Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Persuasion

BOND: Now, another attribute of leadership is the ability to persuade other people to do something that they may not have wanted to do otherwise. Now, can you remember early attempts at doing this? To get a group to change their mind or to adopt a position that you think they didn’t --


BOND: And how did you -- ? Okay.

FUTRELL: Well, I can remember two. One was NEA had had a position on the books for a long time opposing testing. And they used as the primary rationale for the opposition, the negative impact it has on blacks. I decided to oppose that, because my point was -- the message that's being sent, whether on purpose or not, said, "We can’t learn, we can’t pass tests." The motion ought to be, the policy ought to be, "What kinds of things did we think ought to be in place in order to make sure, you know, we can pass these tests? And how do we make sure the tests are fair and what roles should we play in developing these tests?" And I remember a lot of the blacks who were at the NEA convention were very upset with me because I was bringing this forward. I said, "I don’t want anyone to ever, ever be of the opinion that I, as a black person or black kids can’t learn. That we can’t pass tests. We ought to make sure the tests are fair, etc. And after talking with them, they agreed, and so the motion passed.

And we put together a task force to look at testing and how do we work with different companies, but also, how do we work with school districts to help minority kids pass tests? Another example was, you may have heard about the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which was put forth by the Carnegie Corporation. Well, when we went into the board – you don’t know this part. I was opposed vehemently for that board. Now, NEA had for years supported the states' standards boards, so I was a little puzzled as to why we were now opposing the national standards board if, for as long as I could remember, we were supporting states' standards boards. But we had members of our executive committee and members of the board who were absolutely, diametrically opposed to this concept. And I remember saying to them, "If we oppose the national board, no one will ever believe again that we are sincerely concerned about the quality of education in this country because the message we will have sent is, "Yes, we’re for standards, we’re for quality, but don’t try to put inequality on the teaching profession." When I went into the RA, the vote was probably 70/30, maybe 60/40 against the board. And I was determined that we were not going to fail. And so I made it a point of going around -- and by the way, I bypassed the executive committee, and I made my appeal to the board and I persuaded the board to support it. And again I used, "You can’t say you’re for change if you oppose it." And then I went to the urban caucus because they were opposed. I went to the black caucus, the women’s caucus. I went to the higher ed caucus. Believe it or not, the higher ed caucus was furious about the standards boards. And their fear was eventually they would have to go before national -- they would be required to become certified.

I’m going to tell you exactly what I did. I told them – and it was true at the time – there had been no discussion of higher education faculty having to go through national certification. And so they said, "If you will go on the floor and say that, and then say that NEA will not advocate for this, we will support you. And we will actively support you." So I said fine. So, when we got to that issue on the floor, from the audience, from the delegation, they put the question to me in front of 10,000 people. And I repeated what I said. And they asked me to say it again just to make sure I wasn’t trying to use tricky words. And I did. And I’d also talked to the urbans about the kinds of things we were going to do. And we turned the vote. And the vote turned to be 80 for, 20 against.

BOND: Really?

FUTRELL: 20 percent, yes.

BOND: That's remarkable, because I remember the fierce, fierce opposition black teachers had to, the National Teachers Exam --


BOND: -- the high failure rate of black teachers. But surely there must have been some people in that 80/20, in that 20 who just couldn’t reconcile themselves to this.

FUTRELL: [Yes.] And there still are.

BOND: Did you ever able to convince any of that 20 to come over and join the 80 even after the vote was taken?

FUTRELL: Well, on the national standards board?

BOND: Yes.

FUTRELL: The answer is yes. And what we promised was, that the NEA would set aside resources to support teachers going through the national certification process. Now the NTE and the MBPTS are two separate doctrines.

BOND: Sure.

FUTRELL: So what I said to them on the NTE was, "I oppose the NTE. I don't think it's a fair way to assess whether or not teachers can teach." So, you oppose the NTE but what do you support? You can’t always say what you oppose, what do you support? So what would NEA and its members support in the way of assessing whether or not teachers know and are able to teach to that which they are supposed to teach? And so that was the position that I took. And I said, "When we put together this task force, we’re going to make sure that there are representatives from all parts of the country, from all of the diverse groups in the NEA, different educational levels, so that we come together and we advocate for what we believe and not simply say we oppose something." And that was basically the way we did that. We began to work more closely with, for example, with the College Board, with the ETS. We worked very close with the Fair Testing Association because we agreed that the tests should be fair, not just for teachers but for children as well.

So, how do we use our resources to make sure the tests are as biased free as possible? And every test is biased. There are no unbiased tests – so, it’s not just a matter of saying you’re opposed, but what do you support? And that’s the way we got the teachers involved and got them to be supportive. I remember Joe Reed, a good friend of mine from Alabama, he came up to me and he had his hands in his pockets and he said to me, "Mary Futrell," he said, "I can’t believe that you are advocating this but I have confidence in you. And if you think that this is what we should do, and if you are willing to put this task force in and set aside the resources, I will talk to the Alabama delegation." And I knew he was upset when I saw him and when he told me that, I just gave him a hug.