Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, says it’s time for educators to take the lead—both in creating sound education policies and in taking charge of the teaching profession.
In a fiery speech July 3 to 9,000 educators gathered for NEA’s Representative Assembly (RA) in New Orleans, he said, “Let’s throw open the doors to every school and every classroom and tell everyone they are welcome to come in and see what extraordinary miracles we perform every day.” He specifically offered an invitation to those who see the Association as an obstructionist or defender of the status quo.
Time to take charge
Van Roekel believes it is time for teachers to step up and take charge of their own profession. He called for NEA to create a Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching. Accountants, nurses, doctors and lawyers all have a say in the professional standards, processes and procedures that govern their practice. Educators should have the same influence over their profession.
“I am calling for this Commission to wrestle with the critical issues facing our profession,” Van Roekel said. “I want its members to focus on the professional practices that make a difference in student learning. The Commission should tackle the questions that have been avoided for far too long. How can we better lead our own profession?”
The Commission will offer recommendations on how teachers can exert greater authority over their profession and on the quality of public schools. Those recommendations will be presented to the 2011 RA, the top decision-making body for the 3.2 million-member NEA.
Van Roekel criticized the Department of Education’s focus on grant competitions that reward just a handful of states or districts. He specifically mentioned Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, noting “While we applaud the administration for its commitment to fund education, our members are frustrated by the disconnect between what they need each day to support their students and schools and the federal policies that hold up struggling students as products to be tested.”
He urged members to speak up for sound educational policies that would benefit all students. He urged delegates at the RA to write down the specific provisions they want to see in a revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind. Their messages will be delivered to Education Secretary Arne Duncan before the debate over ESEA heats up in Congress.
Focus on student growth
The NEA leader pressed delegates in every state to use their creativity and political might to reach out to every member of Congress. “Tell Congress that the reauthorization of ESEA should include real funding and not require us to compete for resources. Tell them that ESEA should be based on good policies for students and educators…policies that meet the needs of every student and that close achievement gaps. Tell them that ESEA should scrap AYP and instead actually support student learning! Tell them to replace NCLB’s mind-numbing, high-stakes, pass-fail testing system with a system of multiple measures and focus on student growth.”
Van Roekel urged educators to create school-transformation models that can be shared and adapted to fit the unique communities across the country. He highlighted NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, a national grassroots effort to help students in low-performing schools. The Campaign’s website includes ideas the educators can implement immediately.
He pointed to examples where NEA affiliates and educators are already making a difference. At Putnam City West High School in Oklahoma City, Okla., graduation rates for Hispanic students are up by nearly 70 percent because of a combination of targeted academic programs, parental involvement and professional development. In Evansville, Ind., administrators and union officials launched an equity schools project to transform schools through professional development for teachers and extended learning time for students. In Denver, Colo., teachers, the union and parents have teamed up to build the Math and Science Leadership Academy, where teachers emphasize collaboration that focuses on student learning.
The challenges facing public schools are complex, Van Roekel said, and meeting them requires community commitment and collaboration. He urged delegates to develop new partnerships that can energize school communities and support struggling students.
“If we work together, we can open opportunities for tens of thousands of students, day by day, one building at a time, one student at a time. We can seize the moment. We can transform schools. We can turn hope into action.”