August 23, 2009

NEA's comments: righteousness over responsibility to members?

I'm an NEA member, through my membership in the United Faculty of Florida. I'm a skeptic and critic of high-stakes accountability. Wrote a book and a few articles on the topic. And I am astounded at the NEA's comments on the Race to the Top draft regulations. (Hat tip.)

It is one thing to submit a righteous objection to the entire program if you are an individual with no responsibilities but to your conscience and your personal judgment of posterity. It is an entirely different thing when you represent several million teachers and you submit a document that for all intents and purposes appears to have an internal audience inside the NEA. That's nice, in the worst sense of the word "nice," because NEA staff had a responsibility to protect and advance their members' interests, not indulge any of our fantasies. To put it bluntly, on what planet would this regulatory comment have any effect on the final regs?

Let me be clear on my perspective as an NEA member and as an observer of political processes: There are lots of reasonable individual passages within the document, but you don't submit a manifesto when you comment on regs as an organization. You don't submit a manifesto that covers up any potential for effectiveness with what amounts to political poison. And you don't submit a manifesto that undermines your credibility. 

Two examples will have to suffice, because there's only so much I can wince at publicly: "we cannot support yet another layer of federal mandates" (from p. 2), or with regard to the creation of statewide longitudinal data systems, opposition to "[i]gnoring states' rights to enact their own laws and constitutions" (p. 24). The problem with these claims (and attendant tone of outrage) is that Race to the Top is not a mandate. Love it or hate it, it's something states must apply for. 

There were certainly alternatives available to the NEA, including the following choices:

  • Realpolitik: nudge the regs a bit to help state and local affiliates.
  • Legal: set up a legal challenge after final publication.
  • Abstinence: if you need to make a statement of conscience, declare that "we have serious doubts that this program will substantially help schools and will not participate in the regulatory comment process." 

I may be dead wrong about this, and there may be some uber-secret strategy behind this comment, but from where I sit at the end of the summer, it looks like one of my national affiliates' new president's first major move has been a bunch of wasted electrons.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on August 23, 2009 2:38 PM |