On January 23, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel announced the establishment of a $60 million fund to invest in state and local initiatives to improve student success and strengthen the teaching profession. Over ten years, the Great Public Schools Fund (GPS Fund) will support innovative projects and ideas proposed by educators, including peer assistance and review programs, Common Core implementation, teacher mentoring, school safety, and technology.
“Nobody knows better than educators what their students need to succeed in the classroom,” Van Roekel said. “Through the new GPS Fund, we are providing the resources to put these plans in action and help ensure opportunity, equity, and success for every public school student in America.”
The GPS Fund is one of the many initiatives NEA has launched in recent months that is designed to create a new generation of educator leaders. Last week, NEA and BetterLesson launched a new web site that provides more than 3,000 classroom-ready lessons. In addition, NEA, the Center for Teaching Quality, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards unveiled the Teacher Leadership Initiative. Last October, NEA partnered with TeachPlus to launch a selective fellowship that will empower teachers to advise union leadership on teacher engagement and retention.
These initiatives were the focus of a panel discussion at the Center for American Progress (CAP) in Washington D.C. on Thursday that looked at the changing role of teachers unions. Joining Van Roekel was Paul Toner, President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), Tammy Wawro, President of the Iowa Education Association (IEA), Elena Silva of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and Richard Lee Colvin of Cross and Joftus.
Van Roekel explained that the relentless pace of change that has gripped our public schools demands new innovative thinking on the part of all key education stakeholders, unions included.
“We have to change to meet these new challenges and our members are ready to take on new leadership roles in their profession. The question then was what can do to help?”
Van Roekel identified three pillars of NEA’s efforts to transform the teaching profession and lead to student success: investments in innovation, prepare educators to become leaders, and partner with organizations and members of the community.
One of the pressing challenges, each panelists acknowledged, is turning “campfires” of excellence into “brushfires.” Elena Silva commended NEA for developing initiatives that will empower educators by providing the necessary financial assistance and expertise, but cautioned that extra time and attention be paid to help scale up success. She also identified a more fundamental obstacle: teacher exhaustion.
“Many educators may look at these programs as One More Thing they have to do. These take time and that’s not what educators have,” Silva said. “It’s a heavy load.”
Tammy Wawro of the Iowa Education Association agreed that, whether it’s the Common Core, new assessments or new evaluations, teachers are feeling the pressure but are nonetheless energized by the pace of change.
“Our members are excited but they need training. Ultimately, if it’s good for the kids, we ‘ll support it.”
Wawro said that support extends to the Common Core standards. “It’s a shame that the issue has become so political, because our members are actually looking forward to teaching to the standards.”
The CCSS is a primary area of focus of NEA’s new initiatives. The Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) received a $150,000 GPS Fund grant to partner with TeachPlus on a Common Core collaborative launched by MTA last September. One hundred and fifty teachers are being trained in the CCSS and are developing lessons aligned with the standards.
“We’re a union and a professional association. We must put forward our best ideas for improving our schools and what we do in our classrooms,” said MTA President Paul Toner.
The challenges are great, Van Roekel conceded, but “we’re part of the system and we’ll be part of the solution.” Success, he added, won’t be determined by student test scores.
“For me, success will mean we’ll be able to say, ‘no matter here you live, no matter what your zip codes is, there is a great public school in your neighborhood – with classrooms led by licensed and certified teachers.’ That’s the system I want.”