02/21/2013 07:59 am ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

A Tale of Two N_As

When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg likened his city's teachers union to the National Rifle Association on his radio show last month, the backlash was swift and rife with indignation. Michael Mulgrew, president of New York's United Federation of Teachers, and Randi Weingarten, president of the UFT's parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, quickly condemned the mayor's comments, while both highlighted their particularly insensitive timing in the immediate wake of the Sandy Hook shooting.

Yet while the mayor's remark was obviously ill-advised, his comparison wasn't that far off the mark--though not for the reasons he made it. Mr. Bloomberg drew the connection between the union and the NRA based on the discrepancy between the attitudes of each organization's membership and the rhetoric of its leadership. But as the mayor himself observed, this is a garden variety inconsistency: "It's typical of Congress, it's typical of unions, it's typical of companies, I guess, where a small group is really carrying the ball and the others aren't necessarily in agreement." So while there's truth to it, it's far from the most instructive similarity between the teachers unions--the UFT, the AFT, and the National Education Association--and the NRA.

The NEA and the NRA have far more in common just an N and an A: they are both entrenched in misguided, reactionary positions.

Please do not mistake this point as an equivocation of their respective positions. As the saying goes, "Teachers don't kill people. Guns kill people." Rather, I mean it to be taken as an admonition about the teachers unions' current contribution to the national conversation about education reform.

Like the NRA, the teachers unions light a teaspoon of policy proposals into a forest fire of controversy. Sensible, even popular, ideas like universal background checks for gun purchasers, an assault weapons ban, and limits on magazine capacities are twisted into a war on the Second Amendment, a war that the NRA seems like it might actually want to fight. With real guns. Against the U.S. military. Good luck with that.

Similarly, reasonable reforms like tying teacher evaluations to student achievement, allowing schools to dismiss ineffective educators, and sanctioning alternative certification programs are warped into a coordinated effort to fault teachers for all of the failures of our education system. Earlier this year, one of the features in the winter edition of NEA Today Magazine was an interview of Kevin Kumashiro entitled "Stop Blaming Teachers", in which Mr. Kumashiro accuses the leadership of the "so-called 'education reform' movement" of scapegoating teachers in order to hide the actual problems endemic to our education system.

But if there is truly an epidemic of teacher bashing in this country, I don't hear it. Just as I don't see Tyrant Obama marching the marines through Main Street to confiscate everyone's rifles. Do some folks blame teachers? Of course they do. But we're not talking about an Ebola outbreak. Asking questions about teacher performance and its impact on our kids does not equate to a crusade against teachers. It's merely recognition that some teachers are a part of the actual problems endemic to our education system.

Andy Rotherham argues that this asymmetry between reality and rhetoric is "intellectual McCarthyism" propagated by union leaders in order to stifle debate. After all, no one wants to be seen as being against teachers.

While I think that's true, I would go a step farther: I believe that a zeitgeist of victimization has consumed a significant portion of the teaching force, a martyr complex that's deployed as an effective but unfortunate shield. Are teachers victims? In many ways, yes--poor working conditions, unsatisfactory pay, etc. But ruminating on being a victim is the least productive way to respond to it.

And this is where the NEA and the AFT should step in to be proactive agents of change for their memberships. Instead of allowing their constituents to wallow in self woe while lending those sentiments a megaphone, these unions should be engaging in a dialogue to reimagine the teaching profession for the 21st Century. They should be asking questions about how to get Millennials like me to make a career in the classroom, or proposing alternatives if we won't. They should be driving the efforts to redesign pedagogy around data, focusing on ways to use numbers to target interventions for the students instead of using them to direct pink slips to teachers. And they should stop trying to protect a paradigm that's dying fast.

Teachers unions will never be as evil as the NRA. But if they find the comparison so offensive, then they need abandon their reactionary positions and push their profession forward. Otherwise, they risk increasing irrelevance, which would be a shame. The NRA, not the NEA, deserves to find itself in the dustbin of history.