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Full Text Transcript of NEA President Dennis Van Roekel’s 2009 RA Keynote Address

Delivered at the 2009 NEA Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly

Thank you, Lily, for your introduction.

I know some of you may find it hard to believe (knowing how young I look), but this is actually my 30th consecutive RA.

And every year when I walk into the convention hall, I feel that same sense of pride I felt the very first time.
Pride in who we are ….
Pride in what we stand for … and what we have accomplished.

For 152 years, NEA has stood as a living testament to our founders belief that a good public education should be a fundamental and basic right guaranteed to every child.

They saw the power of public education to transform the lives of millions of students … regardless of status or wealth.

They also believed that unless everyone enjoyed equal rights and opportunity, no one did….
The fight for equality … and against discrimination – in any form – continues today.

Fighting against the status quo came to define this organization.
From denouncing slavery before the Civil War…
to electing NEA’s first woman President ten years before women were granted the right to vote,
to the historic step of merging NEA and the American Teachers Association during the 60’s.
Ours is a history of advocacy and struggle…

But it wasn’t just the struggle that defined those who came before us.
It was their individual and collective acts of courage.

This is a legacy that the National Education Association is proud to call its own.

As you look around this room, you are part of that rich legacy, part of that history.

The people in this room represent the largest deliberative body in the world –
Almost 20 times the size of Congress.

And to make it even better, we are at a unique moment in our history …
a crossroads defined by both its challenges and its opportunities.

There is an old saying from the 70’s union organizing that some of you in this room will remember well –

“No one has ever handed us anything …
everything we have, we had to fight for.”

And today, after NEA’s 150-year journey, that mantra still holds true. The challenges of previous generations have been replaced with new challenges … the challenges of our time.

No one needs to explain to you the difficulties confronting us as a country and as an organization.

You are all living it … it is all around you.

Our nation is fighting the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression ….
Millions of jobs lost… 14 states now have double-digit unemployment.

Millions of homes foreclosed….
48 million Americans without healthcare
An all-time high number of children on free and reduced lunch…
School budgets slashed…
Our very livelihoods threatened.

Thousands of teachers, Educational Support Professionals, and higher education faculty and staff have lost their jobs …

yet not one less student needs a ride to school …
not one less student needs a healthy meal at school …
and not one less student needs caring adults to provide an education, training for a new job, or hope for the future.

Nowhere is the economy worse than right here in CA, $24 Billion budget shortfall. Drastic cuts to education – both in terms of people and programs.

And around the country - states have shortfalls that amount to as much as 20% of the state budget.

If that weren’t enough, our nation is fighting two wars and combating threats around the world.

These urgent times have shaken American’s confidence.

Consider the fact that only 1 in 3 Americans is confident that our children’s generation will be better off than us….

But for most of our lives, we just assumed that our children and grandchildren would Inherit a brighter future than our own.

Not today. We are reminded that there are no guarantees … that none of our hopes … none of our dreams can be achieved without the kind of leadership and collective action demonstrated by our founders.

And as history teaches us, in adversity we must see opportunity

Today I want to talk to you about NEA’s role –
and our responsibility – in defining the journey ahead.

Today’s times call for NEA’s leadership to focus in three specific areas:

1) Leading the efforts to transform public education;

2) Helping to rebuild the middle class by strengthening the labor movement; and

3) Building our capacity as an organization … to ensure that our power is felt and our influence is clear.

First - Transforming Public Education

These days it seems like everyone has a plan to “reform” our schools.

You know what really irks me about these plans? Most did not ask the people in the classrooms and schools for collaboration or answers…. Most do not acknowledge that any kind of change requires a true partnership – between management, government, educators and their unions.

Our members – the people on the front lines – know what it takes to increase student learning … to transform the system.

But we have to do more than define a vision for transforming public education… we must lead the nation in making this transformation happen.

Notice my use of the word, “transformation.” I didn’t choose words like “fix,” “repair,” or “reform” … I purposely used the word “transformation”

Webster says “reform” means to “remove faults or abuses”. Now, not that I’m against removing faults and abuses, … but that’s not enough.

“Transform” means to “change something from one form to another.”

You see, the current system was designed at a time when the country needed a few to be prepared for college, but it was also acceptable for large numbers not to graduate from high school.

In an agricultural and industrial age, there were many jobs – good jobs – available for those without a high school education.

And for more than a century, our public schools served the needs of students and our country well.

But that world no longer exists.

We now live in an interdependent, rapidly-changing world and our public school system must adapt to the needs of the new global economy.

This 21st century is an age of knowledge and lifelong learning, with every aspect of our life impacted by technology and rapid change.

Success now depends on providing every student a high school education, which includes the 21st century skills and knowledge needed for career or college.

But the old system still exists – and in that system, 20-25% of students do not graduate from high school.

If you are poor, African-American, or Hispanic … it’s closer to 50%.

The old system has generated a consistent drop-out rate for the last 20 years … it doesn’t fluctuate like the Dow Jones … it produces almost the same number of drop-outs year after year after year.

And for those who have dropped out …
there is no hope, no opportunity … no possibility of achieving the American dream.

This loss of human potential is simply unacceptable.

None of this is new to us.

In every state and district I have visited in the past 10 years, I have found examples of innovation – Innovation created by individuals, many in this room, who found ways to lead, inspire and create new possibilities for students.

And contrary to what our opponents might say…
NEA welcomes a national conversation about how to transform our school system …
better ways to measure student learning…
to improve the practice of our profession…
to attract bright and talented students into teaching…
and to confront the problems that plague poor and minority children in struggling schools.

Our job as educators has never been easy ... and it doesn’t really lend itself to a simple job description.

Let me share just one example…. One morning last winter, I was watching the local morning news when the news anchor announced that Maryland schools would be closed that day due to bad weather.

Upon learning of the school closure, a group of children expressed great disappointment with the announcement. A reporter, surprised at the reaction, asked them why they were upset.

And one of the students quickly answered, “If we go to school, we get to eat breakfast today … and I’m hungry already.” How sad … no school, no breakfast.

This is the role that our members and our schools must sometimes play… from educator… to mentor… to safe haven…

You see the smiles, the tears … you provide a safe place…a place of hope.

Another role as educators has always been to ask questions…
seek answers...
and study the issues. And not just in the classroom.

And in today’s world we must be willing ask new questions…
and seek new answers.

We must re-examine widely held views …
be open to new ideas,
new strategies …
new opportunities….
And we must confront the most difficult challenges in education.

And in return, we ask our lawmakers and policymakers to do the same.

They, too, must re-examine political solutions offered as easy answers to difficult questions…

Like promoting vouchers instead of investing in our public schools… that is not solution!
Or reducing the measure of a child’s learning to a simple test score… that is not a solution!
Or suggesting that putting the word “charter” before “schools”, magically leads to innovation.

The truth is … this is hard work… and there are no simple answers.

And if we’re going to make transformation successful… it will require educators to be initiators and collaborators.

We are fortunate to have a new President and Education Secretary that understand that school transformation is something you do WITH educators, not TO them.

Two years ago in Philadelphia, then-Senator Obama told our delegates that… “The work you do and the difference you make has never been more important to the future of this country.”

Since November, NEA has been building a positive working relationship with the Obama administration... including the Department of Education.

In fact, after my first meeting with Secretary Duncan,
I couldn't help but comment that in one week, we had exceeded the total number of meetings in eight years of the previous administration.

This administration has shown a willingness to listen… to remain open… to hear directly from educators. That’s why Secretary Duncan was here yesterday – to provide you an opportunity to listen and to share your thoughts and opinions.

But building a good relationship does not mean we will agree on everything. That’s already clear.

And frankly, I didn’t expect to.

I mean, if we don‘t agree on everything INSIDE NEA – why would I expect total agreement with those OUTSIDE NEA?

But what it does mean is that we have the opportunity to make sure that the voice of educators, your voice, is part of the discussion.

But what is most important to me is that even though we may disagree on strategies or tactics,
I have no doubt that this administration, both President Obama and Secretary Duncan,
share our vision of a Great Public School for every student.
They share our mission to fulfill the promise of public education for every student.

And regardless of any disagreements on how to reach our common goals, we can't ever stop working together to get there.

You know, on the big education topics of the day… accountability… compensation… struggling schools… dropout rates … achievement gaps … teacher quality … ESEA reauthorization … it is ridiculous to suggest that educators will walk away from discussing any of these issues.

Here’s what lawmakers need to know and understand:

On the issue of accountability, our members overwhelmingly believe that they should be accountable for what happens in the classroom.

But they also believe that the influences on a child don’t begin and end in the classroom.

Accountability also has to extend to students…
school administrators…
community and YES,
to our policymakers!

Our members are open to considering alternatives to the current compensation systems…. In fact, some of our states and locals have already bargained new systems.

But we understand that compensation systems are bargained and negotiated not imposed!

When it comes to measuring student learning, our members know that it involves much more than a test score. We have to look at multiple measures that take into account each student’s starting point – and most of all – we need student assessments that actually measure student learning based on adopted standards and the curriculum.

Our members welcome new data systems that can be used to individualize and inform instruction … but not systems that are misused or designed to label and punish.

And on the subject of improving the lowest-performing schools… those that are struggling… the ones that are hardest to staff with experienced educators….

We agree that the status quo is not acceptable. But we also know that these schools are hard to staff for a reason…. The problems in these schools cannot be solved by simply paying educators a small bonus and then not also changing the learning and working conditions.

When a system is failing students…
either due to bad leadership…
unsafe conditions…
bad facilities…
decades-old teaching materials and technology…
or the underlying poverty in the communities…

policy-makers have to recognize that these problems can’t be solved by addressing any one factor …. We have to look at the whole system.

If you want different results … and ensure that every student has access to the same education as children in the best schools, then policymakers have to make the kind of investments and choices that allow that to happen.

The last time Congress took up ESEA, they offered a hollow promise when they said, “No Child Left Behind,” …

so this time we say, “Leave that name behind” if you don’t mean it …

Don’t pass another “one-size-fits-all” law that doesn’t address the needs of each child….

Don’t measure student learning with a single, high-stakes, poorly designed test …

And instead, pass a law designed to help students - not label and punish!

But it isn’t enough to fix a bad law, or reject bad ideas.
NEA must also provide clear and effective policy alternatives.

We have done much over the last two years – developing the criteria for Great Public Schools as well as the indicators of success for each criterion –

and we will do more by engaging you, the practitioners, in developing those alternatives.

As we continue to develop effective policies and strategies, there is one point that we must never forget – and we can’t let our President, Congress, our governors or legislatures forget it, either.

That point is this – you cannot separate teaching from learning. You cannot separate the professionals who work there from the students who learn there.

No system can be successful without the skills and knowledge of all the people who make students’ dreams possible – from Pre(k) to G.

I recently listened to Anthony (Tony) Mullen, the 2009 Teacher of the Year, talk about educators.

He eloquently pointed out that good teachers are the ones who are able to read
a child’s life story … and recognize the remarkable opportunity educators have to help author that story.

They can script confidence and success onto blank pages…

They know how to edit the mistakes…..

That’s the difference between our profession and others.

We must read each child’s story…
and help them write the chapters that lead to fulfillment of hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

Now, that can’t be easily measured…
and that sure can’t be legislated or purchased.

But as we consider what can be legislated …
what investments can be made…
policymakers need to be reminded that every proposal must be evaluated by asking one simple question:

Does it improve student learning AND strengthen the education profession?

This is not an either or calculation.

We need to do both.

The Second area on which we must focus is Rebuilding the Middle Class and the Labor Movement

From our founding in 1857, the mission of this organization has always centered on public education, students, and the people who choose education as their profession.

You often hear people say that “nobody goes into education to get rich” … probably true ...

But it’s also true that nobody goes into education to be poor!

I don’t think our expectations are out of line – I am not embarrassed to say that I believe that educators’ work is important, that we do our job well …. and that we deserve quality pay, benefits, a secure retirement, and the resources needed to provide for our own families.

In fact – I don’t know of anyone in America who doesn’t deserve that.

The power of the American Dream is the establishment of the middle class – common, everyday people who work hard, and enjoy a standard of living envied around the world.

The last few decades have not been kind to the middle class. In 1965, a CEO’s pay was 24 times the average worker’s pay. In 2005, it was 262 times the average worker’s pay.

Leaving out weekends … that means a CEO makes in one day what the average worker makes in a year! And this at a time when the increases in productivity of the average worker have never been higher.

Education Support Professionals aren’t trying to become rich but they deserve middle class salaries and benefits! Many of our ESPs don’t receive much of a pay check every two weeks – almost their entire net pay is consumed by the cost of health care for their family.

On top of that, some members of Congress have proposed taxing health care benefits. No way!

If health care benefits are taxed, some of our members would end up owing their employer money every two weeks instead of getting a pay check!

And it’s not just educators who deserve more – all working families in America deserve more!

We cannot close the achievement gaps when so many of our student’s families don’t have job security…
health care coverage…
or access to living wages and benefits.

NEA must be an active player in rebuilding our middle class … for our members … for the families of our students … for all of America’s working families.

Decades ago, NEA began advocating for our members and helped to lead the fight for better salaries… quality benefits … and secure retirement systems.

Our efforts were built on the successes of unions in the private sector –
the union movement created the middle class, ended child labor, championed public education and gave working men and women a strong voice.

Plain and simple, you can’t have a middle class without unions!

All of that - the very way of life of the middle class - is threatened now.

NEA must join with its allies in the national fight to secure health care for every American.

We must fight for the policies that will bring economic security to our members and the families of our students.

We must fight to give working Americans the right to form and join unions by passing the Employee Free Choice Act!

Today’s fights are the fights for working Americans, the millions of people who lie awake at night wondering if their job will be there the next day…

whether they will be able to hang on to the house that they call home…

or whether they can provide their children with the medical care they need ….

Like the struggles of our founders…
these issues aren’t about just us – they are about everyone…

They cannot be fought alone….

They will require us to work alongside our allies.

These fights will require a strong, unified, labor movement.

So we must do our part to rebuild that movement to what it once was …
a strong and powerful voice for education and working families.

We want to transform education. We want to strengthen the middle class.

We cannot do these things unless we are organized.

Our success is dependent on the third area of focus:

Building our own capacity as an organization.

So how do we … as individuals and as an organization … provide the leadership needed in these urgent times?

We start by investing in our 51-state affiliates and our 14,000 locals.

We are an organization whose very foundation relies upon the strength of our affiliates.
I won't let us ever forget that.

Our states have weathered - and continue to weather –
the extraordinary impact of the economic crises on education budgets,
and on our affiliates' own fiscal health.

NEA has always supported the critical work that you are doing in the states.

But this time the need is greater so our response must be greater.

NEA will empty its buildings to help you sustain and build your memberships…

NEA will support your efforts this year and next to elect more pro-public education governors.

Your state legislative fights will become our fights.

We will do everything in our power to keep the foundation of this organization strong.…

My guess is that many of you … feel the same pressure I do from all the challenges that surround us.

But when I think of the hard road ahead of us … the difficult decisions …

I also think about the pressures that our predecessors must have felt, the challenges they faced,
how they struggled to lead our organization through difficult times….

Regardless of the pressures … they persevered … and brought this great organization to where we are today.

I ask you to take the lessons from our founders...
leaders who were not bowed by the enormity of their challenges … but galvanized by them.

So today - I ask each one of you to take action….

I ask you to get involved – personally – in the effort to turn around the lowest performing schools in the nation.
Over the next five years, the Department of Education will focus on these troubled schools, where a disproportionate number of students live in poverty and drop out of school.
By focusing on these schools, we can achieve the greatest possible impact …
we can make a difference in thousands and thousands of lives.
These schools are everywhere.
Half are in urban areas,
30 percent in rural areas,
and 20 percent in suburbs.
So I am asking you to get involved. If you are able to staff or teach in one of these schools, please do so.
If not, maybe you can mentor a new teacher or a student … or help a school establish strong ties with parents and the community.
But it is important that you do something - because these kids deserve better – and we are the ones who can make a difference.
NEA started our work on High Priority Schools more than 10 years ago, … and the NEA Foundation has spent millions of dollars supporting efforts to close the gaps and stem the dropout rates.

Now that the federal government is planning to spend Billions of dollars on turnaround schools – we need our local unions to be involved and active in the design and implementation of those plans. The voice of educators must be heard.

One of our core values is Partnerships – and transformation cannot happen without a partnership including management, government, and the union – a partnership that reaches out and engages parents and the community.

We are the professionals –
we are the members of the largest professional association/labor union in America.

So, we need to act in the spirit of those who grabbed onto the reins of collective bargaining and political action.

Past NEA leaders who wrestled power away from those who had it … and fought for better pay and benefits, and employee rights.

Now it is our turn to show the nation that we know how to transform a troubled school …
and show them that it can be accomplished without penalizing our members.

I am asking you to organize like never before.

In the old days, it might have been enough to round everybody up for a meeting once in a while.

Today, in the era of e-mail, Face Book, and Twitter, that is not enough.

We must be able to mobilize active members at a moments’ notice – just as our opponents can do.

For a start, NEA needs to have at least 50 activists in every congressional district by January 1, 2010.

That’s 21,750 activists. If everyone in this room signs up, 40% of the slots will be filled!

Whether it is health care, … reauthorization of ESEA or any other federal legislation that affects our members – we must be able to move at Internet speed.

I ask you to build that list – NEA is creating a web site exclusively for the 2009 RA-delegates. It will be available in September and we will use that web site to engage you over the coming year.

And finally – I want to ask you for something else. Not an action or an activity. Something much more personal:

I ask you to believe in the POWER of this organization – to believe, that in spite of all the challenges we face, that we, individually and collectively, have Power … the ability to act, to influence, to make a difference.

This one is tough – I know.

In April, I served on a panel to discuss the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Of course there were the expected questions about the money allocated for education – the impact of the funds, … would they be used properly, … was it enough to plug the gaping holes in state budgets.

One question caused me to pause – the moderator asked …

“At a time when NEA members must face budget cuts and layoffs due to the economic pressures on state and school district budgets, … the administration is calling for innovation and to turn around the most challenging schools in America … can you do both? “

Can we do both? Can we fight to survive and transform public education?

Thoughts raced through my mind: Is this the right time to think about long-term aspirations … to take on the most difficult challenges?

Would two or three or five years from now be better?

Maybe when the economy is stronger, employment is back up, both in education and the nation.

But then I thought - if not now … exactly when would it be a better time?

And if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity to transform public education right now, will we get another chance?

For me the time is now – despite all the challenges – this is our time, our opportunity.

And what drives me each and every day is the class of 2020.

They started kindergarten in the fall of 2007 – they just finished 1st grade few weeks ago.

I imagine them all in a giant stadium – America’s most valuable resource – America’s future.

And then the reality hits me hard – knowing that although I cannot predict what will happen to any one of them next month, next week, or even tomorrow …


I can tell you with pinpoint accuracy what will happen to them by 2020.

Within two percentage points,
I can tell you how many will drop-out,

how many will be incarcerated,

how many will commit suicide,

how many will be teen parents.


We cannot allow those results to be true for one more generation.

And we can’t wait until 2010 or 2015 to begin –

We must begin now – we must begin TODAY!

I know we have the power to make a difference.

At 3.2 million members, we are the largest professional organization/labor union in America.

We are celebrating 26 consecutive years of membership growth.

We have doubled our membership since 1983 …
from 1.6 million to 3.2 million members.

We have grown stronger …. And more powerful.

Now it is our challenge to use that power, … to transform public education for the good of our students, … to rebuild the middle class for the good of our country, … and to organize like never before for the good of our members!

The theme of this RA is “Hope Starts Here.”
That doesn’t mean that hope didn’t exist until today, in this convention hall.
It means, that hope starts with you … just as it has for the past 152 years.
It means that hope starts with education … just as it always has.
A kid on a farm, walking miles to a one-room schoolhouse…
An immigrant who came to this country and struggled to make ends meet, but always insisted that his children go to school …
A soldier who came home from World War II and entered college on the GI Bill …
The Little Rock Nine, and all of the thousands of brave students who helped break the barriers of segregation …
For all of them, and for millions of other Americans, the hope of a better life has always started with education.

Hope Starts Here – because we can imagine a new future …
A future filled with promise for our students, our members, and the nation.

Hope Starts Here – because our nation is suffering difficult economic times.
And the road to economic recovery and a brighter tomorrow runs right through our public schools!

And, ¬Hope Starts Here – because we have the kind of opportunity that only comes along once in a lifetime –
an opportunity to transform public education,
to realize our great audacious vision:
A Great Public School for Every Student.
Something that has never been accomplished anywhere, not even in America. Not ever in the history of the world …
But we have the opportunity to make it happen!

We have the history …

We have the skills and knowledge …

We have the power …

And we have the courage.

Now we must seize the opportunity …

NEA 2009: Hope Starts Here.