Washington — While not abandoning its longtime agenda of collective bargaining and improved working conditions for teachers, the National Education Association (NEA) adopted tougher teaching standards and a return to basic curricula last week at its annual convention. The nation's oldest and largest teachers union signaled that it was getting in step with and hoping to advance further, the school reform movement of the last two years. The shift in emphasis was heralded by school officials as a sea change of major import for American education. ``No longer is the NEA's first priority, `How can I get more benefits?' but `How can I improve the quality of teaching?' '' says Dr. Scott Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). ``It is enlightened self-interest,'' he says.
Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the 1.7 million-member NEA, says the shift was really one of emphasis, a careful response to what she considers a misrepresentation of the NEA as a union seeking to protect weak teachers. ``That's not what we want to do at all,'' she says.
Ms. Futrell urged her membership to confront the public's widespread doubts about the quality of teachers in the nation's classrooms. Elected in 1983, the highly popular NEA president ran unopposed for a second two-year term and was reelected by voice vote last week.
The shift also comes as a response to the perceived success of the 560,000-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in adapting to the popular lexicon of school reform highlighted over the last two years, says Denis Doyle, education policy analyst for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
Unlike the AFT, the NEA does not operate within a hierarchical structure that allows its president a free hand to essentially rule as a one-man show. In the spate of education-reform proposals over the last two years, AFT president Albert Shanker could announce a policy change by simply calling a news conference or giving a public speech.
The NEA's internal structure, where the president has a limited term and must rule by persuasion -- especially in dealing with highly independent state affiliates -- was widely seen as responding to pressures for reform far more slowly than its rival.
The NEA's positions on controversial ``non-education'' issues such as gay rights, abortion, a nuclear freeze, and cutting off aid to the ``contras'' fighting in Nicaragua were also kept to a minimum this year.
Ms. Futrell obtained endorsement of a ``positive'' statement in support of the concept of a national certification test for teachers at this year's convention. In her keynote address to the 7,500 teacher delegates, she called for support of ``a rigorous exam that all new teachers should be expected to complete. . . . My goal is simple: a competent and caring teacher in every classroom.''
Previously, the idea of such a test for teachers was anathema to the NEA. Now, testing is as important to the precertification process as other measures the NEA advocates, including a successful stint at practice teaching, a minimum C-plus college grade average, and continuous classroom observation and evaluation. If a prospective teacher candidate can't meet all of the criteria, that candidate should not be a teacher, says Ms. Futrell.
The NEA did not budge from its hard-line stance against testing veteran teachers. According to Gregory Anrig, president of the Educational Testing Service (designers of the SAT college-board exam), 32 states now test candidates before certification. Arkansas began testing veteran teachers this spring over the strong objections of the NEA state affiliate. Texas and Georgia also are developing tests for experienced teachers.
Working with ETS to devise a national test, the NEA would allow individual states to decide the cutoff score. However, ``To raise the standards, but not salaries, would be defeating the purpose,'' said Ms. Futrell. The average annual teacher salary is now $23,000, reflecting a 7 percent increase in the last year. The NEA calls for an immediate rise in starting salaries to $24,000 from their current $15,000 to $18,000 range.
Futrell also wants to increase the number of minority teachers. She warned that the nation is looking at a 50 percent decline in the number of minority teachers in the next five years.
Higher standards would preclude employment of some teachers, but ``by raising the standards, we will also attract new people into the profession,'' she says. Higher standards would demand that bias be removed in any new entry test.
A high percentage of minority teacher candidates in states such as Florida and California failed state tests, she said. ``We must give minority students a much more solid academic background than what we're giving them,'' she said. ``I resent people saying minorities can't pass the test.''
Dr. Thomson of NASSP points to an agreement between his organization and the NEA to work jointly on a policy handbook for teachers and principals that would outline the responsibilities of each as one sign of the changes expected.
The NEA also plans an annual deduction of $1 in dues from each of its members to establish a fund for dealing with the problem of school dropouts. Three months ago the NEA initiated a Mastery in Learning project, calling for an in-depth study of what makes for an excellent school at the local level. The program will first look at five, and then expand to 23 schools. More than 600 faculties volunteered for the project.
Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.