Van Roekel Talks Class Size, Teacher Voice, and Putting Students First

A new school year offers the promise of a fresh start, but in Portland, Oregon — the first stop on NEA President Dennis Van Roekel’s 2013 Back to School Tour — funding cuts and ballooning class sizes threaten to cast a shadow over the state’s bright new beginning. Oregon’s class sizes are the third largest in the country, and as part of its “What’s Your Number” campaign, Oregon Education Association members wear buttons with the number of students in their classes. One high school English teacher has the number 48 on her button. Her classroom is so crowded some kids have to sit on the floor.

As our students meet the challenges of a new school year, they shouldn’t have to worry about finding a seat in their classrooms or whether there are enough resources for learning. Unfortunately, in the first days of the 2013-2014 year, schools are already underfunded after too many elected officials cashed in on our children by cutting investments in education. It’s time to put students first, and as part of the 2013 Back to School Tour, Van Roekel is taking the message of student-centered education to cities and towns around the country.

“Students are not about profits,” Van Roekel said to a crowd of community members, business leaders, parents and Oregon Education Association members at a breakfast meeting at the Portland Convention Center on September 10. “In too many of our communities, there is too little education, too little opportunity, too little equity, and too little hope. We need to turn it around, and we need to do it together.”

The start of a new year is an exciting time, and it offers a renewed chance to turn public education around. Van Roekel said this year is unique with the advent of the Common Core State Standards. The standards will provide all students, no matter where they live or what their parents earn, the same world-class education that will prepare them for college and career.

“Even with all the divisiveness surrounding education, 45 states agree on the Common Core State Standards,” Van Roekel said.  “The Common Core standards will help ensure that all of our students are able to think critically, solve problems and attain global competence. “

The key, Van Roekel emphasized, is implementation, and that the best implementation will occur when districts engage their educators in conversations about how to best to carry out and measure the standards.

“We’ve got to find the time to talk about this. Implementation is way too important to get it wrong,” he said. “The great promise of the standards will be realized only if the voices of educators are heard, and  their expertise used to lead efforts to develop relevant and engaging instructional materials and strong assessments that truly measure what students know.”

Cindy Williams teaches second grade in Oregon City and is a 35-year-education veteran. She was gratified to hear Van Roekel’s message about strengthening educator voices. She said that back in the early 1980s when she first entered the profession, educators’ voices were heard, but in recent years too many reformers and business leaders have changed the face of education, shutting out classroom teachers and turning students into test scores that are not only meaningless but also inaccurate.

“A child is a whole being, not a score. When we plant a seed, the shrub or tree may not flourish until many years later,” she said. “How can you measure that in a single test?”

She resents business leaders and policy makers making decisions about what’s going on in her classroom when they don’t have any experience in classroom teaching. “Don’t tell me how to dig a ditch if you’ve never held a shovel,” she said. “Unless you’ve been in the trenches with me, I don’t want you telling me how to do my job.”

It’s not that Williams doesn’t want the enthusiasm and commitment of business and community leaders, she simply wants to lend her expertise to the process of improving education. She wants those making decisions about her job to consult her first, so that they have the best information and ideas in their arsenal.


Lifting up voices like Williams’ and other educators is another theme of the 2013 Back to School Tour – NEA is launching a new initative that will tap into the power and passion of educators.

NEA’s new “Raise Your Hand” initiative is based on the fundamental belief that educators, not self-proclaimed reform experts, know what works best for students and should be the ones to lead and help mobilize parents, community leaders, policy makers and anyone who has a commitment to ensuring student success.

“We want to harness the passion of our members – professionals who were drawn to this field because of their creativity and drive to help students – to prepare the next generation of leaders,” Van Roekel said.

Van Roekel pointed to the staggering dropout rate in our country – only 75 percent of our students graduate from high school, and it’s time for us to take swift action. If we don’t try something different, such as Common Core standards that engage students in higher learning and critical thinking, nothing will change. He said the Raise Your Hand initiative is a bold step toward turning education around for all of our students.

“When students raise their hands in class, it’s an act of bravery,” he said. “You’re putting yourself out there, you’re giving it a shot. Now it’s our time to stand up, speak out and raise our hands on their behalf.”

Van Roekel along with OEA President Hanna Vaandering highlighted some dedicated members already raising their hands to stem the tide of drop outs. They visited Roberts High School in Salem, Oregon, one of NEA’s Priority Schools where union-led, student-centered policies are helping students who were at risk of dropping out graduate in record numbers.

From there, he traveled to the Capitol Building in downtown Salem where he met with legislative leaders, including state senators and the Oregon Education Investment Board, where he spoke about lowering class sizes, improving student learning by asking everyone to raise their hand for public education, and how the Common Core State Standards can help them deliver.

Common Core and Collaboration

Day Two of the Back to School Tour continued September 11 at Chippewaw Middle School in Des Plaines , Illinois, just outside Chicago, where Van Roekel met with members of the Des Plaines and Illinois Education Associations, school board members and district officials for a breakfast meet-and-greet.

“We work hard in Des Plaines,” said Des Plaines Education Association President Cathy Sears, as she welcomed Van Roekel and the Back to School Tour to her home district, which is a leader in collaboration. “We are a dynamic team.”

In fact, the collaboration and hard work of the Des Plaines educators is what Van Roekel cites as a model for how to get the Common Core State Standards done right.

“I’m so glad this was one of our tour stops because you are already doing exactly what I’ve been talking about in terms of collaboration and Common Core,” he said. “What really impressed me is that you’ve been working on implementing the Common Core State Standards for four years already, and that is certainly not the norm. There are those who are just starting this year and are way behind the curve. There are places where they are not having any kinds of collaboration or any of the necessary conversations.”

He acknowledged that the challenges of implementing the standards don’t go way with collaboration, but it dramatically improves the way the problems are solved.

Lisa Kocis is a sixth grade literacy and language arts teacher at Chippewa who greeted Van Roekel at the breakfast. She said collaboration is the foundation of the school district Common Core committee on which she serves.  Together, they analyzed the standards and came up with a game plan for rolling them out, starting with a partial implementation.

“Our first step was to really pick apart each standard and totally familiarize ourselves with them. Then we started to talk about which ones we’d tackle first,” she said. “We decided to begin with the reading and writing standards, and then we divided into subcomittees and further divided into groups for middle and elementary standards  before mapping out our curriculum to the standards.”

Now the district has lessons and objectives for grade levels and has hosted a variety of professional development training sessions. There are professional learning communities who established a common vocabulary for the standards that both teachers and students can use, and posted an easily digestible roadmap on the district website for parents.

“As a result we’ve had a huge increase in communication with parents, and we’re all speaking the same language and are on the same page as educators,” Kocis said. “It took a while for everyone to get on board, but we’re already seeing the benefits. Our students are speaking and listening differently, they’re thinking more critically, and they’re on the path to successful learning across the board.”

The path to successful learning starts at an early age, and Van Roekel’s next stop on his Back to School Tour was the Early Learning Center at Forest Elementary School, a state-of-the-art facility where the district’s youngest children develop the fundamental skills for a successful school career. There’s a math and literacy center, an area for occupational and physical therapy, a special needs program, interactive play stations in well-designed classrooms, a courtyard playground, and even a flourishing outdoor garden the students tend, complete with garden gnome.

“Wonderful things are happening here,” said Mindy Ward, Director of Community Relations for Des Plaines School District 62. “We’ve really been noticing how well students go on to do in school after coming here.”

After Chicago, the Back to School Tour packed up and headed to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Check back here for the latest news from the tour, including videos.