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Reinventing the Largest Teachers' Union

It has often been said that changing the National Education Association is like turning around a large battleship, but that has not stopped Dennis Van Roekel, the current president, from working to forge a consensus around changed policy among his constituents. In the face of declining membership, Democratic reformers who push an agenda that teachers find hard to embrace, and Republican governors who have gone after NEA affiliates with a vengeance, NEA has reached a point of change or perish. Well, that may be a little dramatic. Let's say this instead: NEA must reinvent its mission and vision to align with a world class education for all American students or become irrelevant.

As I listened to Van Roekel deliver his "State of the Union" address to almost 8,000 delegates last week in hot and steamy Washington, DC, I was heartened by his challenge to over 3 million members to take responsibility for their professions. Whether that profession is being a teacher, school nurse, or education support professional, he said that one should care about preparation, support, evaluation, and, most important of all, student success. In these days of technology and access to data, NEA can be more of a player in quality assurance for those who work in our schools.

I would challenge NEA to take the first step that demonstrates their commitment to a quality workforce. That step is very simple. NEA should accept as full members only individuals who meet the same high standards that the organization espouses for employment in the schools. Teachers and education support professionals with poor preparation, documented unethical practices, or poor evaluations should not be eligible for full membership. Of course, appeals should be available for unusual circumstances, for example, recalcitrant administrators.

There is no better time to raise membership standards than in these poor economic times when supply is greater than demand. Would you want to belong to an organization that accepts only good employees or one that accepts all, including poor performers? Talk amongst yourselves.

There is no doubt in my mind that the public will embrace and appreciate the largest union using quality as a filter for their work and decisions. The public wants the union to fight for evaluation systems like those in Montgomery County, Maryland, and Columbus, Ohio. In those districts, a "Peer Assistance and Review" program focuses on developing and maintaining high-performing employees through rigorous standards and evaluations, high quality professional development, and labor-management decision-making to dismiss those who do not measure up. It may be a little more expensive, but it is the most effective system for assuring a quality teacher in every classroom.

I hope that Democratic reformers and Republican Governors will take this opportunity to reach out to NEA and offer to work collaboratively. I hope non-members who meet high standards of the profession will say to NEA, "I want to join an organization that puts quality and students first." Reinventing yourself is not easy, and it requires support from unlikely partners. Our public schools are worth our setting aside biases. Our public schools are worth the effort required to turn around the battleship.

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