It’s time for the two major teachers unions to return to their roots as professional associations.
By Arthur E. Wise and Michael D. Usdan
Changes in teachers’ roles and in teachers’ work necessarily affect their organizations, notably the NEA and the AFT. For its first 100 years, the NEA, founded as a professional association, supported its members in their roles as solo practitioners in their individual classrooms. Beginning in the 1960s, the AFT emerged as a labor union focused on collective bargaining with management; the NEA quickly followed suit, and the two unions competed to organize America’s teachers in a framework that posited teachers as individual laborers. The views of teachers as either solo practitioners or individual laborers have clearly outlived any utility they may have had. In the 21st century, teachers want to be professionals with influence over and accountability for their practice. Meanwhile, labor unions and collective bargaining, in general, and the teachers’ organizations as labor unions are in decline. What is the proper organization of teachers for the 21st century, and how can their organization (s) support 21st-century teachers and teaching?
Consider some developments that are challenging the established order of teaching, teachers, and their organizations. Each alone may seem to be a minor change, relatively easily incorporated into the existing order. Taken together, they signal the beginning of a possible transformation of teaching, teachers, and their organizations.
Peer assistance and review. This innovation in teacher evaluation, designed and operated jointly by teachers and administrators, by labor and management, addresses the problem of extremely low-performing teachers. First, assistance is provided to low-performing teachers; if that assistance fails to help the teacher improve, then the teacher is dismissed, and the decision is final and uncontested. While PAR is not widely or sufficiently employed, it nonetheless establishes the principle that some teachers can judge their peers and that the line between ‘labor’ and ‘management’ can be breached, a dramatic departure from past understandings and practices.
National Board certification. Established in 1987, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has awarded certification to over 100,000 accomplished teachers. While board certification provides recognition to a small fraction of the teaching force, it more profoundly establishes two principles not formerly associated with teachers and teaching. First, National Board certification recognizes that some teachers are ‘accomplished’ and others less so or not yet. Second, such certification defines and measures accomplished teaching. Before these developments, it was widely accepted that all teachers were equal or at least to be treated equally; now there is an official basis for differentiation in treatment. Moreover, contradicting another widely held belief, excellence in teaching is not so idiosyncratic that it cannot be measured.
Teacher leadership in policy and practice. While teacher leadership is not yet the norm, the idea is gaining currency as more and more teachers wish to exercise leadership without leaving the classroom. The impetus for teacher leadership has given rise to such organizations as the Center for Teaching Quality which offers a platform for teacher leaders to share ideas and which magnifies the voice of teachers in policy and practice decisions. Indeed, the title of this paper is adapted from CTQ’s tagline — Teachers Transforming Teaching. The idea that teachers can lead — can influence policy and practice — without leaving the classroom is relatively new and contradicts longstanding practice in schools.
Teacher community collaboration. Both the NEA and the AFT, interestingly through their respective foundations, the NEA Foundation and the Albert Shanker Institute, are supporting new collaborations with the communities they serve. Each has reached the conclusion that teachers and their organizations cannot reach all students without new forms of collaboration. The NEA Foundation is funding specific initiatives that require collaboration among unions, districts, and communities. The AFT has recognized that collective bargaining can be more effective if the union engages parents and communities and focuses on serving students better. Past norms have meant that the unions and the schools have tended to operate independently of the broader community and that all communication between teachers and their communities must be mediated by administrators. The direct connection between teachers and their communities restores a relationship that predates collective bargaining.
Charter schools and teacher-led schools. Many charter schools are created by teachers who have found traditional public schools too limiting. Some charter schools are actually led by teachers. The schools vary in organization and management. At their core, though, teachers are in charge of policy, resource, personnel, and curriculum decisions. These schools give teachers substantial control over their work, a development valued by both professional and nonprofessional workers. Having some control over one’s work is especially strong among younger teachers. The result is more satisfied teachers who are able to teach a rich and varied curriculum and who tend to remain in teaching. Traditional schools have contained teachers in the classroom and generally prevented teachers from participating in decisions affecting their practice.
Test-based management. The over-regulation of teaching through mandated, multiple choice, standardized testing is meeting growing resistance among teachers and now parents. Clearly policy makers have not had uniform confidence in the quality of teachers and teaching — although those same policy makers don’t seem to recognize that they have contributed to this result through the lax enforcement of teacher education, licensing, and oversight. The reality is that schools today are staffed by a mix of properly prepared and fully qualified teachers, accomplished teachers, underprepared or unprepared beginners, and underperformers. While the testing regimen is aimed at low-performing students and teachers, the unfortunate effect has been to limit the range and depth of the curriculum for all students. Since most teachers actually want to teach important content, they’re becoming vocal about the limitations that keep them from engaging in appropriate professional practice.
Incipient professionalization. In recent decades, the teaching profession and its supporters have sought to adopt the quality control measures employed by the established professions. The established professions have negotiated with state legislatures over time to gain the power to regulate the quality of those who want to enter the profession and oversight of those in the profession. The resulting state boards have worked with national professional bodies to use accreditation, licensing, certification, and their revocation to create and maintain professional standards. The consequence has been general public confidence in such varied professionals as lawyers, doctors, psychologists, and physical therapists. The accreditation of teacher preparation programs began in the 1950s but only recently has accreditation started to affect the majority of institutions preparing teachers. The systematic testing of teachers began in the 1940s but only in recent years has that testing become comprehensive. The advanced certification of teachers began in the 1990s but that has reached just 100,000 teachers. The spread of professional quality control has reached new heights but such quality control is still far from universal. Perhaps state legislatures will soon see the potential of using proven professional quality control measures and investing teacher standards boards with powers similar to those of other state boards.
So what then is the proper organization of teachers today? We began with the decline in collective bargaining for teachers. We considered a breach in the labor-management divide, the official differentiation of teachers, the growth in teacher leadership, the growing direct connection between teachers and their communities, the emergence of teacher-led schools, the call for appropriate professional practice, and the emergence of professional quality assurance. Since the NEA and AFT may be limited in collective bargaining, they must find other avenues to advance the educational values they espouse and the needs of their members. They can clearly lobby state legislatures to achieve the goals they have pursued through collective bargaining. They also can emphasize the professional component of their missions. They can return to their roots as professional associations and advocate for conditions that allow for appropriate professional practice. In so doing, they will find that they must advocate for professional quality assurance to ensure that all students are taught by teachers who can actually teach.