Nipping Away at NJEA

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So bigger fleas have little fleas
Upon their backs to bite ’em
And little fleas have lesser fleas
And so, ad infinitum

Megan McArdle quotes this doggerel (sometimes attributed to Jonathan Swift) to describe the boycott of the Wisconsin Education Association by the National Staff Organization, which represents educational union employees. The boycott came about because WEA laid off half its staff since there’s not that much left to bargain for in Wisconsin and not much justification to withhold a lot of dues from members’ paychecks.

The Wisconsin situation puts a different spin on NJEA’s suit to overturn the Christie/Sweeney/Oliver pension and benefits reform package. After all, NJEA collects about $731 per year from each of its 200,000 members, and much of that value comes from representing bargaining units during contract negotiations. Once you shelve any latitude on health benefits (which the Legislative package does) and factor in a district’s 2% cap on budget increases, NJEA’s renowned power is considerably diminished.

Jeez. No wonder they’re suing. NJEA staff members are being legislated out of relevancy. To put it another way, the value that NJEA’s central office adds to members’ compensation is diminished. The correlation between dues paid and NJEA reps’ skill at the negotiating table will drop off. NJEA now adds less value.

You knew we’d get to VAM’s, right?

The Asbury Park Press ran a piece yesterday on different education reforms proposed by Gov. Christie, including implementing tougher high school proficiency exams, trimming the obese accountability rubric known as QSAC, and addressing our seemingly intractable achievement gap between rich and poor students. Another reform on the table is differentiating teachers: creating value-added models that attempt to separate our great instructors from our mediocre ones.

The superintendent from Marlboro, felicitously named David Abbott, had this to say about evaluating teachers based on student longitudinal growth:

“Teachers are more concerned about relationships than about achieving more than one another,” Abbott said. “When I give awards to teachers, they don’t even put them up, because they don’t want to outshine one another.”

It’s the paradox of union culture: while representatives of teachers (in this case, NJEA’s central office) are encouraged to speak loudly, carry a big stick, and issue belligerent press releases, many of the people they represent “don’t want to outshine one another,” even if that shining can lead to information about how to increase student achievement. As VAM’s evolve, as we become more adept at distinguishing instructional expertise, the culture of teacher unions will have to evolve as well.

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  • kallikak, September 14, 2011 @ 8:09 pm Reply

    “NJEA staff members are being legislated out of relevancy.”

    I'd argue just the opposite: as the Governor and legislature intrude into previously negotiable precincts, the impact of the NJEA staff relative to maximizing the value of what's left on the table is even more crucial.

  • Bill, September 15, 2011 @ 2:16 pm Reply

    Why do you use the word “shining” as if it is a synonym for sharing or collaboration? You certainly know that the correct interpretation in this context is bragging. Maybe in the culture of politics, bragging is viewed positively. Maybe your political perspective accounts for your unwillingness to understand the culture of teachers. Maybe it's just your antipathy that renders you unable to view the culture in any positive light.

    Humility is not an indicator of mediocrity.

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