NEA Highlights

The 2011 NEA gathering  was a tense representative assembly, especially with so many states fighting so many battles for collective bargaining, against privatization, and ultimately for respect. Some delegations had coordinated voting campaigns for business items and resolutions, and others were literally fighting for their jobs.

Here is a quick rundown of the rest of the goings-on at the NEA.

The delegation vs. Teach for America: A delegate from Washington State promoted, supported, and passed a new business item denouncing TfA’s infiltration into districts without teacher shortages. A vast majority of the delegates in the hall agreed with the WA State contingent. Some key points brought up were TfA’s extra funding needed to support it, how less than 50% of TfA’s teachers remain in education after two years**, and the massive funding given to TfA by opponents of public education.

** This statistic put out by TfA has been scrutinized carefully and what was discovered is that “in education” includes those who went back to college for advanced degrees and those who went to teach at colleges and universities. When the stat was analyzed for how many TfA teachers remained teaching in public education, the only thing the researchers could say is that at least 13-15% remained.

A policy statement about teacher accountability: This series of statements was obviously a reaction to the attacks on education around the country and the strawman argument regarding the “bad teacher.” In truth, the language is vague enough to allow individual states to support it, and the key piece debated the most on the floor centered on the use of student growth as a part of evaluation. Plus, since no test meets the policy statement’s standard, this line seems somewhat safe for now:

“Unless such tests are shown to be developmentally appropriate, scientifically valid and reliable for the purpose of measuring both student learning and a teacher’s performance, such tests may not be used to support any employment action against a teacher and may be used only to provide non-evaluative formative feedback.”

The NEA does not recognize any current test as meeting this standard, but it does leave the door open for a future test.

In truth, this policy statement really just allows the NEA leadership to enter a debate on these topics while having language to support its positions.

An early endorsement for Obama: The delegation voted (72%-28%) to endorse President Obama early. My take on this was that this was more of a party vote rather than a vote for Obama. (Ryan at I Thought A Think commented on this too.) However, no one was really able to specify what the NEA and educators overall gained by endorsing Obama early. His education policies are often harmful to public education and his cabinet does little to support teachers.

The quote of the debate was from a woman from Ohio who, speaking against an early endorsement, said, “if you give up your virginity in the morning, there is likely not going to be a wedding in the evening.”

Vice President Joe Biden speaks: Biden provided what many may call a red meat speech to the NEA delegation. Biden quoted Dennis Van Roekel about how parents of means wanting everything for their kids while making decisions that deny other students opportunities for a well-rounded education. Then, he stated what I believe to be the heart of his speech:

This new Republican Party — and I emphasize — this new Republican Party has a different philosophy.  This is not your father’s Republican Party.  This is a different breed of cat.  They are decent people, but they have a fundamentally different view, a fundamentally different view than even the previous Republican Party had, let alone others.  I think the crux of this is, they really don’t believe in public education as we do.

Later in his speech, he discussed how the “new Republican Party” uses this different philosophy in all of their policy decisions and debates. He noted the consistency of the GOP’s positions in a lengthy series of statements (and a good use of repetition if you’re teaching speech):

Fundamentally, it’s a debate about the importance of community and the appropriate role of government.  So it should be no surprise that the same people who are pushing vouchers for schools are pushing vouchers for Medicare.  It should be no surprise, literally, it is intellectually and philosophically consistent.

It should be no surprise that the same people who want to amend the middle class tax cut of $10,000 tax credit to send your kid to college also want to lower taxes for the top 1 percent of the millionaires in America.  It is not inconsistent to them.

It should be no surprise that the same people who opposed our efforts to fund reconstruction of schools opposed our intention to build a major infrastructure investment in highways, bridges, and ports.  They don’t think it’s government’s business.

It should be no surprise that the same people are against aid to states which we put in the Recovery Act, allowing them to keep 300,000 of you educators employed last year.

It should be no surprise that they have had no problem giving aid to investment bankers on Wall Street who drove us into this dilemma.

Folks, we’ve got to wake up.

It should be no surprise that the same people who oppose funding community colleges so that they can retrain workers for specific companies in their communities, are for incentives for the same companies who want to ship jobs overseas.  It is consistent from their perspective.

It should be no surprise that those who oppose subsidizing after-school programs are for subsidizing oil companies to drill for oil when they made just, this last quarter, $25 billion in profits.

Ladies and gentlemen, to average people, to well-educated people, it seems like some of the things they are suggesting are totally out of the blue, but it is a consistent philosophy.

It should be no surprise that the folks who want to cut school lunch and nutrition programs are the same people who vote against extending unemployment insurance and food stamps for the jobless.  It is consistent.

It should be no surprise that the same people who want to slash funding from medical and scientific research at our great universities also want to slash funding for innovation in solar, in biomass fuels, in dealing with new technologies for wind, new investments in lithium ion batteries.  It’s consistent.

Overall, the speech was a good one but did feel a bit odd one day after the early endorsement of Obama. It felt a bit orchestrated by the NEA leadership. I agree with much of what Biden said, but I wish this type of speech was put forth to a national audience rather than just within the convention hall for an audience of teachers.

The teacher of the year: Maryland’s Michelle Shearer is this year’s 2011 NEA Teacher of the year, and she spoke about the need for educators to control the education debate and warned the delegation of corporate influence in education. She asked teachers to allow the “public into public education” by opening doors to visitors. She reminded the delegation that teachers inspire, not computers and computer programs. Shearer told teachers to never say, “I’m just a teacher.” She said to remove the “just.” She concluded by reminding the teachers that they make all other professions possible and that teachers do the work from which “all of society benefits.”

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