When the National Education Association held its membership conference over Independence Day weekend, it made headlines for endorsing Barack Obama early; for a speech Joe Biden gave about keeping the union-supporting "family" in tact; and adapting a teacher evaluation policy that would -- barring a few caveats -- take into account student performance on standardized tests.
But another shift appears to have been lost in the shuffle: the NEA changed the language of its resolution on teacher pay. Before the conference, Resolution F-10 began with a sentence saying that the NEA "is opposed to the use of merit pay or performance pay compensation systems." The new version of the resolution, which passed with no floor debate, begins by saying that "The National Education Association believes that the single salary schedule is the most transparent and equitable system for compensating education employees."
The question of how teachers are and should be paid lies at the heart of a broader debate about education and the role unions play in setting classroom labor policies. While merit pay can be defined in a variety of ways, it most commonly refers to paying teachers based on performance instead of the number of years spent in the classroom. The Department of Education under Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee has been a vocal proponent of performance-based pay. Arguments for merit pay stress that teachers would perform better with financial incentives. Unions are often painted as anathema to educational change.
While the NEA's new language does not endorse merit pay, it no longer eschews it.
NEA President Dennis Van Roekel maintained that the shift was merely a linguistic one. "Before it started with what we were opposed to. We believed the resolution statement should be stated in the positive and not the negative," Van Roekel told The Huffington Post. He added it does not represent a change in policy, he said.
That said, the NEA does not outright oppose all performance pay compensation systems -- the terminology used by the first version of the resolution. Van Roekel said the NEA supports pay systems that have a "professional level" starting pay, that "the movement through the pay system should be based on things that you can measure" and that "there ought to be enhancements for things that make a difference."
Altering compensation systems, he said, is key because "we lose 47 percent of all teachers in their first five years. We have a real retention problem."
Where, exactly, does the NEA stand? "We're opposed to merit pay based on subjective measures. We're opposed to performance-based pay based on test scores," Van Roekel said. But, he added, "We are not opposed to performance-based pay methods that are bargained on the local level that are not based on subjective measures."
Mike Antonucci, a blogger who calls himself a watchdog of teachers' unions, first noted the shift on his blog. "I do think that it's an acknowledgement that performance pay is no longer a fringe issue that they can just oppose," Antonucci told HuffPost. "That parallels what they do with their teacher evaluation issue."
"I think we are taking a real step forward," Van Roekel said. "We want to be part of a discussion about evaluations."
The shift on merit pay, according to Richard Lee Colvin, executive director of Education Sector, recognizes the reality that several NEA affiliates are already operating under such systems. "This is neutral language that allows them to state what they're for instead of what they're against," he said. "In that sense, it's a positive step. Getting the NEA to say what they're in favor of takes them out of the realm of just blocking any kind of reform."
While the linguistic shift probably won't cause a sea change in the union's day-to-day functioning, Colvin said it has political significance. "They're not going to file the first missile anymore, but it doesn't mean that they're not opposed," he said.
Just this week, the issue tore into union relations in Ogden, Utah, where the school district refuses to negotiate contracts with teachers with plans to base salary on performance.
The new merit pay language mirrors the evaluation policy: both seem to align the union with education reform efforts more than ever before, but come with major caveats. In the case of evaluations, the union affirmed that for the first time it would support calculating students' test scores on standardized tests as part of teacher reviews -- but not with any tests currently in existence.
Still, Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children's Zone and a prominent face of the education reform movement, lauded the measures. "When people start hearing there are other options out there, the unions have to get in front of this need to change and quit being the ones that say 'no, no, no' all the time and join this movement to transform American education," Canada told HuffPost. "This is long overdue. There is absolutely no reason the absolute worst teacher in New York City should get the same salary increase and rewards as the very best teacher in the whole city."
"Teachers' unions are under tremendous pressure," Colvin said. "They're trying to maintain relevance and influence. They're in a tough spot and I think, while this precise move might not be that significant, it shows a general increasing awareness that their public positions of hostility to a lot of the current reform ideas are hurting them more than helping them."