A seismic shift occurred last week that has not received the attention it deserves.
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, voted to allow standardized test scores to be included as a part of the evaluation of the teachers it represents. This, from a union that has consistently opposed anything resembling meaningful education reform.
Historically, the NEA has viewed the teacher—school district relationship as if it fit in the industrial model of labor relations (i.e. its members were all the same and only seniority and courses taken distinguished one from another). There was no acknowledgment that some teachers are better and deserve recognition and that education reform need not be a zero sum game.
In The New Republic, Kevin Carey has outlined the radical change that the NEA’s recent vote represents especially given its decades’ long battle opposing rational teacher evaluation. As Carey explains, the contradictory nature of its position became untenable,
Teachers’ unions were caught in a contradiction. They needed to make a strong general case for the importance of teachers—otherwise, why hire more of them to reduce class sizes? Why increase their pay? At the same time, they needed to deny the variable importance of individual teachers—otherwise, why shouldn’t the best get paid more money? Why should the worst be allowed to teach at all? Once those doors opened, the whole system of unity through uniformity would be at risk.
Raw political power worked for a while. When the Bloomberg administration proposed using test scores to decide whether New York City teachers should get lifetime job security, the union ran to the state legislature and made the plan illegal. When California Democrat George Miller—as stalwart a defender of organized labor as one can find in the United States Congress—proposed new federal policies aimed at tying teacher pay to performance, he was chastised in a public hearing by Reg Weaver, then the president of the NEA.
But in the long run, the NEA couldn’t keep fighting on every front. Journalist Steven Brill published a long, influential New Yorker article about the New York City teachers’ union’s role in keeping alcoholics, incompetents, and malcontents on the public payroll (as did NPR and The New Republic’s Seyward Darby, among others). In Los Angeles, the local union opposed an ACLU lawsuit aimed at ending the school district’s practice of laying off teachers based on seniority instead of performance. When an ostensibly liberal group finds itself alienating NPR listeners, New Yorker readers, and ACLU donors, it is in a lonely place indeed.
Facing the incoherence of its position, the NEA has joined the rational and just adopted a policy that they acknowledge:
outlines a system to help teachers improve instruction and meet students’ needs. It offers sweeping changes to build a true profession of teaching that is focused on high expectations….. it supports the use of standardized tests if they are of proven high quality and provide meaningful measures of student learning and growth.”
As The New Republic noted, “the era of unity through uniformity is drawing to a close.” Amen.