Seventeen years and a host of education reforms separate public declarations by its highest-ranking officials that the nation’s largest labor union should become a leader of education reform. Children who were just entering the public school system when National Education Association (NEA) president Bob Chase addressed the National Press Club in 1997 are adults now, perhaps with children of their own. NEA executive director John Stocks issued the same call to arms in 2014.
The notion was not a new one, even in 1997. In that same speech, Chase admitted he was not the first to call for the union to be an agent of change. “In 1983, after the A Nation at Risk report came out, NEA president Mary Hatwood Futrell tried to mobilize our union to lead the reform movement in American public education,” he said.
Futrell failed at that task, as did Chase, as did his successors, as will future NEA presidents. The failure is the inevitable result of the difference between what teachers unions are and what they would like others to think they are. This difference manifests itself as two messages: an internal one, meant for the unions’ leaders and activists, and an external one, meant for education policymakers and the public at large. In the good old days, the two audiences were always separate. But in today’s world, where everyone with a phone or Internet access can act as a reporter, the two messages can overlap, causing confusion and contradiction.