The National Education Association (N.E.A.) would rather die than let parents choose their children's schools-but this week it voted to let them decide whether or not their kids will take tests! What's the difference? It seems the country's largest teacher union is willing to empower parents so long as the empowering coincides with the self-interest of teachers, in this case by crippling state and national testing programs that can be used for student (and perhaps teacher) accountability.
Self-interest is the key. It's the one constant in nearly every action of the N.E.A. and most of the actions of its rival/partner, the American Federation of Teachers (A.F.T.) Adult self-interest, to be accurate. Teacher self-interest, to be yet more precise. The educational well being of children may be invoked. But it's usually a decoy, a bit of spin meant to garb the adult self-interest in something less naked.
Self-interest isn't a bad thing. It's the essence of capitalism. It's the core of most countries' foreign policies. (It's also what makes packs of wolves bring down caribou and thieves snatch purses from old ladies.) What's hypocritical is self-interest that pretends to be something else. And patterns of self-interest that lead organizations to profess one thing and do another.
The teacher unions don't always work against quality education for children. The A.F.T., in particular, has a distinguished record of studies, reports and journals (especially its outstanding quarterly, American Educator, whose departing editor, Liz McPike, will be much missed) that press for high standards, sound pedagogy and worthy content. Indeed, a new report is expected from the A.F.T. in early September that, we understand, will rigorously appraise the quality of state academic standards and tests.
Well and good. Let us be grateful for the legacy of the late Albert Shanker. But let us also speak the truth about how the unions-both unions, alas-usually behave when the national spotlight is turned off and their swarming lobbyists descend upon legislative chambers and the rooms where school boards engage in collective bargaining. With the rarest of exceptions, the unions' behavior pattern in those settings is to stonewall serious education reforms of both the standards-based and competition-based genres. Insofar as they cannot fend these off entirely, union agents strive to keep the changes minimal, to shackle the reforms with as many old-fashioned restrictions as possible and, when the reformers' attention is elsewhere, to soften, muddy, or reverse the unwanted innovations.
The state and local backroom operators are not too visible at the unions' national conventions, such as the 9000-delegate conclave that the N.E.A. just concluded in Los Angeles. (The A.F.T.'s "quest" conference starts soon.) Most evident in those big gatherings are housekeeping issues pertaining to officer elections, dues structures and suchlike, and a parade of resolutions that place the organization on record for and against various things.
The N.E.A. has a habit of adopting resolutions that have little to do with K-12 education and much to do with contemporary politics, nearly always with a leftward bias. This year, for example, delegates came out foursquare against a national missile defense shield. Sometimes, though, they tiptoe into education reforms where it's too embarrassing-hence against their self-interest-to stonewall. Considering the popularity of "performance pay" for teachers, it was awkward for the N.E.A. last year when convention delegates unexpectedly rejected a leadership proposal to accept some very limited experiments with alternatives to uniform pay scales. (Uniformity, please note, may itself work against the self-interest of some union members, such as math and science teachers who could earn a lot more in other lines of work but whose public school pay is identical to that of their colleagues in social studies, art and home ec.) This year, the delegates went along, meaning that the N.E.A. is now on record as open to some pallid forms of non-uniform pay-so long as they're collectively bargained and not tied in any way to student achievement.
This year's prize for throwing sand in the education reform gears goes to the resolution supporting (federal and state) legislation to let parents opt their kids out of tests. Attached was a promise to oppose mandatory federal testing requirements, such as those contained in President Bush's "no child left behind" proposal and the pending E.S.E.A. reauthorization. Parents, it seems, should be in the driver's seat on testing. The spin was easy: "If you want to know how your child is doing, you don't wait seven months to get the results of a standardized test," said the California math teacher who sponsored this resolution. "You ask your kid's teacher."
But the N.E.A. still doesn't want parents driving any other education vehicles. Keep your eye on the bouncing self-interest. If enough parents opt their kids out of state tests, those tests won't be valid and their results can't be used for high-stakes accountability for schools or school employees. The teachers' self-interest is served. If enough parents were to opt their youngsters out of public schools, however, that self-interest would be compromised. So no vouchers. (And no charter schools except under the most severely cramped circumstances.)
One other interesting tidbit to emerge from the N.E.A. convention, thanks to the indefatigable Mike Antonucci, editor of the Education Intelligence Report. (If you don't get it and would like to, e-mail him at [email protected].) This was the results of the N.E.A.'s post-election poll of its members. From it we learn that 34 percent of N.E.A. members voted for Bush/Cheney; that 31 percent describe themselves as political "moderates" and 30 percent as "conservative." And just 38 percent regard vouchers as an issue on which it's "important" for the N.E.A. to "speak out." A striking 39 percent said vouchers are "not at all important." But don't expect that to alter the self-interest calculation anytime soon.
"What Teachers Really Think," The Wall Street Journal, July 6, 2001
"NEA Members Denounce High-Stakes Testing," by Jeff Archer and Julie Blair, Education Week, July 11, 2001