Teachers and their unions are at the heart of a national debate over the future of American public education.
Because of widespread concerns over sluggish student achievement, parents, educators, and legislators are considering new options, including charter schools, private-school choice, and standards-based national testing.
Until recently, the nation's largest teachers union - the 2.3 million National Education Association (NEA) - opposed these steps. The No. 2 union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), opposed all but national standards.
Now, both unions are aiming to shape the reform issue, rather than continue to be cartooned by opponents as the prime obstacle to change.
NEA president Bob Chase is calling for "a new unionism," or a more cooperative relationship with local school districts, while Sandra Feldman, the AFT's new president, is putting her 950,000 members on record for higher, more consistent standards for student and teacher performance. For the first time, both unions are allowing teacher quality issues to be included in new contracts in the interest of removing poor teachers from the classroom.
Unions hope such initiatives will squelch charges that they care more for the welfare of teachers than students. They have long been under fire from Republicans as the No. 1 enemy of school reform.
In last year's presidential campaign, Republican candidate Bob Dole threw down the challenge: "To the teachers unions, I say, when I am president, I will disregard your political power.... I plan to enrich your vocabulary with those words you fear - school choice, competition, and opportunity scholarships.... I say this not to the teachers, but to their unions: If education were a war, you would be losing it."
Teachers unions responded in kind, and outspent all other unions in the 1996 election. Together, the NEA and the AFT spent $4.9 million - 98 percent to support Democrats, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.
"We would spend more on Republicans, but we don't find many that oppose private-school vouchers," says Chase. (President Clinton has threatened to veto any private-school-choice legislation.)
Republican analysts say that Mr. Dole's handling of this issue antagonized many teachers, and lost him votes in the presidential race. But for the NEA, that 15-second, live, prime-time assault on teachers unions was a defining moment.
While the Dole attack misfired, it showed that segments of the public viewed the NEA as a heavy-handed special-interest group that blocked reform, according to a report prepared for the NEA by The Kamber Group. The report urged that the NEA shift to a crisis mode of operations and take the lead in educational reform discussions. The new message: better teachers, better students, better-working schools.
Chase of the NEA had already reached the same conclusion before reading the report, his spokesman says. His "new unionism" closely followed the Kamber recommendations. The new model would be collaborative, rather than confrontational.
In recent speeches, his own criticism of past union tactics rivaled Dole's, including the admission that there were bad teachers who should be helped to improve or encouraged to leave the profession.
"The fact is, in city after city across this country, public-school systems are grossly mismanaged and are abjectly failing in their education mission," he told the annual conference of the National Urban League on Aug. 5. "Teachers unions, by and large, have not done enough to protest these failures. We do a great job protecting our members from these dysfunctional school systems. But we can and must do more to protect children who are the real victims...."
While the union still strongly opposes private-school choice, it has withdrawn opposition to standards-based national testing and endorses a limited form of charter schools. It is also agreeing to significant changes that affect teacher status and performance.
Exhibit A in the NEA's new approach is a contract negotiated in Seattle last month by the Seattle Education Association and the local school board. In this contract, teachers agree to waive seniority rights in hiring and to use student achievement in teacher evaluations. In exchange, teachers are given a greater voice in hiring new teachers, as well as budget and academic issues.
Seattle also launched a peer review system, whereby mentor teachers counsel newcomers and veteran teachers who are having problems in the classroom. Poor teachers who do not improve under this program can be counseled to leave the profession.
Such innovations answer the charge that unions put the interest of teachers ahead of the welfare of students, NEA officials say. "We would be foolhardy not to want to change," Chase said during a visit to Seattle Oct. 2.
Chase and NEA staff concede that peer review has been a hard sell with some NEA locals. Of some 13,250 NEA affiliates, only a few dozen have tried some form of peer review, and others have "fiercely resisted" it. But national leaders insist that the "right to a quality public education" is a basic civil right.
The AFT has been well out in front of the NEA leadership in talking about national standards; like the NEA, it opposes vouchers. (Merger talks are ongoing between the NEA and AFT.) Some AFT locals began developing peer review in the mid-1980s, says AFT spokesman Jamie Horwitz.
According to the AFT model, one teacher can recommend another for counseling, and the union guarantees the latter job protection for a year. "In most large school districts, with a new superintendent every two years, most teachers are afraid to be subject to peer review without union protection," he adds.
Ms. Feldman of the AFT launched a campaign last month to end "social promotion" of students, or the practice of sending them on to the next grade even though they aren't ready. In a speech last month to the National Press Club, she criticized states for vague promotion policies.
In the majority of districts, there are no rigorous standards for promotion that are clear to parents, students, and teachers. Final authority for decisions rests with the principal, which can leave teachers who strictly grade with little support.
"We must place well-educated, well-trained teachers in every classroom, but especially in the classrooms of our neediest and most vulnerable children," where teacher preparation has been "woefully inadequate" she concludes.
Feldman, like NEA's Chase, strongly opposes school-choice vouchers. "Parents and the public want, first and foremost, for their public school to be fixed," she says.
New quality-based standards are finding their way into union contracts. After high-profile clashes with Republican Gov. Arne Carlson over vouchers and school choice, Minnesota teachers signed a breakthrough "lighthouse contract" that includes quality issues and standards, says Minnesota AFT president Sandra Peterson.
"If teachers aren't doing the job, we need ways of assessing that. Everybody is searching for what works, especially with immigrant students. We now have 70 languages spoken in Minnesota schools," she says.
Too soon to judge
Longtime critics of teacher unions caution that it's too early to say if the "new unionism" will take hold with a significant number of local affiliates.
"The new unionism is a modest movement in the direction of the 20th century," says Chester Finn Jr., senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
"The Kamber report showed the trouble the NEA had gotten itself into. They didn't want to become marginalized and will do some things to reform. However, as I go around the country, the state affiliates of the two unions are still the largest enemy of serious reform in one state legislature after another," he adds.
But for Robin Richter, a third-grade teacher from Billings, Mont., and teacher of the year finalist, the move toward higher standards in teaching - and a higher appreciation for teachers - is already well under way.
"For years, all teachers heard was, 'Why Johnny Can't Read' and that teachers were lousy. We're becoming more of a profession, with higher standards and better preparation. Teacher positions are harder to get. The days are gone when Uncle Fred can get you hired," she says.