Teaching Profession

Trading Places

March 01, 1996 5 min read

When it comes to their views on what needs to be done to make schools work better, the nation’s two major teachers’ unions seem to have switched places over the past year.

The National Education Association, long viewed as cautious about many of the prescriptions for fixing schools, is now touting its attention to teaching and learning and its support for innovation. The American Federation of Teachers, which has a reputation as the more adventurous of the two organizations, has embarked on a crusade for orderly schools and high academic standards that has been criticized by some observers for its back-to-basics flavor.

The unions have formulated their positions, in part, by blending past experience with a reading of the current political climate, in particular the growing national interest in private school vouchers. While the AFT has long been viewed as a leading force in the education reform movement, the NEA is seen by many as a welcome newcomer. Each in its own way is struggling to figure out how to “protect not only teachers but also teaching,” says Ann Lieberman, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The sea change at the 875,000-member AFT stems primarily from two factors. One, the union was an early supporter of efforts to restructure schools and push decisionmaking down to teachers but grew disenchanted when these initiatives failed to bring substantial gains in student achievement. And two, the union’s leadership has been heavily influenced by recent public-opinion surveys that uncovered profound public dissatisfaction with faddish reforms and strong support for safety, order, and the basics in schools.

The NEA, on the other hand, has decided to play up and expand its emphasis on school reform based on promising findings from pilot projects the union launched during the 1980s.

Among many education observers, the NEA’s decision to devote greater resources and attention to reform is the more noteworthy shift. The 2.2 million-member giant moves slowly, and even though it has not been very specific about what should be done in schools, its first tentative steps are seen as encouraging. “The NEA is gigantic; it’s almost like the Democratic Party, with many, many layers,” Lieberman says. “Their move to talk about teaching and learning is quite a change in stance.”

Perhaps most surprising is the NEA’s limited support for charter schools--an idea long viewed with suspicion by both unions. The union has said it will help members in six states open charter schools and then study their potential to improve learning. It plans to use the knowledge it gathers to be a “forceful advocate for rethinking and reinventing public education,” union literature states. The five-year project will begin in Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, and Wisconsin. The new schools, which will retain close ties to local school boards and districts, are scheduled to open next fall.

One reason the NEA has embraced reform, says Cindi Chance, assistant dean of the education school at the University of Memphis, is that the movement now has a broader scope. The earliest calls for school improvement, she says, were too narrowly focused on testing and factual learning to appeal to teachers. “But now that we’re looking at total renewal and restructuring and teachers being involved, I personally can buy into it more than I have in the past,” Chance says. “It’s getting down to the teacher level.”

The AFT’s new campaign, on the other hand, has surprised few but angered some reform advocates. Albert Shanker, the union’s outspoken president, has long been a leading thinker in education and a champion of higher academic standards. But the campaign, led by Shanker, that links high academic standards with a demand for safe, orderly schools has been perceived by many as a rejection of reform ideas the union once supported.

“They certainly have narrowed the range of what they are trying to promote,” says Judith Warren Little, an associate professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley. “For a long time, AFT stood for aggressive moves to reshape schooling.”

Shaped by their distinct histories and traditions, both organizations, in their own ways, are trying to assume more responsibility for the quality of schools, says Mark Smylie, an associate professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “The AFT may be arguing for demonstrating the assumption of professional responsibility by taking the lead in the development of standards,” he explains. “But the NEA has responded by saying, ‘That’s all well and good, but we want to open it up to teachers and professionals broadly to address local needs and assume professional responsibility that way.’ ”

In its detailed prescription for what needs to be done in schools, the AFT’s “Lessons for Life: Responsibility, Respect, Results” campaign has run afoul of some educators. This fall, the board of directors of the Council of the Great City Schools rebuked Shanker for, among other things, the campaign’s emphasis on removing disruptive students from regular schools and placing them in alternative settings. In addition, Shanker’s remarks about academic tracking, which the leader advocates in certain forms, angered some who believe sorting students by ability dooms many to unproductive lives.

The AFT’s positions, however, aren’t the only ones to come under fire. Some charter school proponents have questioned the NEA’s interest in creating such schools. The driving motive behind the charter school movement is to create schools that are independent of the public school establishment. The proposed NEA schools, they complain, will not be. One critic, Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, says she suspects that the union is trying to “water down” the charter movement.

Although policies and initiatives drawn up at the national level send important signals, many education observers point out that most of the action remains at the state and local levels. “What happens on the national level makes the newspapers, but it has much less of an impact on schools and teachers and kids’ lives than what’s going on in a district,” says Nina Bascia, professor of education at the University of Toronto in Ontario.

Little of Berkeley agrees, saying she does not see an “enthusiasm or energy for reform” within the California affiliate of the NEA, which wields great political clout in the state. “The legacy of caution is still very much in place,” she says.

--Ann Bradley

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A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Trading Places

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