To set the NEA on a new course, Mr. Chase has championed what he calls a “new unionism.” The central premise is that labor and management should be seen not as adversaries, but as partners working to achieve the common goal of raising student performance. For a teachers’ union like the NEA, that means a role that encompasses not just advocacy for better wages and working conditions, but also efforts to ensure the quality of the teaching craft.
“One of the major responsibilities of a union leader is to make sure that you’re caring for the jobs of your members,” Mr. Chase said in a recent interview. “And I just happen to believe that the best way to secure the jobs of our members is to do whatever you can to help them do their jobs better.”
An NEA president can’t simply decree, however, that those principles be put into practice throughout all of the union’s 50 state and 14,000 local affiliates. Even compared with other labor organizations, the association is highly decentralized. Its state affiliates possess significant power to promote, or stop, an agenda. Given those constraints, Mr. Chase has led through example, and through the bully pulpit.
From early in his presidency, he reached out to groups—such as business and school administrators’ organizations—to which the NEA had once been cool, if not openly hostile. The NEA became a lead sponsor of the Learning First Alliance, a coalition of 12 education groups and corporate leaders that has sought ways to improve children’s math and literacy skills. Mr. Chase also became a major booster of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, an effort to recognize outstanding teachers that he had voiced concerns about in the 1980s.
“It was a breath of fresh air,” said Raymond “Buzz” Bartlett, the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education and a former Lockheed Martin executive. “If Bob Chase has a legacy, which I hope continues, it was to break down barriers between the institutions and trying to create collaboration on the issues.”
Mr. Chase sought to break down barriers internally as well. The union’s 550-person headquarters has been restructured around three core priorities, each of which now has its own director: teacher quality, student achievement, and school system capacity building. The change has meant that previously isolated departments—like government relations and public affairs—consult more often with experts in teaching and learning.
Compared with previous NEA presidents, Mr. Chase has also taken a hands-on approach in guiding the union’s projects. When a task force on urban education that he appointed appeared to be stalled early on, he laid down the law. “He just wiped it all out, said we’re going to start all over, and we’re going to do this right,” said John I. Wilson, a former executive director of the union’s North Carolina affiliate who now holds the same position at NEA headquarters.
Wins and Losses
The result was an 80-page resource guide for members outlining ways to better meet the needs of poor and minority students. During Mr. Chase’s tenure, a similar effort has produced a report on improving literacy skills that won the endorsement of the International Reading Association. The union’s reading initiative also includes “Read Across America,” a public-awareness campaign built around an annual event in which celebrities and other adults are called on to read to youngsters.
Mr. Chase and Sandra Feldman of the AFT pledged to work together in 1997.
Where Mr. Chase has been less successful is in achieving big shifts in NEA policy. Any such changes must be approved by the union’s main governing body, known as the Representative Assembly. Made up of more than 9,000 delegates selected by union members around the country, the assembly meets once a year. Contingents from the most populous states hold enormous sway; some delegations have outright opposed the idea of a new unionism.
“The NEA is structured so that every major decision is made following oodles and oodles of debate, and by the widest possible body,” said Keith B. Geiger, the union’s immediate past president. “That is not always the most conducive to moving an organization ahead.”
Not that Mr. Chase hasn’t tried, and sometimes prevailed. A year into his first term, he successfully lobbied the Representative Assembly to reverse the union’s long-standing opposition to peer review of teacher performance, giving an endorsement to local initiatives in which teachers evaluate and mentor their colleagues. The measure passed despite objections that it would cause divisiveness in the ranks and send the message that teachers weren’t up to snuff.
At other times, he’s been knocked flat by the assembly. His biggest disappointment was on the issue of merger with the AFT, which he saw as a way to greatly expand the advocacy power of the two unions. The plan needed the approval of two-thirds of the assembly to pass; more than half the delegates voted against it in 1998.
Similarly, when Mr. Chase sought a more flexible stand on paying teachers for their performance, the assembly not only rejected the proposal, but also strengthened the union’s opposition to the idea.
Mr. Chase rarely gave up, though. More than once, he came back from defeat to achieve a compromise by gathering input from those who opposed him. After the merger vote, he appointed a committee that included many of the plan’s strongest critics. Their work led to a new agreement with the AFT to take part in a series of joint projects—a partnership that has brought the two groups closer together than ever.
“Because of the NEA’s structure and governance, most previous presidents have been reluctant to get too far out on the leadership limb for fear it would get sawed off,” said Don Cameron, who served as the executive director under three NEA presidents—including Mr. Chase—before retiring in 2000. “But if it gets sawed off under Bob, he scrambles back up the tree and finds another limb.”
But such incremental steps hardly constitute radical change. To many outside the NEA, and to some within it, the union has done little to bring about the transformation that Mr. Chase outlined in his famous Press Club speech. Despite the overtures made to past adversaries, and a stream of helpful reports and conferences, the association overall has yet to prove to many that it has become a risk-taking organization.
Drawing attention to that fact, the smaller, more nimble AFT has been able to accomplish much of what Mr. Chase hasn’t. Last year, for instance, the federation approved its own language supporting experiments in teacher compensation that go beyond the single salary schedule.
The contrasting image of the two unions also was evident earlier this year, when AFT leaders were invited by the Bush administration to a White House conference on teacher quality, but representatives of the NEA were not.
“Bob has moved us two steps forward, but the policy world, especially as it has to do with student achievement and accountability, is 10 steps ahead of where it was when Bob took office,’' said Brad Jupp, an NEA member from Denver who has helped design a performance-based pay plan for his local district.
Still, others believe that Mr. Chase took the union as far as anyone could. An organization that counts one out of every 100 Americans among its members doesn’t turn on a dime. What’s more, many predict that the changes he wasn’t able to achieve are more likely to come to pass in the future as a result of his work.
Says Mr. Wilson, the NEA’s executive director: “I guarantee you, there’s nothing he could not win, if he just had more time to do it.”
Seeking an Impact
Bob Chase, the NEA’s outgoing president, holds his granddaughter at a farewell party last week.
So far, Mr. Chase says he has no firm plans for his life after the NEA. The Representative Assembly will choose between two candidates to succeed him, Los Angeles teacher-activist Denise Rockwell and NEA Vice President Reg Weaver, when it meets in Dallas July 2-5. (“Candidates Stress Experience, Style in Union Contest,” this issue.)
The 59-year-old Mr. Chase intends to stay in the Washington area to be near his two daughters and new granddaughter, but he has yet to line up a new job. Many past NEA presidents have had their pick of academic positions and political appointments, but Mr. Chase says he’s more interested in the world of philanthropy.
“If it were the right kind of foundation activity, that would be of interest,” he said recently. “I don’t want something that’s a job. I want something that can actually have some opportunity to impact on things.”
In the meantime, he’ll be promoting a new book that he wrote during the past year: The New Public School Parent. All of the royalties will go to the NEA Foundation for the Improvement of Education, an institute endowed by the union.
Mr. Chase says he wrote the book to try to help parents better navigate the public schools to ensure that their children get the most out of their educations. The text offers advice on homework, parent-teacher conferences, and on understanding “edu-speak.”
One chapter deals with a familiar topic for the NEA president: “A Quality Teacher for Your Child.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2002 edition of Education Week as President Leaves Mixed Record On Pledge to ‘Reinvent’ NEA