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The Future of the NEA in the Age of Performance

Stephen Sawchuck has a major article out today on the NEA's struggle to adapt to a changing world. He notes that the organization's membership has dropped by about 100,000 in the past two years, and is projected to drop another 200,000 by 2014. For an organization of over 3 million, this is a small percentage, but Sawchuck notes that it's a major sign of change.

The major impact: Reorganizing to focus more on politics. Given that NEA itself can't directly bargain with school districts, it makes sense that issue and candidate advocacy would be major channels for the national organization's action. Another major effort, Sawchuck notes, is bargaining support via UniServ councils.

This focus on politics makes sense given that teaching contracts are being increasingly determined by state legislation rather than local concerns, thanks in part to Race to the Top. However, it's also divisive, with many Republican teachers feeling less than thrilled that their dues are supporting an organization that backs candidates they won't vote for.

I'm no expert on collective bargaining or its history in the US, but I do think the identity of NEA as a traditional labor union is going to change dramatically over the next few years. As Sawchuck notes, the organization's leadership has already been speaking out more vocally about performance and professionalism issues over the past several years. They're smart to see the writing on the wall when it comes to issues like evaluation, tenure, and LIFO.

As I see it, NEA is in a bind when it comes to professionalization: the more successful it is in getting society to see teaching as a profession, the less it's needed, and the less sense it makes to be a traditional union. Most professions have various self-governing bodies and professional associations, but not unions. Few young professionals expect to join labor unions after completing college. Sawchuck doesn't explicitly give an explanation for the decline in membership, but I have to assume it's because fewer young teachers are interested in joining, at least areas where it's not mandatory.

NEA is unlikely to regain the clout it had in the 60s and 70s, but perhaps it can recapture the public imagination and take on a greater stewardship role within the profession.

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