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Departing NEA president blasts ‘incredible onslaught of corporate reformers’ — including Michelle Rhee

Dennis Van Roekel (National Education Association)
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National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel delivered his final keynote speech at the 2014 Representative Assembly of the nation’s largest teachers union, blasting Michelle Rhee and other corporate school reformers, and urging the organization’s more than 3 million members to work to change the course of education. “Proceed until apprehended!” he urged.

Van Roekel,who was a high school math teacher in Phoenix for 23 years and was elected NEA president in 2008 after holding other executive positions in the union, is stepping down on Sept. 1 .

Here’s the text of his speech, given last week:

Thank you, Lily, Becky, and mom for that very kind introduction. I so appreciate it. And to all of the delegates, I present to you the 152nd Annual Meeting, the 93rd Representative Assembly. Now, this is my 35th Representative Assembly. I attended my first one in 1980. I bet all of you are doing the math right now, aren’t you? What number is it for you? But my guess is, there are none of us who can hold a candle to Kathleen Roberts from the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Now, get this, she attended her first Representative Assembly in 1950, 64 years ago, and she is a delegate. Unbelievable. She kind of looks like my mom.
Are there any first-timers in the audience? First-timers, stand up. All right. I have a challenge for you first-timers. If you come back in 2078, that will be your 64th, too.
Oh, my gosh, I have always loved this Representative Assembly from the first time I went. I love the way the hall looks and the big screens and all of the stuff around the room. And I love the debate. It’s a great experience. But I can tell you as president I always get a little nervous, and this year, I’ve got the added pressure of having my whole family here. And they are all here, and I feel it. I’ve got my wife, my sons, my daughter-in-law. One of them couldn’t come. I have four of my six grandchildren. I have all four of my sisters, my brothers-in-law, and, of course, mom. Now, you heard that she turned 100 years old on May 4th. I thought that deserved a really special, special gift. So I bought her a ticket to come to Denver to listen to me. Because with four sisters, I am her best son.
Recently, I completed an interview with a reporter and she wanted my thoughts and reflections as I prepare to leave office. Well, the stats are easy to give to a reporter. You’ve heard them already. Born and raised in Iowa…spent my early years on a farm…decided in 7th grade to be a teacher, a math teacher. I didn’t want to go into any of those hard things like literature and poetry, so I chose something easy – mathematics. I started teaching in 1968 in Iowa, and in 1974 I went to Arizona because I thought there must be something better than winter.
Phoenix was a great place. I spent 23 years in the classroom, and I spent 24 on the NEA Executive Committee. For all you trivia buffs in the audience: who was the first NEA leader to ever be secretary-treasurer, vice president, and president? You’re looking at him. I’m the first one who did that. I told the reporter about all my visits to schools and bus barns and cafeterias and campuses, and I told her your stories about budget cuts and administrators who weren’t collaborative and all the things that kept piling on, new evaluation systems, and more and more. I told her your stories about students who triumphed over incredible odds that were stacked against them. I told her about watching NEA members as they served students and met their needs, people who are so deeply caring and have such dedication. But she just kept probing. Forty-six is a long time. Forty-six years ago I started teaching. So she said, “Tell me more. Where is NEA? How has it changed? And where do you think it’s going?” Now, that’s a great question, but with so many memories and experiences, it’s difficult to put all of that into perspective in a short story, not a novel. But I’m going to try and do that.
My observations about change at NEA: it’s not linear. It’s not the same rate of change year to year. My observation is that it seems to go slowly and then there’s some special moment, and suddenly the curve shifts and there’s rapid change. Someone once described NEA as more like a battleship than a PT boat. We don’t turn quickly. It takes us time. And the first major transformation was the one this organization made to become a champion of social justice and racial equality. Now, that’s part of our DNA from our very beginning but the seminal moment was 1966 when the National Education Association and the American Teachers Association merged. It was a seminal moment, it was a long journey. That was in 1966, and the first joint committee was formed in 1926, 40 years before. But then we moved quickly. In 1967-68, Braulio Alonso was the first ethnic minority, the first Hispanic president of the National Education Association. The next year, 1969, Elizabeth Libby Koontz, the first African-American president of the National Education Association. With this merger, we became an organization even more deeply committed to social justice, and it was not easy. Because, you see, we had 16 states that needed to merge at the state level, and our leaders in those states navigated such difficult circumstances and times, but not all agreed that that was a good idea. In fact, there were some associations at the state level that refused to merge. And we said goodbye and created a new organization, one that merged black and white.
In the 1970s, we moved into the second transformational shift as we went from this professional organization dominated by administrators into a labor union, and we also entered the world of political action. That has been a long and difficult journey. There was much pushback. Some of our members chose to get out because they didn’t believe that was the right place for us to go. It was a daunting challenge because we had to totally re-craft NEA and state affiliates. Some departments disappeared and new ones formed. We changed our membership and the organization from being dominated by administrators to being dominated by people who worked in schools.
We had a constitutional convention to make this huge transformation. And this transformation impacted our policies, our structures, our resources, and its allocation. We simply changed the dynamics and the programs of the organization to make us better. To think of collective bargaining, the first law was passed in 1959 in Wisconsin, 55 years ago. And, you know, in that journey, we were never able to get that for all our members. And in political action, our first presidential endorsement was 1976 with Jimmy Carter. And so many years ago–that was the first–but still today, there are those that don’t seem to see the connection that when you work in an industry, an organization, a profession that is so totally dominated by politics on the outside, you must be involved if you want to make a difference.
But the largest transformation in my time began 31 years ago. The year was 1983, and something happened that year that changed the conversation totally. A new report was published entitled “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform.” In all my life as a student and as a teacher, this was the first time that public education was ever labeled as the problem, not the solution. We were the problem, not the solution. The very institution that was revered as the foundation of democracy, the driver for equity, was now labeled as a national liability. What a difference. After Sputnik, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act. When our country was behind, when we needed to really move forward, they invested in education. But that wasn’t the theme of “A Nation at Risk.” They report began with five simple words, “Our nation is at risk.” And the introduction went on to make sure it gained immediate attention, and it did. They said public education was being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity. But the one that so struck me, they said “if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” Those are strong words. And as a newly elected state president, as an educator, I never once dreamed at that time how one event could impact events for years to come.
Now, actually, the report had some very solid recommendations, but they were mostly ignored. Instead of what was in the report and in the name of “reform,” ideas and recommendations materialized that were never even mentioned in the report – vouchers, tax credits, privatization, merit pay, a whole new generation of so-called reforms. NEA responded, and we began an important transformation. We realized that if political leaders were going to abandon their role as advocates and protectors of public education, then we must do that…we must be the advocates and the protectors.
In all of our history, we have always advocated for ways to improve education, but now we had to fight for the very existence of public education. As public education policy shifted from leveling the playing field into turning education into a competition with winners and losers, we needed to become the champions of equity, to define solutions that drive excellence and success for all students. The report “A Nation at Risk,” was the beginning of an attempt to totally redefine America’s system of public education. First, they labeled public education as a failure, a liability. And then in 2002, they lowered the boom with No Child Left Behind.
Now, this was passed with overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans, but No Child Left Behind became an insidious tool used to undermine and attack public education. It’s been driven by mandatory high-stakes testing in grades three through eight. It became the mechanism for labeling and blaming public education, and by establishing a flawed measure of success–Adequate Yearly Progress, politicians created the means, the opportunity for corporate reformers to remake public education into a whole new source of profits that would be gathered at the expense of students.
And so now, 12 years after No Child Left Behind, where are we? These politicians and their policies have created a difficult environment for students and educators, delegates. You know clearly the issues that have become part of our daily lives and discussions: intense dissatisfaction with the conditions of learning and teaching, the need for more time in almost everything we do, time to teach, time to learn, time to plan, and time to collaborate with colleagues as we deal with all of these new demands placed upon us. The issue of privatization of more and more jobs of our education support professionals. The intrusion of for-profit players, both in higher education and K-12.
Especially troubling is the increasing influence and control of huge corporations like Pearson and others. And the incredible onslaught of corporate reformers like Democrats for Education Reform, Michelle Rhee, and the like. Attacks on educators’ rights and even attempts to silence our voice. And if that were not enough, our lives revolve around testing–the overwhelming amount and the offensive misuse of scores from high-stakes standardized tests. For the delegates in this hall, for our members back home, the feelings generated by these and other issues are strong and they are real. I’ve seen them. I’ve heard them from you. And I share them with you. Feelings of anger, frustration, disappointment, and unrealized expectation of the Department of Education. Whether student, active, retired, whether higher ed, ESP or teacher, it doesn’t matter. We are all impacted and demoralized by these attacks. And your feelings are totally justified. I mean, really, 12 years is plenty long enough to evaluate their strategy of mandatory testing and test-based accountability. Plain and simple, their strategy has failed America’s students, especially students who are poor and students of color. And I say to you that it is simply not acceptable to continue down this path. The direction must change? Am I right? Am I right?
As an organization, public education, we’re at a critical point. We’re at another milestone in our history. You know, I guess getting older does have some advantages. It has allowed me to see and to experience many different things. And I can tell you that living through “A Nation at Risk,” No Child Left Behind, and the increased intensity of corporate reform, I have seen so many examples of injustice in our systems, and the negative impact on students. When I think of the 10 years preceding No Child Left Behind, I wish I could go back and do things differently. If I had only understood then what I understand now. You see, all of us in the education family–all of us–we knew the system was not fulfilling the promise, not fulfilling the promise for all of its students, not doing what they needed, and we allowed the politicians of the day, Congress, to define the solution, and their solution was No Child Left Behind. Now, I want to state something very clearly. We, the NEA, cannot allow politicians to define the terms of change and accountability for yet another generation of students. We cannot let that happen again!
We, the educators, must define the solutions and we must lead. But what I want most is for us to choose the right strategy, the right leverage points to actually create and design something new, to chart a course that can deliver on our mission to fulfill the promise of public education, to prepare every student to succeed. And deep down, way deep down in my gut, I know that the only way to combat their strategy is a strategy that is creating the most equitable system of education in our nation’s history. We must create a counterforce that takes us toward equity. And we cannot do that without a student-centered strategy that is led by this union–just like the days when our association was transforming, transforming into an organization deeply committed to social justice, deeply involved in collective bargaining and politics.
This transformation will also be rocky and at times even controversial. New partners, new strategies, new priorities, and new policies will be required. Oh, yes, there will be pushback. Yes, there will be struggle and, yes, there will be progress. There must be progress. A strong future for public education for our association depends on leading an agenda focused on student success and educator quality, not as an afterthought, but as our first priority.
Equity, excellence, and accountability for the whole system. That must be our focus and our agenda. You see, as we are all so painfully aware, the current accountability system–as they call it– is totally driven by high-stakes standardized tests. But when it comes to tests and testing, let’s be clear, we as educators are not opposed to tests. Good gosh, we invented them and we use them every week in our classrooms, but we also know the purpose of the testing should be to drive learning, not label in punishment. And most of all, and most of all, we understand that the misuse and abuse of test scores harms students. It is indefensible to use test scores to evaluate all teachers when only 30 percent of teachers actually teach the subjects tested and the students who take the test. And you cannot cover it up with value-added models. It is absurd to believe that using bad data from multiple years will somehow magically be converted into good data. Research says, no, not possible. And no matter how good a test is, no matter how well-designed, if the results are used improperly, it will result in bad decisions, period.
Now, in all of this mess, the good news is, there is growing evidence that points to one conclusion. This current so-called accountability system is crumbling. And I believe it is not a question of if it will crumble. The only question is when. From every direction, the pressure is building. Parents opting out more and more because they see it’s not helping their student, it’s not helping them, and it’s not helping the teacher. Superintendents banding together saying enough is enough. This is crazy. State legislators, legislatures one by one, taking action saying we are not using these test scores for high-stakes decisions. You know, research on a weekly basis has slammed these value-added models of being unreliable and totally wrong for what they’re using them for.
But as relieved as we all might feel that the public is beginning to see the absurdity of the so-called accountability system, it is sobering when you start to realize the high price students have paid for its failure. In these 12 years, there are hundreds of schools that were serving communities and schools that have been closed or privatized–hundreds. And some 30 million students have gone through the testing mill of grades 3 through 8. Drill and kill problems, test preparation, practice tests, and, of course, the actual test, until 30 percent of their time was spent on testing. What a waste. What a misuse of time. I want you to imagine something for a moment, a “what if?” What if the massive high-stakes, standardized, once-a-year testing mania was gone? It’s disappeared. Imagine that the tackiest, the race to the tackiest use of test scores was gone. We get a do-over and we are back in the year 2000 before the days of No Child Left Behind. Now, some might say those were the good ol’ days, but were they? You know, one of my favorite bumper stickers of all time, it said, “The older I get, the better I was.”
You see, people tend to look back and glamorize the days of old. The more time passes, the more we forget the realities of that time. So just how great was it in the year 2000 for all of the students in America? We were graduating about 70 to 75 percent, unless you were African American, Hispanic, or Native American, then in many places it was only 50 percent. So the truth is for me, 2000 was not the good ol’ days. It was not good enough, not anywhere close.
But think of this, if we are successful, if we are able to sweep this whole high-stakes standardized test-based accountability system aside, we sweep it off the table, what then? I figure there will be a vacuum, a void for one nanosecond, and then somebody is going to put an idea on the table. And what we must ensure is that we don’t allow another bad idea to replace No Child Left Behind that we have to fight for the next decade. The price for students is too high.
We, we the educators, the National Education Association, we must define a better solution to set on the table and say this is what we need to talk about. We must be all about creating an alternative, one that redefines equity and excellence and demands accountability for the whole system, a system that is designed to focus on equity, not test scores. And the way we need to begin is to redefine excellence. Individual excellence should never be defined as performing at minimum levels. Individual excellence should be about pushing personal limits, rising up. In my classroom, in my coaching, I always told my students no matter how good you are today, tomorrow you can be better. We need to have that as our definition of individual excellence.
When it comes to defining excellence for a school or a college, what it should be is to set high expectations for all learners, but here is the shift. The definition of success for a school is establishing high standards for all students and then trying in every way possible to help students reach them. You see, it’s not about the test scores. It’s not about ranking, labeling, and punishment. It’s about doing everything possible. I get so upset when they list the test scores and they are saying how low they are and then they think they’ve done their job. No? That’s the first step. Once you identified those that do not have what they need, what I want to know is, what are you going to do about it? What are the solutions you’re proposing?
This is a major shift. Accountability just isn’t about what the scores are. It’s about what we do in every way possible to lift them up for all students to succeed. See, this is about equity. It’s about equity. And I submit to you that you cannot achieve equity by only looking at test scores or blaming educators or destroying the profession and pretending that due process is the problem. I mean, come on. To all the misguided reformers attacking education, I say this, if you truly care about kids, then use your resources to help students instead of attacking educators. If you truly care about kids, if you are serious about what you say, then help us change the system. Don’t change the system that too often denies excellence for students who are poor and students of color. Use your resources and demand accountability for the whole system, not just a part. Demand accountability for equity. You see, when you start attacking the cause of failure and demand accountability for the implementation of solutions, the whole world changes.
Now, what do you say would change? How would you create accountability for a system or accountability for equity? I think you have to start with school readiness. I know of no family of means that denies early childhood education to their children, yet we’re in an America that denies early childhood education to its kids? Why do we feel it’s important for other people’s children and not for all of our children? We need accountability for the conditions of learning and teaching.
I was so honored to go with the president of NJEA to visit schools in New Jersey. I remember a school that we visited in Trenton. It’s a school with two floors plus a basement, 300 kids in that school. There were two bathrooms. One for the boys and one for the girls in the basement. The hallway in the basement, it was about seven feet wide, and that’s where the kids went down the hallway to pick up their lunch off a table and then into this dingy room they called multipurpose lunchroom, P.E. room. Can you imagine having P.E. in a room where there are posts down the center and the ceiling is seven feet high? It’s really hard to play volleyball in there. It’s absurd. The worst part of the story, they always hoped it didn’t rain before lunch. Because when it rained, the hallway flooded. It is an outrage that our society allows children to suffer such injustices. It’s 2014. Instead of spending billions on toxic tests, instead of spending billions on test corporations and their consultants, spend it on the learning conditions of students.
You know, the best surgeon in the world, if you take him or her out of the operating room, a sterile environment, good lighting, talented nurses, anesthesiologist and put him in a battlefield, they are still the best surgeon, but they can’t get the same results. And to those people who say that learning conditions don’t make a difference, you’re just wrong. And thank goodness for NJEA and their efforts to change every school in New Jersey to have the kind of learning conditions that students deserve.
There is another area in this push for equity that I think is critical. It has to do with high standards and the quality of educators. See, I just can’t imagine how you can achieve equity without having high standards for all learners, delivered by well-trained, certified, and licensed professionals. Our system today is separate and unequal. It is a race and class-based system that drives decisions on resources and supports. Sixty years after Brown v. Board we know which kids year after year are cheated, and it’s poor kids and students of color. Whether it’s Common Core State Standards or other state standards, if they are flawed, then we must create a process to refine them and make them better. But what we cannot allow is a system or support a system that is designed to be inequitable–inequitable in expectations or the resources needed to provide the support students need.
When it comes to a quality workforce, that is our responsibility, too. We are a part of the system and we must take ownership of and responsibility for the quality of educators who serve our students every day. You see, there are those on the outside who are really trying to change that. Their vision for our professions–all of our professions–is very different. You see, one thing I believe about people is they don’t behave inconsistently. If they appear to be inconsistent, then you haven’t found the common thread yet.
And when I look at all the things they do, all of their strategy, their theory of success can be defined very simply. What they want is little or no training for any of the jobs in education, because that drives down the value and the wages of work. And if you have low wages and low respect or value, that drives high turnover. And if you have high turnover, you don’t need pension plans and you won’t have a union because they can’t replenish their membership every three to five years. They want to drive down wages, respect, and value and turn those savings into corporate profits. There is nothing they do that doesn’t fit that theory of success.
The other day I was talking to a reporter, and they like to talk about performance-based pay. The reporter said to me, “Dennis, don’t you think good teachers should be paid more than bad teachers?” I said, “No! I don’t think bad teachers should be paid anything! They shouldn’t be there!” What kind of crazy world do we live in when their solution is to let anybody in and then just make it easy to fire all your mistakes? The solution is not to let anyone in who is not profession ready on day one!
It is so confusing to me to understand their logic. You know, we hire licensed contractors, doctors, lawyers, barbers, architects, plumbers, electricians, why in the world would you allow an untrained, uncertified, or unlicensed person to be in charge of 30 to 35 students? It is wrong. It is indefensible. It is malpractice.
And you know the worst part, we know exactly where these unlicensed, uncertified, or out-of-field teachers are placed. They are placed in schools who have students with the greatest need. And why does the system continue to allow it year after year? Why do we tolerate a system that continually denies opportunity and equity for the same group of students? It is our professional responsibility to demand change. And as they strive to lower standards, to deprofessionalize all of our professions, we must come out stronger for higher standards. We must demand a performance-based assessment for all potential educators to be licensed to practice our professions.
Shortchanging teacher candidates on preparation, plain and simple, shortchanges students. High standards for all students, professional licensure requirements for all educators, must be part of an accountability system for equity.
Now, I know this has been kind of a long speech. I thank you for your patience and indulgence. I want to close with a quote, a few questions, and final comment. There is a quote that has puzzled me since the day I first saw it many years ago. It’s a quote by Marianne Williamson, and it begins with this sentence, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Why would we be fearful about being powerful? Is it a fear of accepting responsibility? Is it a fear that our solution won’t work? Marianne goes on in the quote to say as we overcome our own fears, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. I finally concluded that for me, the best way to understand this quote is to look at the power of the actions and accomplishments of those in the Montgomery bus boycott.
I am just amazed by that story. Three hundred and eighty-one days and no one rode the bus. No one. And that wasn’t an easy decision. It had a major impact on their day-to-day lives. They had to get up much earlier because they needed to walk to work. In Montgomery, Alabama, the sun does not shine every day. And where those individuals lived, there weren’t nice, wide paved sidewalks. But they got up early, and they walked to work. And they were on their feet all day long and then they had to walk home. And they did that for 381 days.
Now, Rosa Parks–one person–overcame her fear and refused to give up her seat, and her courage liberated others. For 381 days, they demonstrated commitment way beyond “I’ll try” or “I’ll do my best.” They demonstrated the ultimate commitment of saying “I will do whatever it takes.”
You see, they were about individual excellence. They pushed their personal limits to new heights, new heights of leadership and collective action and commitment. Their story inspires me. It energizes me when I think of this great organization and what we can accomplish in the years ahead. Three million deeply caring, talented professionals.
For me personally, when I leave this RA, please know this. I will always be a teacher and proud of it. I will always be a believer in the power and the promise of public education–the only real driver toward equity and excellence for all students. I will be steadfast in my belief that NEA is the only organization, the only organization with the capacity in terms of structure and finances and people to make our vision a reality. And please know that I believe in you. And I will remember with pride the professional expertise and deep caring that you exhibit every day. And I will always be grateful for the opportunity you provided me to serve as your president, and I say thank you from the bottom of my heart.
And for NEA, when we leave this RA, I want NEA to be better positioned than ever before to not only act, but to lead. I want us individually and collectively to be ready, willing, able, and committed to leading the drive for excellence in our professions and leading a student-centered agenda. I want us to be able to move faster and bolder than ever before to realize our mission, to advocate for education professionals, to unite our members in the nation, to fulfill the promise of public education, to prepare every child to succeed. And delegates, you know, I want us never to be timid or shy. And instead of waiting for someone’s position or permission, I want us to push our limits to new heights. Proceed until apprehended! And I want this organization to always be the kind of organization that has the audacity to dream big, the courage to act, the power to make a difference. NEA: We Educate America! Thank you.