After a few years of tremendous membership loss, the nation's largest teachers' union is reinventing itself.
"Instead of waiting for someone to tell us what to teach or how to do our jobs, let us be the change we are waiting for," Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association, said in his Monday afternoon address to the group's national convention in Washington, D.C., according to prepared remarks provided to The Huffington Post. The convention includes a gathering of the NEA's state and local affiliates and votes on union policy.
"We are part of … a system that has not successfully addressed the dropout crisis and allows kids who are poor to be stuck in schools that do not meet their needs -- placed into classrooms year after year with the least qualified, least experienced teachers," Van Roekel said. "If there is even one classroom with a teacher who isn’t prepared or qualified, we can’t accept that."
That passage illustrates the mixed messages in Van Roekel's speech: He criticized policymakers whom he calls "self-proclaimed 'reformers'" while promoting some of their policies.
"They want to use … test scores to evaluate teachers, label students, and embarrass schools," he said, also calling for the increased use of technology that can embed exams into lessons for teachers to pinpoint what their students are understanding. He also advocated for better teacher preparation and professional development, other favorites of the reform crowd.
His speech comes as the Democratic Party has altered its approach to education over the last year five years. Until recently the Democratic Party followed union wishes in developing education policy, but its center is shifting.
Many Democrats have departed from a pro-union stance and share views with some Republicans on education, favoring a standards-based approach that measures teachers' performance in accordance with students' test scores. After a group named Democrats for Education Reform launched in 2007, it was no longer politically incorrect for left-wing mayors to publicly bash their city's teachers unions. And at an event at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, they did just that.
But even while Van Roekel proposed "multiple measures" for teacher evaluation, last fall he opposed part of a revision to the No Child Left Behind law that mandated the use of student testing data for grading teachers. The Senate's education committee removed that plank at the wishes of the union. The NEA recently revealed it had spent $2.5 million last year on lobbying in connection with that bill.
One of Van Roekel's "self-proclaimed reformers" said the remarks gave him hope. "The glass half full takeaway is that there seems to be consensus that it's the system that's faulty, not individual teachers, some of whom have been ill-served by the system we have now," said Charles Barone, Democrats for Education Reform's policy director. "If we can all get on the same page on this, there's more hope for change over the next few years than at any time in recent history."
And the upbeat tone of Van Roekel's speech belies the last couple of tough years of teacher layoffs that have decimated the union's ranks -- and membership dues. According to Stephen Sawchuk, an Education Week reporter covering the convention from Washington, NEA's secretary-treasurer, Becky Pringle, referred to the group's membership decline in her opening remarks. Over the past two years the union's ranks decreased by 100,000 members.
The NEA expects that from 2010 to 2014 it will lose 308,000 members and $65 million, according to EdWeek. "We're living with a recession that just won't end, political attacks that have turned brutal, and societal changes that are impacting us -- from stupid education 'reform' to an explosion of technology -- all coming together to impact us in ways that we had never anticipated," Pringle said, as EdWeek reported.
Van Roekel also used his platform to express support for Obama's reelection campaign -- despite having sparred with the administration over education policy over the last few years. At last year's convention, the NEA became the first large national union to endorse Obama's 2012 campaign. "We know the other side will outspend us in this election -- but we can't let them outwork us," Van Roekel said.
Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill will address the crowd on Tuesday.
2:00 p.m.: This story was updated to include a link to Van Roekel's remarks.