The National Education Association or NEA was founded in 1850, the brainchild of Robert Campbell. Its original name was the National Teacher’s Association.
In 1857, the name was changed to the National Education Association. The fledgling association served as a forum where educators could share concerns. In 1872, the National Education Association created a Department of Higher Education as well as a Department of Normal Schools. Normal schools were schools designed to teach adults the basic skills that they could then pass on to children. Normal schools eventually evolved into teachers’ colleges.
The Department of Higher Education focused on issues such as entrance requirements, curriculum, research, etc whereas the Department of Normal Schools concerned itself largely with expansion. The National Education Association was also interested in the possibility of creating a “national university,” though this never came to pass.
The 1920s and 1930s saw a growing membership and a shift away from higher education as more public school teachers began to join the association. Issues of importance to the National Education Association during this time included identifying and dealing with violations of academic freedom and working on job security by establishing tenure and due process.
After World War II, the Department of Higher Education gained new life, eventually becoming known as the American Association of Higher Education. The issue of the day was setting professional standards for teachers.
In the 1960s, the National Education Association found itself flooded with complaints from teachers about poverty-level salaries and dangerous working conditions. A 1962 task force recommended that the National Education Association become a “collective bargaining agent” a significant shift in the role it had played up to that point.
Today, the National Education Association is the nation’s largest labor union with a membership of over 2.8 million. Although in recent years it has drawn some fire from the religious right for its so-called liberal leanings, the National Education Association continues to speak out for the good of public education and the rights of teachers.