Professional Learning

An Opportunity for the NEA to Redefine the Teaching Profession

35 year labor consultant Patrick Dolan is optimistic about the largest teachers’ union’s recent policy statement

June 30, 2011

Patrick Dolan has been a labor consultant for 35 years and is also the president of Dolan Group. Today, June 30, the National Education Association (NEA) is meeting in Chicago to engage in an open discussion of the policy statement presented in this post. They are scheduled to vote on it sometime between July 1 and July 3 at the convention.


It hasn't been an exactly pleasant year for the public sector unions, especially those representing public school teachers.  In Ohio, Florida, and (perhaps you've heard) Wisconsin, the attacks have been far from subtle.  But summer is in the air, so maybe it was time for Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the NEA, to take a risk and cannonball right into the deep end of his organization's policy.

In May this year, after more than three years of polarizing exchanges from all corners of the educational policy world, the NEA finally weighed in. And though their voice was long overdue, there were some pleasant surprises from the often-silent giant of educational unions.

Back Story: The Evolution of the Union Frame 

In 2009, a study by Tim Daly of The New Teacher Project [The Widget Effect] documented in a popular and understandable voice what everyone close to public education knew:  There was no evaluation process for teachers after the first 3-4 years.  This set the course for a problematic reality where, not only was this basic process lacking for our more experienced teachers but as a result, it was almost impossible to act in any meaningful way on those who were not close to delivering in classrooms.

The frame, then, that carried the day and set the debate was, "teacher unions defend poor teachers no matter what."  Federal policy followed rapidly with the Race To the Top requirements for competing states that led with mandatory teacher evaluation connected to student performance.  All this was to be stirred with instant collaboration by unions and educational administration at state and local levels.  Then came the more frontal attacks as the new batch of governors and state legislators took office.

Leadership from the NEA Behemoth  

The NEA is a huge and very political organization, driven by a yearly convention and myriad resolutions enacted there set its policy directions. (Its sister union, the American Federation of Teachers or AFT, is far more nimble by structure and history.)

The national leadership of the NEA began the defense in Wisconsin and other states with troops and resources as one would expect. Yet, on the fundamental issues of improving teacher quality, accountability, and evaluation, it was strangely silent.  Would the NEA be willing to take a leadership position? The question was not what the NEA stood against. Instead, it was how could it build a strong coalition internally, and work directly with the chief state school officer, state board of education as well as legislative committees?

Fortunately, strong organizations have a way of developing the kind of leadership they require.  A former middle school math teacher out of one of the least union-friendly states, Arizona, Van Roekel has spent years building bridges, listening, and leading at every level of the 3.2 million member NEA. 

The Time is Now

This is a deciding moment for the national teachers unions, and not to be in the middle of this fight is to lose it. 

The conditions are good for this move. Earlier this spring in Illinois, the two major unions, the IEA and the IFT  (joined to some extent by the Chicago Teachers union) worked together to fashion an historic agreement with the legislature in Illinois to completely reform teacher evaluation and to give it precedence over seniority, among other things. So there is a model that Van Roekel can cite as he moves the discussion to the national stage.

The new NEA policy proposal changes the debate and should be read carefully for the new frame.  It begins with accountability, and there is language about the nature and design of teacher evaluation -- including student data. That in itself is a significant bridge to cross, and took some courage since it runs counter to some of the recent resolutions of the convention.  

But then it gets even more interesting, starting with the use of the phrase, "the true profession of teaching."

I read the rest of the statement as a deliberate attempt to change the language surrounding the role of teacher as it has evolved to this point. There is language about student performance, not as a threat, but as data that continues "to enhance our own practice."  This profession until very recently has not practiced in public, driven by data.  Here is union language about continual growth, "earned tenure," ongoing feedback and a time for collaborative reflection together. 

The deep contradiction in teaching is that it was organized with an industrial model with language about hours on task, work rules, and classifications.  And even if teachers left the school at 3:15pm like a factory job, everyone knew they went home to hours of preparation, reading of papers, and, for the best of them, knowing the literature and the changing practice. With this model, they've used the unions to bargain to keep the exact pay for classification and time on the job -- all in the name of fairness.

Yet even the so-called professional athlete, also unionized, is paid for different level of skill and results.

The Opportunity to Reframe the Profession of Teaching

This is the time to define this thing called teaching as a true profession, with a professional day in which personal discretion and the work determine the parameters; skill is recognized and compensated at various levels; and there is time and reflection built in so that that entire culture is one of constant improvement.   

Even as this debate started punitively, with threats and accusations, there is a chance for real leadership to understand the possibility of the moment and to act with courage -- a courage that will urge others to do the same at the state and local level.  Lots of individuals can mandate, or demand, or attack. But the only one who can help move the culture is a trusted leader who can communicate a new vision and empower the profession to take itself forward. 

There won't be a time like this again. And as strange as it seems -- in a moment of some of the most negative attacks -- now seems the time to step powerfully and positively forward. 

The educational world will be watching the NEA in the next few days to see if the professionals have the courage to take control of their own future.  Van Roekel and his committee's leadership have shown the way. The NEA ought to take responsibility to make certain that every child has access to a teacher of high quality.  Teaching might yet become a true practicing profession. 

The unions must lead the way on teacher evaluation. Everybody in.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Professional Learning
  • Education Trends

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.