12/14/2011 12:18 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2012

The NEA's 'New Professionalism'

A year and a half ago, Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3.2-million-member National Education Association (NEA), asked an independent panel of highly accomplished teachers to create a bold, new vision for their profession and then recommend what the NEA should do to make that vision a reality.

Van Roekel got just what asked for and, in a way, he may regret he asked because the commission report that was released last Thursday appears to depart from union positions on seniority; tenure; performance pay; the use of student achievement as a factor in evaluations; and the role of teachers in evaluating, supporting, and dismissing their colleagues.

In the system laid out by the commission, teachers would enter the classroom as novices and, as their skills and accomplishments accumulated, they'd become professional teachers and eventually master teachers. Teachers' professional advancement through these steps and salary increases would not be determined by "time in service nor by graduate degrees," as is done now in most places, but rather, by demonstrating their effectiveness. Evaluations would be locally bargained and based on observations by peers and supervisors; "work products" such as lessons and unit plans; contributions to the profession; participation in study groups or action-research; surveys of colleagues, parents, and students; and, finally, student learning outcomes as "measured by classroom, school, district or state assessments." There's much more in the report, and it's worth reading the entire document.

Maddie Fennell, a 22-year elementary school teacher from Omaha who was Nebraska's 2007 Teacher of the Year, led the working group. At a release-event discussion in Washington, D.C., she said that the commission believes that tenure should no longer be necessary and teachers' "continued employment would be based on performance," with seniority the least important of the factors considered. This sounds like a renunciation of the concept of "last in, first out," but I may be interpreting her remarks too broadly.

In a prepared statement, Van Roekel said the commission report pushed the NEA to a "tipping point that will alter our course," and he said he would set "as the NEA's guiding star the advancement of a profession of teaching that centers on the success of our students." But the three-point action plan he offered is as cautious as the commission's report is brave, as incremental as the report's prescriptions would be transformative.

He called for raising the bar for entry into the profession by requiring all candidates to complete a costly, year-long residency and pass a rigorous performance assessment, which some states are beginning to do. It's impossible to say yet whether teachers who pass them are more likely to be effective or whether states will use them to replace the low-level content knowledge tests they now require. It is NEA's current policy to oppose "competency testing" as a "condition of employment."

Although residencies have merit, it's hard to imagine that teachers, whose take-home pay is falling because they are paying more for health and pension benefits, would support school districts diverting money for this purpose -- especially if the district is also RIF-ing their colleagues.

Van Roekel also endorsed the spread of Peer Assistance and Review Programs, in which teachers work with their colleagues to help them improve and, if they continue to perform poorly, participate in decisions that could lead to dismissal. The NEA had previously allowed such programs, which operate in a few cities around the country, but had advised locals that teachers should only provide their colleagues with assistance and not evaluate them or make recommendations regarding dismissals. Finally, Van Roekel said the NEA would "train 1,000 accomplished teachers to be voices for their profession on all levels of policymaking."

Critics who blame unions for all that ails American public education -- and would only be satisfied if the NEA were to fall on its sword -- may sneer at these moves. Some also will say that the NEA is only catching up to the rhetoric of the American Federation of Teachers and trying to stay relevant as states adopt evaluation, tenure, seniority, and collective bargaining policies that the union opposes.

But though these changes may seem modest, they may be all that Van Roekel's union is willing to accept right now, when many teachers feel they are being attacked by anti-union governors, losing ground economically, and struggling with larger class sizes. Van Roekel has been working to build internal support for this new direction since he became president about three years ago. He won a victory last summer when the union's governing body passed a narrowly drawn resolution that said, under certain circumstances, student achievement could be incorporated into evaluation systems. He will push his agenda forward by looking for allies among the union's largely autonomous state and local affiliates.

In the late 1990s, then-NEA President Bob Chase promoted a "new unionism" that allowed for more collaboration with management and support for union-led charter schools. But Chase got out ahead of others within the union, and his ideas were attacked and they quickly disappeared. Van Roekel, who is friends with Chase, said he learned a lesson from that. He will go forward as quickly as he can, but as slow as he needs to.