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NEA Leader Stresses Goal
Of Great Public Schools
For All Kids

Dennis Van Roekel

Dennis Van Roekel, the new president of the National Education Association (NEA), brings to his job more than 23 years of experience as a high school math teacher, and almost as many years as an active NEA member. His mission, Van Roekel told Education World, is to support efforts that tie-in with the NEAs goal of ensuring a quality education for all students.

Education World: Who or what inspired you to be an educator?

Dennis Van Roekel: My mother was a teacher. She taught second grade in Iowa for 30 years. And to this day, she is truly an inspiration. Even in retirement, she continues to volunteer by tutoring children at a school in a homeless shelter.

Growing up in a very small town in Iowa, my parents, teachers, and people in my community always stressed the value of education and the doors that can open because of it. I decided in seventh grade that I was going to be a math teacher. After becoming a teacher, I quickly realized that teaching was only part of my responsibility. I learned that if you care about the students you teach and want to make a difference in their lives by advocating on their behalf, you have to go where the decision-makers are. So I joined with my colleagues and got involved in the National Education Association.

EW: As president, what is your vision for the NEA?

Van Roekel: NEA has clearly stated its vision: Great public schools for every student. Education professionals must come together and use their collective power to advance the promise of public education. When I envision a great public school for every student, I actually have a picture in my mind. I imagine what it must feel like to be in a building where educators have the resources and the opportunity to help Americas future leaders. I visualize a day when every student will have equal access to schools that are clean, safe, modern, and infused with the latest technology. It is our responsibility as an organization to make that vision a reality.

EW: What are your priorities?

Van Roekel: My main priority during the next three years will be linked to the mission of this association -- making sure that all students have access to great public schools. We must close achievement gaps, lower the dropout rate, meet the needs of English Language Learners, expand parent and community engagement with schools, and make sure our public schools are adequately and equitably funded. We will need to partner with elected leaders at the federal level to come up with well-designed policies. We must continue to build partnerships around common beliefs. Youll see us talking with those who might share our goals, but disagree with us on how to get there. If theres one thing I know, its that no one group can make that vision a reality alone. It will take all of us -- the children we serve deserve no less.

EW: What are some of the most pressing issues currently facing teachers in the U.S.

"Education professionals must come together and use their collective power to advance the promise of public education.

Van Roekel: There are various challenges facing teachers and the profession. One of the biggest issues is salary. You dont become a teacher because you want an executives salary. However, you must be able to make enough money to provide for your family. Thats why NEA advocates for a $40,000 salary for every teacher and a living wage for education support professionals. Every professional needs time to think, learn, and strengthen skills, and teachers are no exception. Thats why NEA stresses that schools and school districts should provide high-quality professional development so that education professionals can continue to hone their craft.

We also support mentoring programs for teachers. Its imperative that we address the teacher turnover issue. Thirty percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first three years and close to 50 percent leave within the first five years of teaching. I think pay, professional development, working conditions and lack of respect contribute to those numbers. Educators want to work in safe, quality environments with current textbooks, modern technology and smaller class sizes. They also want to be respected for the knowledge and skills they bring to the table. They want to have a voice in new programs and policies that affect children in their classrooms. After all, they are the ones on the front lines every day.

EW: The No Child Left Behind Acts status is uncertain, since its reauthorization was delayed in part because of other priorities in Congress. What approach to NCLB would you like to see the new administration take?

Van Roekel: No Child Left Behind isnt working -- because a good education is more than a standardized test score, and a child is more than a test score. The law is fundamentally flawed and grossly under-funded to the tune of $15 billion this year alone. The laws overemphasis on high-stakes standardized testing has made it more difficult, not easier, to accurately measure student learning. The law must be changed.

The NEA would like to work with the new [federal] administration to redefine the federal role in education. The government should fund past congressional actions and current federal mandates. The government has to move beyond testing, labeling, and punishing and begin partnering with states to address our childrens needs. The government should partner with states to do quality research to develop best practices and transparent accountability systems that truly measure student learning. Schools should be measured based on multiple ways of assessing both student learning and school quality. NEA believes the federal government should support public schools by strengthening enforcement of civil rights laws to promote access and opportunity. It should also help create the capacity at the local and state levels for school transformation. We expect to have a voice in the process and a seat at the table with the new administration and Congress in crafting what the next version of this law will be.

EW:How do you see the current economic situation affecting education?

Van Roekel: NEA members and their families are witnessing firsthand the impacts of the economic crisis. Schools are seeing record numbers of students who are homeless or qualify for free school meals. Rising fuel costs are forcing school districts to take drastic measures, including cutting field trips and shortening the school week. Some districts already have been forced to lay off school staff. In October, the school district in Dallas laid off 375 teachers and 40 counselors and assistant principals.

As a nation, we have a lot of economic issues to tackle and that means investing in public education. Its critical to putting our economy back on track -- in the short term and long term. We believe that all roads to economic security and prosperity go through our public schools. Education is key to preparing future generations to compete in a global economy and ensuring we have a strong domestic workforce.

The NEA would like to work with the new [federal] administration to redefine the federal role in education.

EW: U.S. students continue to lag behind most of their counterparts in other countries, particularly in the areas of math, science, and high school completion. How does the NEA plan to participate in addressing those concerns?

Van Roekel: Americas future economic success and national security depend upon a technologically literate society that is well versed in math and science. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that millions of new jobs will be created in the next decade that will require math and science expertise. We must make sure students are exposed to these subjects, not just focused on what circle to fill out on a standardized test. Schools should offer a diverse curriculum that will grab the interest of students and create a lifelong love of math and science.

Yet math and science are only part of the story. We need to make sure that students have school experiences that encourage them to work together to solve problems. They need opportunities to work on innovative projects and to learn to think creatively. Twenty-first century students need 21st century skills, and the NEA is actively involved in the development of 21st century standards that define what our students need to know and be able to do for success.

NEA is also concerned about the dropout rate. According to the study, The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts, the national graduation rate for whites and Asians is about 75 percent, while its only about 50 percent for African American, Hispanic, and Native American students. Thats why NEA has a Dropout Prevention page that includes a 12-point plan for reducing the nations high school dropout rate. The plan calls on parents, educators, policymakers, and community leaders to share the responsibility for making sure that all students stay in school and receive the knowledge and skills they need to lead productive lives. We have a multi-pronged strategy that suggests everything from mandating high school graduation or equivalency as compulsory for everyone below the age of 21 to creating graduation centers and early intervention programs.

This e-interview with Dennis Van Roekel is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Published 01/28/2009