NEA drifts left, loses clout

The National Education Association can’t dictate to Barack Obama, writes Richard Whitmire on Politico. The presumptive Democratic nominee skipped the NEA convention to visit Montana; when he spoke via satellite, he endorsed charter schools and performance pay. “The first drew cold silence; the latter, lusty boos,” writes Whitmire.

Times change. First, the NEA declined to endorse during the primary, and Obama won without it. More importantly, Obama and his advisers may be concluding that the leftward drift of the NEA has pushed it closer to political irrelevancy. Giving the cold shoulder to charter schools? Even four years ago you could get away with that, but high-performing charter schools in cities such as New York are giving meaning to the words “equal opportunity” for poor and minority students.

And the lusty boos for performance pay? American parents are willing to pay far more for a quality education, but only if that education comes with high-quality math and science teachers attracted and retained by free market salaries.

The NEA is determined to destroy the accountability provisions of No Child Left Behind. Wrong side of history, says Whitmire.

Obama gave the NEA the “velvet snub,” writes Joe Williams.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. I agree with the first paragraph reprinted above, but I think the second paragraph is wrong, and the conclusion that the NEA is on the “wrong side of history” is ludicrous. The NEA is simply wrong – but they are wrong on the facts, not wrong because they are participating in some titanic struggle. The fact is that none of the countries with better education systems have a “free market salary” based teacher pay scheme, and the vast majority of them use “conventional” public schools.

    So much for history. But that’s not to say that the US should follow that model; for one thing, (many of)our public schools are clearly not working, and for another, public schools in many high-performing countries have a tracking system that would be unpalatable in the US.

    But although Whitmore is – quite generally – right about pay for performance. Americans pay a huge amount for schools, not just in taxes, but also in the expenses associated with buying a home and moving to a good school district (or in the expenses of private school tuition). And most Americans would be willing to pay more – but only if there is some guarantee that they will get more by paying more. This is rational behavior.

    It’s not even that the NEA’s objections to *certain* pay-for-performance schemes are wrong, since the performance being discussed is the performance of the students, and that is influenced by a lot of factors outside the control of the teachers. The problem is that the NEA is acting in bad faith by not contemplating or proposing *any* reasonable pay for performance scheme.

    FWIW, it’s clearly wrong to claim that the NEA has drifted to the left. The NEA has not moved an inch and would be pleased to keep things as they were 40 years ago (but with more pay, perhaps). What has happened is that mainstream views on education have drifted to the right (charter schools, accountability) while the NEA has not moved. (I’m not sure whether direct instruction is a right wing or left wing idea – on the one hand, it seems like a RW idea because it limits the creativity of the teacher and the child’s ability to unfold like a delicate flower (or whatever…). On the other hand, mandatory, extremely detailed, highly centralized lesson plans strike me as something from the left).

    But it’s too easy to get hung up on labels anyway. What I want, and what everyone should want, are systems that do a better job of educating our kids.

  2. Margo/Mom says:

    I have commented elsewhere on this suggestion that the NEA has drifted left. Like Peter, I hold that there has been no drift–they remain right where they have been.

    What I would hold has changed is the surrounding environment–and not so much a public drift to the right–in which there is an enhanced access to comparative data–by which to judge the success of schools, of districts, of state school systems and our own American system in comparison to others globally. At the same time, where Americans, as a comparatively well-resourced country, have long accepted their role as world leaders in all indicators of citizen well-being (education, health, etc); other countries have been gaining or, or surpassing the US. The NEA is a labor union. Their primary mission is to ensure good working conditions and fair pay. This is appropriate. For many decades they have been able to couple these very legitimate concerns to public concern for the education of children.

    As greater challenges are posed to our belief in how well we are doing in that arena, it is less certain that support for teacher pay and working conditions is a natural, or the best, means of achieving good educational outcomes for the most citizens. The “left,” or more accurately the Democratic party, has long commitments to both of these concerns. How to respond to these individually–rather than attempting to feed children through feeding teachers (or the NEA) is cause for some rethinking of old ideas. The NEA may or may not be able continue as it always has. The Democratic party certainly needs to be able think about the education of children as a primary need.

  3. Mrs. Davis says:

    The NEA is a labor union. Their primary mission is to ensure good working conditions and fair pay.

    Nope. Their primary mission is to maximize union dues and power. If education of children could be improved by paying fewer teachers more, resulting in better education but lower dues, the NEA would oppose the change. The working conditions of American teachers are deplorable and their pay is below what is needed to attract and retain qualified incumbents. Both have gotten worse over the last 4 decades.

    This is appropriate.

    No, it’s not. Unions are run by gangs of thugs who impose their will through any type of coercion necessary to extort money. Unions ultimately destroy every industry they infect. And they are well down the road with the public schools. And I don’t want my children taught by thugs or people cowed by them who parrot a party line.

    For many decades they have been able to couple these very legitimate concerns to public concern for the education of children.

    For many years they have exploited the public’s concern for the education of children.

    As greater challenges are posed to our belief in how well we are doing in that arena,

    It’s not clear which arena is being discussed, but in any case, how well we are doing in any arena is a matter of fact, not belief.

    it is less certain that support for teacher pay and working conditions is a natural, or the best, means of achieving good educational outcomes for the most citizens.

    If you mean it is becoming clear to more and more people that the Democrat/NEA program will not result in improved education, we agree. However, I suspect that most people, like me, continue to believe improving teacher pay and working conditions would result in better education for their children.

    The “left,” or more accurately the Democratic party, has long commitments to both of these concerns.

    The Democrat (and Republican) party’s only interest is in getting elected. They will have commitments to these concerns only as long as they need to to get NEA money, NEA “volunteers”, and NEA votes. The Obamessiah is clearly saying he doesn’t need to make commitments to their concerns because they have no alternative to voting for him. So they’re likely to join grandma and Jerry Wright under the bus.

    How to respond to these individually–rather than attempting to feed children through feeding teachers (or the NEA) is cause for some rethinking of old ideas.

    Huh? But I’m always iun favor of thinking.

    The NEA may or may not be able continue as it always has.

    The NEA has not always been the way it is. Before the mid 1960s it was an educational association that was concerned about education. But in the mid 1960s teachers got the right to strike and the NEA quickly degenerated into a union. The publiceducation you see today is the result.

    The Democratic party certainly needs to be able think about the education of children as a primary need.

    Why? It gets the NEA money and volunteers and votes.

  4. Frank Zavisca says:

    I am almost beginning to like Obama.

  5. “The fact is that none of the countries with better education systems have a “free market salary” based teacher pay scheme, and the vast majority of them use “conventional” public schools.

    Peter –

    One thing you may want to consider is that these countries, mainly European, have much less dynamic economies overall. They tend to be very stable and given a certain set of qualifications, one’s earning potential is generally level across a range of professions. In the US, this is not the case. A given set of qualifications can produce a wide variety of pay across economic sectors, and education tends toward the bottom of this for new entrants into the economy.

    The NEA has contributed to this by fighting for pay plans that most benefit its senior members. Long-time teachers get a much better shake out of a longevity + sheepskins = salary pay model than do new teachers. Long-time teachers are also long-time NEA members.

    Now, given that one of the primary problems with education is the hiring and retention of qualified new teachers, the NEA’s influence should diminish so long as they stay devoted to a pay model that ignores the problem.

    The NEA doing exactly what a union does, fights for labor conditions that are most favored by their most influential members. So long as they’re dealt with as an organization that does this and has no interest in education in general, I’ve got no problem.

  6. BadaBing says:

    Dear Mrs. Smith:

    You have an uncanny and mordant way of cutting through bullcrap like a buzzsaw thrugh brain matter. Thanks for injecting a heap of moral clarity into the discussion.

  7. Stacy in NJ says:

    Yep. I’m definatley a Mrs. Davis fan. I hope there are no dues required to join your fan club.

  8. David Cohen says:

    I find it misleading and counterproductive to talk about teacher unions as evil, greedy, corrupted, monolithic entities. The union is made up of teachers and the local effects of union activity vary quite a bit.

    NEA and CTA are not categorically against performance pay, if you look at their publications, position statements, and the fact that certain state and local unions have negotiated performance pay systems. If they stand firmly against performance pay where performance is defined entirely by test scores, then I stand with them 100%. More successful and robust performance pay systems will not rely on test scores alone, if at all. (And before someone starts crying about accountability, spare me. Anyone actually involved in schools should be able to come up with ten better assessments of student learning and teacher effectiveness. For individual students and teachers, state test scores are the wrong kind of accountability for so many reasons – but that’s another discussion. I’ll accept that those test scores have somewhat greater usefulness in providing some useful data for schools, districts, or states).

    Back to unions, there was a recent program on KQED-TV (San Francisco) in which one superintendent passed up the opportunity to union bash and said that whenever supes or school boards whine about union power, he replies, “you signed that contract too.” I think the issue is that boards have had little enough to offer teachers over the years, so in negotiations, unable to offer adequate pay, professional development, or quality working conditions, districts have had to concede on job security. So, when the union holds the districts to the terms of the contracts, they’re doing their job. If districts don’t like those contracts, they need to come up with something that will entice members to make concessions.

    When districts come up with those incentives, and when the incentives are sensible ones that actually improve learning and teaching, I think you’ll see that even more local unions will innovate, giving the lie to the idea that NEA or CTA stand against innovation and can’t simultaneously support teachers and advance education.

    But where’s the money? Denver made performance pay happen with a special $25 million tax initiative passed by voters. In California, I worry about finding the support in the legislature or among voters. We’ve created a failing system, and the teachers on the front line of that system are the public face of those shortcomings, and end up taking the blame. As a state, we don’t invest enough in teacher preparation, induction, or ongoing professional development. We don’t invest enough in school support – e.g., our counsellor to student ratio is 90% below the national average – and for a state like this, we need more than the average. So we throw lots of teachers into untenable situations, provide insufficient support, lose half of them in the first few years, and blame teachers as a profession for the results. Will California ever wise up and invest properly in its own future?

  9. Mrs. Davis for President!!

  10. “Will California ever wise up and invest properly in its own future?”

    Depends, is $55 billion spent on 6 million students enough? Is $9,166 expended per child enough? Is $164,988 per 18-child classroom enough?

    If not, why not?

  11. > If not, why not?

    Because “sufficient funding” is an oxymoron in public education. Dig up references to the Kansas City Missouri School District (KCMSD) and see how much money can be spent with essentially nothing to show for it.

    David Cohen wrote:

    > I find it misleading and counterproductive to talk about teacher unions as evil, greedy, corrupted, monolithic entities.

    And I find the setting up of strawman arguments to be misleading and counterproductive but it’s not a universally shared sentiment.

    > NEA and CTA are not categorically against performance pay…

    I’m sorry but the NEA and CTA are not only categorically opposed to performance pay unions, all unions, are inherently opposed to performance pay.

    They may proffer a scheme that’s labeled “performance pay” but even cursory examination reveals that the “performance” being measured is subjective and the performance measurements lead to a job situation which is in no way different from the current, performance-indifferent situation.

    > More successful and robust performance pay systems will not rely on test scores alone, if at all.

    Maybe in union utopia but here on Earth performance pay will be doled out as a result of how much learning goes on which, it should be noted, is the purpose of the public education system. At least that’s what the prospectus says. So those “more successful and robust performance pay systems” will rely almost exclusively on test scores since a properly-designed test has some claim to objectivity and credibility.

    > I think the issue is that boards have had little enough to offer teachers over the years, so in negotiations, unable to offer adequate pay, professional development, or quality working conditions, districts have had to concede on job security.

    Pray tell, what would “adequate pay” consist of? I’ve heard endless complaints on the subject but never a figure or a means of deriving a figure. It might lead some cynical types to conclude that “adequate” consists of, in the words of Walter Reuther, “more”.

    And just what is this “professional development”?

    You’ve already indicated that performance pay is simply wrong so what’s going to be developed and how would anyone determine if the development occurred? Should we just take on faith that *something* of professional value has been developed? Sort of an honor system since any enhancement to professional performance shouldn’t be measured if it can be measured. You know, those “test scores alone”?

    Should we explore into “quality working conditions” or is that a sufficiently vague term to qualify as a catch-all for anything else that’s worth a demand? Sort of a union “Tenth Amendment” in reverse.

    But let’s get back to the Sudden Saint’s tele-speech to the NEA convention.

    The message couldn’t have been clearer if it were on the crawler under Obama on the screen: you need me more then I need you.

    The underlying message may not have been as clear but it ought to be by now: things have changed and they’re going to change a lot more. Charters aren’t going away and the NEA won’t be able to hold the line against their expansion much longer. Somewhere, sometime soon, a state legislature is going to take the limits off of charters and the Barack Obama isn’t interested in helping you stop the changes.

  12. Margo/Mom says:

    David:

    I suspect that you and I have some points of agreement. Unions serve a purpose, the protection, or increased bargaining position of a group of workers. I think the problem we get into is when folks start to confuse them with advocates for good public education–which may or may not be a parallel result of their efforts.

    But something else you said caught my eye: “Anyone actually involved in schools should be able to come up with ten better assessments of student learning and teacher effectiveness.” I wonder if you could name two or three. In the past accountability has been based on such things as coming to work, handing in grades on time–generally following the rules, etc. Standardized tests–which are not a real good indicator at the individual teacher level, do provide some valid and reliable information within the realm of knowledge and skills–especially at the macro level (building, district, state).

    But I hear repeatedly about using other indicators that are in some ways better. I have some small knowledge of performance based assessment, or the Nebraska experiment in accountability based on teacher-made tests. But I cannot envision either of these–which are both labor intensive–being greeted with open arms, by the NEA or anyone who works in a classroom. Grades are notoriously meaningless in any comparative or predictive capacity, or as a gauge of student learning. What are some of these better indicators?

  13. David Cohen says:

    Margo –

    I appreciate the reply, and as I typed that line about “ten better indicators” I wondered if it would be necessary to list them…

    Okay, for starters, anything the test claims to assess can be better assessed in multiple attempts, multiple modes, over the long term.

    On a given day in late May, students spend, if we’re lucky, 5-10 minutes answering questions that fall into various subcategories of Language Arts. This test means nothing to them, and although most of them will give it a decent effort, they’re honestly looking forward to listening to their iPod, taking a nap, reading a book, etc.

    Don’t you suppose that over the course of a year, we could come up with more meaningful and reliable measures than are accomplished in those uninspired ten minutes in late May? Do you know what high schools are like in late May?

    And if I’m right about that subtest, can we just multiply by X number of subtests?

    Then, deeper understanding… I’m a high school English teacher, so I’ll talk from that perspective. My students can read a paragraph and choose the main idea from a multiple choice item. Can they come up with a main idea if they are not given choices? Can they distinguish among topic, main idea, theme, and summary – and if so, do they know when its appropriate to discuss each? Can they summon a combination of personal experience and academic readings that would provide a meaningful context in which to evaluate a new text? Can they critique a given text? Can they demonstrate their understanding of the text through satire? Parody? Can they articulate when and why different genres of writing might be used? Do they understand the value has been or should be attached to literature in a society?

    We can teach for that kind of deeper understanding, and we can assess it. As you point out, there are potential flaws or drawbacks – lack of reliable assessment, subjectivity, etc. The solution is to invest what it takes to improve the use of those more meaningful assessments. However, to assume that standardized tests provide anything more meaningful or valuable on the classroom level is wishful thinking. Research that I’ve read/heard about consistently cautions against relying on standardized test results – especially in sub-tests – to make educational decisions regarding individual students. Use those tests as one of multiple measures of whole schools, districts, or states. But getting back to the topic of the thread, if anyone proposes judging all of my work according to a flawed measure that the kids don’t care about, administered in a very short time period in the worst time of the year, I will fight tooth and nail against that sham, and thank my lucky stars for a union that will back me up.

    (By the way, I’m not even worried for myself. My school and students do fine on STAR tests and pull off top API scores. And the joke of it is, in my school, students excel on those standardized tests even when the questions touch upon language arts standards that we’ve neglected. How is that a reliable measure? The questions don’t really assess what they intend to assess, and with my students only half way invested in the process, I’ll still look like a good teacher by that measure).

  14. Ragnarok says:

    Quincy asked:

    “If not, why not?”

    It’s easier to ask for more money if you’re failing, so I don’t see any reason to do otherwise.

    At least when there’s a bottomless source of funding.

  15. Ragnarok and Allen –

    That’s my point. Those who call for more funding never give a number, and when confronted with numbers, like those above, they answer that more still is needed.

    You guys get it. Those who constantly bleat for more without looking at the waste and corruption in the system don’t.

  16. Ragnarok says:

    The public schools are rolling in money. How much do they get per pupil? Not the $9,000 that’s often quoted – it was $11,935 for 2007-08, not counting tax breaks, parcel taxes etc.

    And of course public schools don’t have to pay for capital expenses, they merely float a bond issue. I’d say that gives them quite an advantage over private schools.

    Of course my numbers could be wrong – but then again, perhaps not:

    http://www.lao.ca.gov/analysis_2008/education/ed_anl08006.aspx

    I’d say there’s a very strong argument for immediately taking the excess over $9,000 and returning it to the taxpayers.

  17. Quincy wrote:

    > Those who call for more funding never give a number

    And why would they when “more” serves their purposes?

    But let’s not stray too far afield.

    Obviously, the NEA has lost significant clout over the years as evidenced by overwhelming bi-partisan support for NCLB in its passage and the failure to get any legislative relief through one presidential and several legislative elections.

    Part of the reason for that is the dilution of their political focus due to the embracing of every half-baked leftist cause that comes down the pike.

    Much of the rest is due to their relentless focus on the necessarily self-serving nature of any union but which hurts teacher’s unions more then others. You can wrap yourself in concern for the future of the children or you can go on strike for higher pay but doing the latter undercuts the former which, given some time, undercuts the latter.

  18. Walter E. Wallis says:

    There is nothing wrong with the NEA that the revocation of their right to compel union membership will not correct.

  19. Richard Aubrey says:

    I once looked at the NEA’s national meeting business. Some of the stuff they were for was lefty but only vaguely, if at all, connected with education.
    I presume a kid can’t learn if, someplace, a spotted owl is hungry.

  20. Margo/Mom says:

    David:

    I appreciate the response. But I cannot say much about the political viability of more frequent testing. In my district the union is up in arms about the quarterly district wide testing, which was initially instituted to provide the kind of information that you are talking about, at least with regard to the increased specificity. Nor have I seen any great willingness to embrace increased short answer, constructed response or essay type questions on state (or other)tests. There is a real resistence to see testing as part of the job of teaching if it comes from outside the individual classroom

  21. David Cohen says:

    Margo –

    Only some of the assessment I’m talking about would be in the form of tests. This is a big part of the problem in this discussion (not just on JJ’s blog) – assessment is not synonymous with test. That’s a big reason why teachers mistrust others trying to dictate solutions – they show a lack of understanding about what we do and how we do it. The public may also mistrust teachers – some of them may deserve it, but overall, I think it’s because we’re the public face of a struggling system. That’s sort of like blaming your postal carrier if the postal system is struggling, or blaming the pilots for the airlines’ problems. (Insert someone’s “blame the union!” rant here – see my July 12 response above).

    If effective assessment is not politically viable, that’s a symptom of how we’ve conflated the notion of assessment with standardized tests.

    Allen – I didn’t say performance pay is just wrong. Far from it. I’m in favor of the idea if it’s done properly, and a single multiple choice test is not an adequate measure of performance. (In my case, because most of my students can ace those tests the day they step into my classroom – would you give me a big bonus for that?). And if all unions are categorically against anything called performance pay, how do you explain the unions that have negotiated for performance pay systems? There aren’t many, but they’re out there and the trend is growing. Are you a teacher? Union member? Where does your absolute certainty come from?

    To those who say “more money” is not the answer, we could talk about shifting priorities, reducing administrative overhead, etc. But on the classroom level, the answer, in part, is more money for the following:

    1. more hours per week to allow teachers common planning time – proven over and over again by multiple studies around the world to improve achievement in the classroom.

    2. improved professional development – I’m not talking about bringing in outside consultants to do a Powerpoint and leave. Ongoing professional development that is driven by local needs, informed by local data, implemented by teachers. We’re talking about the costs of materials, conferences, up-to-date technology, etc. (Allen – if you don’t know what “professional development” means, I don’t have time to offer you that kind of remediation). Most training and coaching is aimed at new teachers. In what other profession do they stop there? All the M.D.s in my family get additional training on a regular basis. I noticed that major league baseball teams employ strength and conditioning coaches, hitting coaches and pitching coaches. Why? Aren’t those folks at the top supposed to know how to do it all by now? Even seasoned professionals benefit from ongoing training and coaching. Costs? Providing the staff to do that coaching – not outside experts with little or no classroom experience, but teachers with appropriate training and increased responsibilities.

    3. Counsellors – we have one of the neediest and most complex student populations in the nation. Our counsellor:students ratio in California is 90% below the national average, while our needs are far above average.

    That’s just a quick three off the top of my head. If we can find a way to pay all those personnel costs by streamlining overhead and eliminating waste, great! But I doubt there’s enough “fat” there to trim to accomplish these changes.

  22. The question wasn’t whether you’re OK with performance pay but whether unions are and they aren’t.

    Yes, you’ll find a locals here and there that are willing to explore the concept, provided it doesn’t worry too many members. But the nature of unions disposes them to oppose the discrimination of employees on the basis of performance. After all, it’s not last years MVP that needs the union but the journeyman bat-swinger.

    The hot-shot’s value is obvious enough that they’re in charge in a salary negotiation. It’s the average players that needs to aggregate their individual clout to force a deal that they couldn’t get individually. They’re interchangeable and thus have little leverage in salary negotiations. They need the union.

    Conversely, the union is undermined by differentiating teachers on the basis of skill so unions are opposed to doing so. Like I wrote above, there are always exceptions but they run counter to the best interests of the union so you won’t see the idea avidly seized upon by locals all over the nation. In fact, the mediocre teachers, threatened by performance pay, will work continuously to undermine any performance pay scheme that is implemented.

    > I noticed that major league baseball teams employ strength and conditioning coaches, hitting coaches and pitching coaches.

    Har! You sure you want to go there?

    What I noticed is that major league and even Little League baseball teams keep pretty extensive and detailed records of performance and when they employ hitting and pitching coaches its because the cost of employing them is offset by the improvements in performance, the *measured* improvements in performance, that result. Since measuring the performance of teachers by test results is wrong and counterproductive, according to you, just how is it to be determined that professional development is worth the expense?

    > If we can find a way to pay all those personnel costs by streamlining overhead and eliminating waste, great!

    Oh, I’ve got a peachy way to streamline overhead and eliminate waste: get rid of district administrations.

    Charters get along quite well without district administrations and there’s even one charter that’s taken the idea of vaporizing excess administration to its logical conclusion – the grandiosely named Equity Project school, AKA the $125,000 per teacher school. That great enough for you?

  23. Ragnarok says:

    Hmm, I’d sure like to hear how much money David Cohen thinks would be sufficient. ~$12,000 + tax breaks + parcel taxes + free buildings + lifetime tenure + low entrance requirements not enough?

    Most of the stuff about performance pay reminds me of St. Augustine’s plea:

    “Oh Lord, give me chastity, but don’t give it yet.”

    David Cohen asks:

    “Are you a teacher? Union member? Where does your absolute certainty come from? “

    When I take my car to a mechanic, I don’t have to understand how it works; but if he can’t fix it, I won’t use him again. I pay the piper, and the choice is mine. But in the public school system, I pay the piper, but I have no choice!

  24. David –

    Please explain how, using Ragnarok’s number of $11,935 per child for CA, $214,830 per classroom of 18 kids is not enough to provide adequate instruction and support for that classroom. In an environment of minimal waste, or even the average amount of waste for a large corporation, would this amount not be enough to do all the things you’ve said and more?

  25. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Perhaps that portion of dues that goes to politicians should not be deductible as a business expense. That would be about 80%, I believe.

  26. Ragnarok says:

    What, no takers? It’s always at this point that the lively give-and-take dies!

  27. Take a number Rags. I’m still waiting for a response to the $125,000 per teacher school.

    Yo David! How’s 125 grand sound? Think you could teach your ass off for bucks like that? Think you’ve got the chops to elbow your way into company like that?

Trackbacks

  1. […] See the original post: NEA drifts left, loses clout […]