Friday, August 29, 2014

NEA Spells Out Vision of ‘Education Utopia’

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By Amy Buffenbarger

Asking the crowd to imagine a world in which every student receives a quality public education, National Education Association (NEA) Secretary-Treasurer Rebecca Pringle shared the NEA vision of “education utopia” on May 18, at a meeting of the Education Writers Association (EWA).

“The National Education Association believes every student should have access to a great public school.  But that is not our reality today,” said Pringle. “I want you to suspend your disbelief and travel with me to a place where that actually ‘IS’ America’s reality.”

Pringle led the audience of approximately 250 journalists, educators, researchers, and advocates through a presentation of what education utopia looks like. Based on NEA’s Three-Point Plan for Education Reform, education utopia is a system that ensures quality in five domains: quality professions, quality professionals, quality schools, quality policy, and quality unions.

It’s also a system that benefits students, where union leaders and district administrators confront challenges as partners. According to Pringle’s presentation, “campfires of excellence,” which demonstrate the principles of education utopia, are currently in place and led by NEA members at NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign sites.

“Let’s take a trip to Belmont High School in Ohio, where the quality of the profession is being elevated by the teachers themselves,” said Pringle.

Educators at the Dayton, Ohio, high school worked with the Dayton Education Association to draft a Letter of Agreement spelling out how they’d do their work differently: They created their own standards to meet the needs of their students, but also to align with state and district standards; in addition, they set weekly performance goals with their students and chart their progress. The results at Belmont demonstrate success—promotion rates for 9th graders have increased from 30 percent to 84 percent, and the number of juniors taking the ACT has increased tenfold.

In Denver, Colorado, NEA members are setting the example of quality professionals. Denver Public Schools has developed a residency program for teachers that operate in a fashion similar to that of medical students. Teacher residents are paired with mentor teachers in classrooms serving a variety of high needs, including English language learners, special education, bilingual Spanish, and math and science. For a full school year, residents spend four days a week in the classroom learning and teaching alongside a mentor teacher.

“This hands-on training and mentoring should be required of all aspiring teachers before they have their own classrooms,” said Pringle.

NEA’s commitment to the quality of schools is demonstrated in Evansville, Indiana, where “schools have become the center of the community,” explained Pringle. Many students at Howard Roosa Elementary School were starting their day hungry, so the union and the school district developed a breakfast program that took meals directly to the classroom. In addition, there are school-based health clinics that serve students, staff, and the community. At McGary Middle School, a community garden has helped engage students and grow community partnerships.

In the Romulus School District just outside of Detroit, Michigan, “the quality of education policy is actually driving improvements,” said Pringle.

Local education leaders transformed the teacher evaluation process into a system that promotes creativity and ingenuity, and is structured to improve professional practice. The union and school district then worked together to steer needed resources to prevent school closures and narrowing of the curriculum.

In highlighting how the “union’s role in ensuring quality lifted the entire school community” in Columbus, Ohio, Pringle shared the example of the Columbus Education Association. Their “peer assistance and review program ensures quality professionals; their evaluation system is elevating the profession, through quality policy; and, their work with the Ohio State University to implement service-learning, a practice that unites academic instruction and learning with student-focused service in the community, is raising the quality of the Columbus schools,” said Pringle.

Pringle ended her presentation by asking the audience to use their influence and ideas to join NEA in building an education utopia for all public school students.

“The 3 million members of the National Education Association are committed to spreading that excellence from isolated campfires to brushfires of quality nationwide,” said Pringle.

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