Q&A: Bob Chase, President, National Education Association

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Shortly after Bob Chase was elected president of the National Education Association in 1996, he outlined his ideas for what he called “a new unionism.” His plan, which stressed collaboration and improving the quality of America’s schools through reform, was aimed in part at combating the decades-old stereotypes many still hold about teachers’ unions: stubborn, obstructionist and concerned only about the narrow interests of their members.

Since taking office, Mr. Chase, a former middle school social studies teacher, has argued for better pay and working conditions for the NEA’s 2.6 million members while trying to find a place for the union in the school reform movement. The affiliates of the largest teachers’ union in the country are now experimenting with ideas that were considered unthinkable only a few years ago, such as linking teacher pay to student performance.

Mr. Chase was in Dallas recently for a speech and spoke with Dallas Morning News staff writer Joshua Benton. Following are excerpts:

Q: All across the country, schools are facing a teacher shortage. Texas schools started this year with 30,000 teaching vacancies. What can schools do to bring more teachers into the profession?

A: I think the focus should be on the qualified people who, for whatever reason, have left teaching. If you look at the data, there are more than enough people who have been certified to teach to fill every classroom in the country. The problem is retaining people in the profession.

There are a few basic reasons why retention is a problem. One, people entering the profession get little or no help as first-year teachers. There’s no mentoring for many of them. Someone who’s a new teacher is expected to come in on day one and do the same thing someone who’s been a teacher for 15 or 20 years does, and is expected to do it as well, with little or no assistance. That is not a good way to build a profession.

The second thing is a question of salary. There’s no doubt about the fact that teacher’s salaries are too low and are not keeping people in the profession or attracting people. The opportunities that lie elsewhere for them are numerous. Folks have to support themselves and their families.

The third thing is making sure that the teachers are allowed to exercise professional judgment. They have to be empowered to be part of the decision-making processes in schools, so it’s not a situation where someone goes to school to be a teacher and their job is just being told what to do all the time, rather than being part of the decision-making process.

Q: Recently, the Texas State Board of Education voted down a plan to create a new type of teacher’s permit that would have made it easier for people without a teaching background or knowledge of a specific subject area to become a public school teacher. The idea was to solve the teacher shortage by encouraging people in other careers to switch to teaching without having to go through years of training. Will it take bringing in these “nontraditional” teachers
to fill all the vacancies?

A: No, I think you can do it by bringing back the teachers who have left teaching. As for the plan you just referenced, thank God they turned it down. Here we are looking for quality, for better results in our schools, and they’re saying, “Bring anyone in”? Let people teach in subject areas they haven’t been educated in?

To be a good teacher, there are two very basic components: one, you have to know your subject area, and secondly, you have to know how to teach it. It’s the “what” and the “how.” To say you don’t have to learn how to teach, and you don’t have to know the subject matter is to me rather ludicrous. It makes no sense. And data shows us that people who come in through that sort of path are the very people who leave teaching in a short period of time.

Q: What percentage of teachers stick it out over time?

A: If you look at the data, in urban areas, 50 percent of those who begin teaching this year will leave the profession within five years. In rural and suburban areas, it’s between 20 and 30 percent.

Q: Dallas has a new superintendent, Mike Moses. Looking at urban districts that have turned things around, what advice would you give him?

A: Be collaborative. Involve stakeholders in education, and that means the unions, parents, the business community. Reach out to those people who have a stake in quality education and work together.

I think it’s important to be strong. I think it’s important to have a real good handle on what’s going on in the district, so you can try to replicate that which is working well. But don’t try to do it by yourself. Do it in collaboration with those who are involved in education in the community.

Q: Teachers in Cincinnati and elsewhere have approved contracts that tie their pay to their performance in the classroom, judged by their students’ test scores and other factors. That’s a change from the traditional model based more on seniority. Do you see more districts adopting a model based on performance? Could it be one way to keep young teachers involved in the profession?

A: There are more and more districts looking at this, flirting with it. There are lots of different programs out there. In Columbus, Ohio, there’s a program of “gains sharing,” where the staff in a school establishes three goals each year, at least two of them academic. They establish ways to measure how they’re doing. And if they achieve their goals, then everyone in the school receives additional salary at the end of the school year. So there are all kinds of examples that are out there. I think they’re worth looking at.

I just think we have to be cautious. There can’t be just one determining factor in deciding someone’s pay. It’s a very complex issue, and it needs to be approached in a reasoned, sensible way.

Q: One of the focuses of the “new unionism” you’ve talked about is putting an emphasis on quality education and getting beyond the negative stereotypes that have existed about unions and teachers’ unions in particular. Do you think that tying a teacher’s salaries to his or her performance would help get beyond those stereotypes?

A: I don’t know the answer to that. I think it’s important to keep in mind that whatever system a district looks at, it must go in total collaboration with the unions. It won’t work if it’s something imposed on people. And it must be incredibly well thought-out. If not, the morale problems it could create would drive a lot of people away. It must be done very cautiously.

Q: You’ve spoken out in favor of school reform. But you oppose the punitive character of a high-stakes testing system, in which students have to pass a test to get a diploma. Is there any way a state could design a high-stakes testing system that would make sense to you?

A: I don’t know. I don’t know of any other situation where just one single element is used to determine someone’s future. I mean, if you look at almost any profession, there are multiple components to measuring success. And I think that we need to keep that in mind when we talk about education. Testing can be a snapshot of one student on one day, not of a student’s entire career or of an entire school.

There are an enormous number of variables involved. For example, there are some schools in this country where the turnover rate among students exceeds 60 percent. If you’re measuring how well that school is doing, what are you measuring? If 60 percent of the students are different at the end of the school year than at the beginning of the school year?

I happen to think that testing and assessments are very important. They’re a crucial component in determining the success of a program or a school. But they cannot be the only component.

How many students are taking difficult courses? What’s the dropout rate? What’s the attendance rate? How many teachers do you have who are not certified or who are teaching out of their field? What kind of resources are available? How much of the money spent by the district is actually getting down to the classroom?

Testing is extraordinarily important, but it cannot be seen as the only instrument to measure school quality.

Q: So you don’t like a situation such as we have here, where a student’s graduation hinges on passing the TAAS exam?

A: It can be a determining factor, but it can’t be the only one. And if you speak with most people in the testing business, even they’ll tell you you can’t use a single test as the determinant.

Q: The state of education in Texas was an issue in the presidential campaign. Now that the election is over, how would you compare Texas to other states?

A: I think some of the criticisms levied in the campaign are legitimate. If you talk about the high dropout rate, the numbers for minority students are terrible. That’s just fact. That’s not political rhetoric. The numbers are there. You have in Texas one of the highest incidents of uncertified teachers teaching – that’s a fact. You have improvement on the TAAS test, but you haven’t seen improvement on other standardized tests – that’s a fact. And people need to take a good look to see what that means.

I speak to a lot of teachers in Texas. They’re teachers who right now are depressed, who are disillusioned because of all the emphasis on the TAAS test. It’s just growing. People feel they are being forced to teach to a test instead of teaching to educate. That’s a problem that needs to be addressed. If the system is so driven by one test, you need to really give serious consideration to whether or not that’s the way things should be.