Thursday, June 5, 2014

The NEA Wants To Organize You

Over at EdWeek Seven Sawchuk writes about NEA's new push to reverse a steady decline in membership. It's about time.

Membership is down a reported 230,000 teachers over the last three years. And that's before you even start counting the "reluctant" members. As far as I know, NEA doesn't keep track of this (and is probably happier not knowing), but not every NEA member actually wants to be an NEA member An unscientific poll of People I Know reveals that two reasons for reluctant membership are 1) in the current crazy-ass education world, I want to have some liability insurance and 2) if I've got to pay that damn Fair Share, I might as well kick in a few more bucks and have a vote. These are not the motivations that promote active passionate membership.

Sawchuk reports that the NEA is trying to shift some of its focuses. It has become mostly a service organization--IOW, an organization that provides certain services to its members. Leadership is looking to create a more activist organization. The article also suggests that the NEA has made some tactical errors, failing, for instance, to be out in front of the teacher evaluation issues.

There are practical problems. In many locals, the EA is "that group that is always spending our dues money defending those two idiots who want to grieve every damn stupid thing in the world." That is not a group anybody wants to join.

The most hopeful aspect of the article is a veiled acknowledgment that the NEA has a culture problem. Which would be a good thing to acknowledge, because the NEA has a huge culture problem.

I've written about this before when I compared today's NEA to yesterday's GOP. Specifically, I wrote "Today's NEA is not your father's NEA. It's more like your grandfather's NEA." Technologically backward, the NEA has become a huge corporate entity that is no more connected to actual classroom teachers than are the faceless bureaucrats who make teachers live miserable. The headquarters of NEA are no closer to my classroom that the headquarters of Pearson.

Trust in national leadership is low. When reformsters and the USDOE stepped up to say, "Teachers in American public ed are failing, our schools are failing, and the whole system needs an overhaul like CCSS," our leaders did not stand up for us. They bellied up to the government-corporate bar and said, "You are correct, sir. Our teachers are a sorry lot and desperately need your guidance."

I will never, ever forgive Dennis van Roekel for responding to complaints about Common Core with, "Well, then what do you want to do instead," as if the failure of American teachers, NEA teachers, was a known fact, a true thing not even open to discussion. Shame on him, and shame on NEA leadership, for completely deserting its members at the beginning of one of the most difficult and demoralizing assaults on public education in America's history.

But NEA has culture problems that go beyond our current issues or the present administration. It is a culture of micro-management, a culture of back-room stage managed decision making, where nothing ever comes up to a vote that hasn't been sorted out and planned through ahead of time, and the outcome of officer elections is never in doubt even before the first vote is cast.

When NEA says that we must all work together, that unity must be our watchword, that invariably means, "We'll tell you what to do and we expect you to fall in line."

This translates to a serious recruiting problem. "We want to hear your voice. We want you to come and share your input," the sales pitch begins. But once the new recruits come to meetings, the other shoe drops: "Well, not really. Just take a seat over there and listen."

If a new recruit makes it past that stage, we send him off to conferences and rallies, to wine and dine and party and most of all make best buddies with the leadership so that he's inclined to trust and follow his new BFFs.

If the NEA really wants to reach out to new recruits, it has to accept that the organization with those new recruits in it may take on a shape or tenor that the old leadership can neither anticipate nor control. Until then the NEA will still be your aged aunt saying that she would really like you to come over and visit, but please don't sit on the furniture or touch any woodwork.

Sawchuk describes a move to transform NEA into a force for positive change in education. That would be a great change, but that means changing the whole face of NEA and making a conscious effort to NOT do stupid things like acting as fronts for destructive "reforms" like the mess that comes stapled to CCSS.

As the last few years have unfolded, I think we've all had some version of the conversation where teachers wax wistful. If only there were a way for teachers to band together, to push for positive change, to stand up against corporate privateer profiteer baloney like Common Core. If only we could create a nationwide group of teachers who stood up for the profession, who were a mighty force for making public education better, to fight back this assault. It should tell NEA leaders something that this conversation never makes people think of the NEA as anything other than an organization that should be doing these things-- and isn't.

Actually, the NEA shouldn't be trying to figure out how to get people to join the ranks. It should be trying to figure out how it can get itself to join the battle (already in progress) on the right side.


  1. The NEA has failed miserably, and I cannot begin to count the number of dollars I've paid into that organization for decades. That being said, my state's teachers union just voted in an anti-CC President. Here's to HOPE and real activism.

  2. "If only we could create a nationwide group of teachers who stood up for the profession, who were a mighty force for making public education better, to fight back this assault."