Teaching Profession

In Final Keynote, Van Roekel Attacks Education-Reform Trajectory

By Liana Loewus — July 03, 2014 3 min read
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In a long and wide-ranging final keynote as president of the National Education Association, Dennis Van Roekel focused on testing and the need for improved teacher-certification requirements, but avoided discussion of the common-core standards. And notably, he argued that today’s so-called education-reform movement has a long, checkered history dating back 30 years.

He began the 45-minute speech tracing the seminal moments in the the last 50 years of the union’s history, including its transition from a professional organization to a labor union in the 1970s. But the “largest transformation,” he said, stemmed from the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk.

“This was the first time public education was ever labeled as the problem and not the solution ... We realized that if political leaders were going to abandon the role of advocates and protectors of public education, then we must do that.”

Van Roekel, who will step down as president on Sept. 1, went on to rail against the more recent “intrusion of for-profit players” and “the onslaught of corporate reformers like Democrats For Education Reform, Michelle Rhee, and the like.” He didn’t expand on their particular groups’ work except to denounce their “attempts to silence our voice.”

Opposing High Stakes

He also picked up on what has already become a recurring theme here at the conference: testing. “Our lives revolve around testing—the overwhelming amount and the offensive misuse of scores from high-stakes, standardized tests,” he said.

“Let’s be clear—we as educators are not opposed to tests,” he added. “Good God, we invented them! But we know that the purpose of testing should be to drive learning, not to label and punish.”

This is interesting partly because, while Van Roekel has consistently opposed the high-stakes use of tests—already codified in the unions’ resolutions—it’s never been a major theme of his. Perhaps this is a setup for the arrival of Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the heir-apparent to the presidency. During her own own candidate speech, Garcia spoke passionately about the need to end high-stakes attached to standardized tests.

Further, Mr. Van Roekel touched on the importance of having quality teachers in classrooms—an issue that’s been a hallmark of his tenure. At the Representative Assembly four years ago, he called for the creation of a commission on effective teaching, which has since proposed upping pre-service requirements and establishing career paths for teachers.

“The solution is not to let anyone in and then make it easy to fire them—the solution is not to let anyone in who is not profession ready on day one,” he said to rounding applause.

He ended with a call for “a performance-based assessment for all potential educators"—likely a nod of support for the edTPA, a performance-based licensing exam in several states. (It’s worth noting, though, that teachers’ unions in New York, think the exam’s implementation there has been rushed—an interesting parallel to their perceptions of the common core.)

Speaking of which, Van Roekel did not mention the Common Core State Standards by name even once, though he did make a brief comment on the need for “high standards for all learners.” The omission, obliquely, highlights the very mixed opinions of members to the standards—as evidenced by several submitted New Business Items to be debated over the next several days.

The NEA has always had a tense relationship with quote-unquote reform initiatives, simultaneously opposing them and trying to cast itself as a promoter of them (recall 1997’s “New Unionism.”) It’s interesting to yet again see the union struggle to articulate this balance.

Photo by NEA/Rick Runion

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.