Van Roekel: Only Educator-Led Change Will Improve Student Success

In his keynote address to the 2013 National Education Association (NEA) Representative Assembly on Wednesday, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel urged the nearly 9,000 delegates to take on leadership roles, fight for social justice and work together to create positive change for students in their schools and classrooms—ensuring great public schools for every student.

Van Roekel’s remarks served as a strong reminder of the NEA’s powerful and consistent voice for equal opportunity in education, economic and civil rights for all. Throughout its history, NEA has taken bold steps in transforming America’s public education system, from the 1966 merger with the American Teachers Association to its decision to collectively bargain in the 1970s.

Today is no different, as inadequate funding, overuse and misuse of testing, and misguided and unproven policies continue to threaten and undermine student success.

“This is a defining a moment,” Van Roekel told the delegates gathered in Atlanta.

Van Roekel recounted slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s warning to his followers: “There is no time, ‘to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the drug of gradualism,’” stressing that the delegates must “act in the urgency of now” to empower NEA members to create change that really helps improve student success.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel gives his keynote address during the NEA Annual Meeting 92nd Representative Assembly in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Rick Runion

“We educate America,” Van Roekel told attendees.  “It’s what we do every day as individuals, but also what we do together as an organization … working to lead our professions and taking responsibility for our professional practices.”

Van Roekel referenced legislative attacks on unions and attempts to privatize education by corporate “education reformers,” and pressed delegates to keep fighting for their students and schools. “If we are going to take charge of our own professions, if we want to move beyond the old debate that has been defined by others—and replace their kind of solutions with our solutions.”

Many educators throughout the country have been already given the flexibility to use their expertise within their schools and classrooms to ensure student success.

Take New Jersey, which now has more students taking advanced science courses due to a program of the NJ Center for Teaching and Learning. That program has prepared more physics and science teachers than all of the universities in New Jersey combined. It started at the classroom level, and with help from NEA, has spread to states across the country.

An NEA Priority School in Spokane, Washington, Rogers High School has seen a reduction in student suspensions and an increase in graduation rates—thanks, in large part, to a home visit program organized by Debby Chandler, WEA’s Education Service Professional of the year.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, African American and Latino students are not only taking AP courses at much higher rates than the national average – the percentage of those who score a 3 or higher on the AP exam is double and triple the national average! That success was driven by collaboration and hard work. And they didn’t just talk about cultural competence – teachers developed a graduate program in equitable instruction where teachers learned about the impact of ethnicity in classrooms, and culturally reflective practice.

These examples are a snapshot of student-centered and union-led reform efforts, and “we need millions of educators to be given the opportunity to use their incredible talents and creativity to define solutions that work for students,” Van Roekel said.

Delegates at the 2013 RA will be called to pass a small dues increase to fund NEA’s Great Public Schools amendment, which will go to the “Raise Your Hand” campaign. If passed, those funds will help create programs and provide training for members to create union-led, student-centered change in their schools.

Van Roekel urged delegates to raise their hands, step up and speak up, as “it is time for us to transform public education by taking charge of our own profession.  Now we must use all of our power, individually and collectively, to do the thing that is most important to every single one of us: help our students succeed.”

“This is about educators as leaders, not just doers. It’s about making policy decisions, not merely carrying out someone else’s ideas. It’s about leveraging our work, so that it becomes greater than the sum of all our own individual efforts,” the Arizona math teacher told the packed hall of educators.

“It will take courage for us to raise our hands today and show the nation that NEA, the largest labor union in the country, is committed to change  – that we take responsibility for student success and that we will empower our members to make those changes,” Van Roekel said.

Full Text Transcript of  President Van Roekel’s Speech