Last year at the NEA-RA I noted that President Van Roekel repeatedly mentioned how the NEA never had a “seat at the table” during the Bush Administration, and his opening address to the NEA delegates was full of hope and excitement. However, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan alarmed my friend and I as we listened to his address to the delegates. Duncan advocated for charter schools, merit pay, and competition.
This year Van Roekel changed his message to “We can turn hope into action.” He noted that last year he spoke of a seat at the table, but this year sitting at the table isn’t enough; we need to be “running the meeting.” His speech of hope and eagerness last year became one of a “promise of change” this year.
Van Roekel asked a key question: “Is the middle class the new definition of wealthy?” He noted that the current administration’s policies are the same as the last administration’s, or as I like to say, “NCLB on steroids.” Van Roekel stated that the current education policies are “upside-down priorities.” The cuts occurring across the nation are hurting education in general and specifically are eating away at benefits for teachers. Teachers and students are the victims of the current educational policies.
Currently, 3.2 million teachers belong to the NEA, which is an increase of over 100% in the last 26 years. This means teachers are putting their money into this body and expecting results. Van Roekel admitted that the NEA has been on the defensive for some time, constantly saying “no!” to bad policies, but this has had an adverse public perception. He stated that the NEA needs to grab a hold of the debate and frame the dialogue. The status quo is not a destination or “a win.”
His steady refrain of “We can turn hope into action!” began at this point. He further mentioned that if “you aren’t an activist in politics, you are a victim of politics.”
And then he said something that I believe in wholeheartedly: the teacher unions need to take control of their own evaluations, professional development, and educational policies. This means we may have to begin policing our own, saying “no” to bad teaching and teachers, and forcing our districts and states to allow the teachers–those in the trenches doing the dirty work–to control the workings of the system. The system as is does not work well enough, and it’s time to advance in a new direction.
Overall, I felt that Van Roekel said what he needed to say and inspired hope. But, now we need to see the action. That will be the measure by which he is judged this next year.