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NEA's Shifting Position

It was inevitable that the 3.2 million-member National Education Association would agree to allow student standardized test scores to constitute a part of teacher evaluations. I say that not only because the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers had already said the same thing but also because it is a reasonable requirement.

The headlines portray the concession as a radical change. Yet it is in line with the overall consensus among educators that multiple measures are the fairest way of measuring teacher effectiveness. Nevertheless, I have two reservations: the weight given to standardized test scores and the nature of the tests themselves. Some states will count the results as much as 40 percent. That's far too high. And most standardized tests are instructionally insensitive, as W. James Popham, professor emeritus at UCLA and an expert on assessment, has written. That means the tests for the most part are impervious to effective instruction. Moreover, those that are sensitive often measure only the most trifling curricular outcomes.

These two caveats notwithstanding, I hasten to point out that if teachers unions want the support of taxpayers, they have to shed their hidebound image and embrace justifiable change. I'm not advocating relinquishing the rights they won over the decades. On the contrary, I still remember vividly the strikes I participated in during the 28 years I taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The first one in Apr. 1970 lasted 4 1/2 weeks and tested my resolve.

There's yet another factor at play in understanding the NEA's decision. Teachers themselves no longer constitute a monolith. There is a distinct and growing generation split between new and veteran teachers. That's not surprising because younger teachers take for granted the rights that older teachers fought for. NEA, for example, has lost more than 30,000 members this year alone. It would be interesting to see a breakdown of the data by age, location etc.

Most of all, though, NEA realizes that a misreading of taxpayers' changing views about teachers unions puts their future in jeopardy. The Great Recession has created a different attitude from the one taxpayers held even a decade ago. That has emboldened the legislatures in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Arizona and other states to curtail bargaining rights. I hope they don't succeed. But in light of economic conditions in the country, I find it hard to be hopeful.

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