Teaching Profession

Teaching & Learning

August 06, 2003 8 min read
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NEA Plans to Beef Up Recruitment, Lobbying

The nation’s largest union—and not just for the teaching profession—is stressing recruitment of new members as never before.

At its annual meeting, held in New Orleans last month, the 2.7-million member National Education Association announced the launch of a new recruitment and lobbying campaign.

Dubbed “Great Public Schools for Every Child,” it will succeed by strengthening state affiliates, according to director John Stocks, a former top official with the union’s Wisconsin affiliate.

The union plans to help struggling affiliates offer more programs for teachers, recruit new members, and organize active locals, he said. Affiliates in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, and South Carolina will be the first to get attention.

The plan also calls for stepping up communication between the state, local, and national levels to maximize the power of teachers as they lobby officials and prepare to cast their ballots in the 2004 general elections.

The initiative also comes as the union is stepping up its opposition to aspects of the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. (“‘Approved’ Is Relative Term for Ed. Dept.,” this issue.)

“There’s going to be much more focus on [membership and organizing],” Mr. Stocks promised.

Resources dedicated to the plan so far have included staff members, some of whom have already been detailed to the work full time, and $300,000 from the budget for the fiscal year that ends this month.

Reg Weaver, who was elected president of the NEA last year after serving six years as vice president, said concern about membership stretches back to about 2000. People saw then that the rate of membership gains was slipping, he said.

“We got away from member organizing because we moved into a kind of professional-development area,” Mr. Weaver said. “People started to ask, why doesn’t the NEA get back into the organizing mode?”

Secretary-Treasurer Lily Eskelsen reported to delegates at the July 1-6 gathering that “we are up, but we are tapering off.”

In the 2001-02 year, the last for which the NEA has complete figures, about half the affiliates lost members.

Whether the union’s new tack portends a sharp lessening of interest in the “new unionism” championed by former NEA President Bob Chase is unclear.

New unionism tried to meld traditional labor concerns such as salaries, working conditions, and organizing with a broad view of the needs of schools.

Mr. Chase, who attended the meeting, would not comment on the fate of his legacy. He said only that teachers are facing tough times, and that concern with membership should never lapse.

Kindergarten Promotion

Delegates to last month’s NEA convention also approved a policy recommending mandatory kindergarten for 5-year-olds and voluntary, but universally available, prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds for the full school day.

The policy also says kindergartners should be no younger and no older than 5 when they enter the classroom, although exceptions to the general rule should occasionally be allowed.

Delegates struggled with the question of whether they should support spending public money on private pre-K programs. But members of the committee that wrote the policy argued that the critical schooling—which has proved its beneficial effect on student learning—is in short supply, and that many private programs would not be able to operate without public support.

The committee also urged that the NEA not attempt to organize early-childhood teachers or caregivers in private facilities. The governing body accepted the recommendation.

For Learning’s Sake

Most American elementary and middle school teachers believe it is more important to foster the ability to learn how to learn than to teach students specific information and skills, a survey from a New York City think tank suggests.

The survey looks at the educational practices and beliefs of 403 4th grade teachers and 806 8th grade teachers chosen in different ways. All taught core subjects.

“What Do Teachers Teach? A Survey of America’s Fourth and Eighth Grade Teachers,” is available from the Manhattan Institute.

The poll was sponsored by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, which promotes greater economic choice and individual responsibility.

In the survey, more than 70 percent of teachers said they believe that “learning how to learn is most important for students.” Fewer than 20 percent said they believe specific skills and information are most important.

More than half the teachers described their educational philosophies as favoring student- centered learning rather than teacher-directed learning.

In addition, more 4th grade teachers gave grades on an individual basis rather than by reference to a classwide standard. The 8th grade teachers were about evenly divided between those who look at individual abilities and those who use a single standard.

Such findings “help explain,” according to a statement from the institute, “why states with strong academic standards have children earning A’s and B’s in schools.”

Salaries Climbing

Teacher salaries are on the rise, and as a result, more professionals are entering the field and alleviating the shortages that have hounded school districts for years, concludes a recent report.

Beginners’ Luck

The chart shows salaries for beginning teachers in 2001-02 in states where average pay is highest and lowest.

Highest

Beginning
Average Salary

Alaska $36,294
New Jersey 35,311*
New York 34,577*
Connecticut 34,551
California 34,180

Lowest

Mississippi 24,567
Maine 24,054
South Dakota 23,938
Montana 22,344
North Dakota 20,988
*AFT estimate
SOURCE: American Federation of Teachers

Beginning-teacher salaries went up 3.2 percent, to an average of $30,719, from the 2000-01 to the 2001-02 school year, according to the annual survey by the American Federation of Teachers.

Overall, the national average teacher salary rose 2.7 percent, to $44,367.

At $54,348, teachers in California earned the highest average salaries during 2001-02. Teachers in Michigan, Connecticut, and Rhode Island also ranked among the best-paid in the country. Teachers in South Dakota were paid the lowest average salary, $31,383 annually.

An analysis of the country’s 100-largest districts reveals Yonkers, N.Y., leading the pack for highest maximum salary at $93,785 per year. Other high-paying districts include Jersey City, N.J., $82,250; Rochester, N.Y., $75,968; and Fremont, Calif., $74,878. Most teachers earning that amount have doctorates.

The increase in pay and the poor job market in other fields for college graduates have attracted more people to teaching, the AFT says. Still, considerable shortages remain for teachers of mathematics, science, and Spanish.

In other findings, there was a balance between supply and demand for elementary school teachers, but an oversupply of physical education teachers, the report says.

Tapping Federal Dollars

The U.S. Department of Education has given $1.8 million to scale up an effort to give teachers the incentive to improve their practice.

The grant from the department’s Fund for the Improvement of Education will underwrite the expansion of the Teacher Advancement Program, a project of the Milken Family Foundation, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based philanthropy.

The 3-year-old program works in individual schools to support innovative ways to attract teachers to the classroom and keep them there. For example, one school in Phoenix has established separate pay scales for “master teachers,” “mentor teachers,” and “associate teachers.” Teachers in the top category earn $7,000 on top of their annual salaries.

In addition, the foundation suggests that schools in the program could establish part-time positions for retired teachers and people from other professions. (“Teacher Re-Creation,” Jan. 10, 2001.)

The philanthropy has financed the project in more than 50 schools, and the federal funding will add a total of 25 schools in Arizona, Arkansas, and South Carolina. The program is already operating in those states, as well as in Colorado, Indiana, and Louisiana.

Stopping Dissections

A controversial animal-rights group has taken up the cause of curtailing the dissection of animals in high school and college classrooms.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says that thousands of students suffer “intense emotional anguish” when they are assigned to cut open frogs, pigs, or other animals in biology classes. The group suggests that students be given the chance to opt out of dissections and complete such assignments using a computer program or other alternatives to a specimen.

“With all the technology available, there’s no reason to be cutting up animals to teach anatomy to students,” said Patricia A. Torstle, an education specialist for the 750,000-member group known as PETA.

Using the alternatives, Ms. Torstle added, is cost-effective because schools only need to purchase the computer software or other materials once, which is less than the annual cost of buying animals to dissect.

The number of students demanding an alternative to dissection appears to be on the rise.

Many states require schools to offer students the chance to opt out of dissections, but biology teachers say the learning experiences in the simulations aren’t as good as the real-life practice. (“Technology Aids Dissection Foes,” May 30, 2001.)

As part of the campaign, the Norfolk, Va.-based group will relaunch its “Teach Kind” Web site this fall with an expanded list of activities that enable students to learn science without harming animals, Ms. Torstle said.

—Bess Keller, Michelle Galley, & David J. Hoff inclass@epe.org

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