Shedding The Union Label: The NEA Way By: Myron Lieberma

One of my previous columns was devoted to the fact the NEA is doing its utmost to shed the union label. One prominent way it tries to do this is to show that its policies and practices are similar to those of occupations recognized as "professional." The NEA's advocacy of "peer review" is a good example of this strategy.

Essentially, peer review in K-12 education is a process whereby senior teachers observe and evaluate other teachers--usually beginning teachers or older ones experiences severe problems. In peer review, the senior teachers who are the reviewers are called "consulting" teachers and are released from classroom duties for a year. They are paid a stipend above their regular salary to work with the newer teachers. At the end of the year, the consulting teachers recommend that the teacher in the program be appointed to the regular staff, not appointed but kept in the peer review program, or terminated. These recommendations are submitted to a board consisting of district administrators and union appointees; typically, the recommendations of the consulting teachers are accepted by the review board without serious disagreement.

According to the NEA's spin machine, peer review is a major step toward professionalization. Supposedly, it is an example of teachers taking control of their profession, as docotrs, lawyers, dentists, and other professional groups supposedly do.

The analogy to other professions is absurd. To be licensed to practice medicine, prospective doctors must pass state examinations prepared by the state medical board. Failure to pass the examinations means that the failing individual cannot practice medicine anywhere in the state; the unfortunate failures do not receive a license to practice medicine in the state.

In contrast, the teachers subject to peer review already have a license to teach. Peer review results in decisions relating to employment only in the peer review district; the teachers who are not recommended for retention are free to teach elsewhere in the state.

The rationale for peer review is based on several other misleading analogies. One is that doctors aren't supervised, hence teachers shouldn't be either if they are "true professionals." The reason that doctors are not supervised is that they are fee-takers; there is no feasible way for employmers (that is, patients) to supervise their doctors. The cost alone would be prohibitive even if the doctors would accept such arrangements.

Under HMOs, however, the situation is very different. A single employer employs many doctors, hence some sort of supervision is feasible. A principal can feasibly supervise teachers in the same school--a much different situation than fee-takers face.

Let me cite just one more example of the confusion over "professionalism" that pervades the NEA's discussion of peer review. By and large doctors, dentists, and lawyers are independent contractors. In the absence of explicit contractual agreements, either the employer or the contractor can terminate the employment relation at any time. without any obligation to resume this relationship when the existing contract expires. It is very unlikely that the NEA or its members would opt for independent contractor status for teachers. Of course, what the NEA would like is for teachers to enjoy the benefits of independent contracts while avoiding the risks associated with this status.

Dr. Myron Lieberman is the chairman of the Education Policy Institute. He is the author of a great many books about education, including Teachers Evaluating Teachers: Peer Review and the New Unionism (Transaction Publishers: New Brunswick, Connecticut, 1998). Dr. Lieberman writes a regular column on education issues, which is available through the Education Policy Insitute's web site at: http://www.educationpolicy.org. This is one of his recent columns.