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NEA's $60 Million 'Great Public Schools' Fund Rolls Out

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The National Education Association has announced the first recipients of a fund that supports state and local projects to improve teaching—the latest salvo in a push to reorient itself during a time of rapid change in K-12 education that has produced angry debates, exhausted and sometimes frustrated teachers, and left state and local affiliates scrambling to respond.

Created through a $3 dues increase approved last summer by delegates to the union's Representative Assembly, the Great Public Schools Grant has disbursed some $2 million since September, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said at a Jan. 23 forum in Washington. 

In all, the NEA plans to fund $6 million worth of projects each year over a decade. Topics will include education technology, professional development, and peer-assistance and -review programs.

"We create campfires of excellence" in education, Van Roekel said. "What we need is a brushfire." 

Early grantees include:

  • The Kenai Peninsula Education Association, in Alaska, which will develop a cadre of observers to provide instructional support keyed to the Danielson Framework for Teaching, part of a new evaluation system.
  • The Illinois Education Association, which will train up to 20 members to implement the Common Core State Standards. Those educators, in turn, will support teachers in their own schools.
  • The Massachusetts Teachers Association, which will bring more educators into decisionmaking on the implementation of the common core, and will partner with Teach Plus and other organizations toward that end.

Find the entire list of grantees hereProjects are vetted by a team of NEA staff and elected leaders. Not every affiliate that applies wins funding, officials said.

The fund also probably stands to be the best shot at a legacy for Van Roekel, who is term-limited out of office this coming summer. 

Though naturally somewhat soft-spoken, Van Roekel has become more vocal in recent months about issues he's passionate about, recently giving a strong endorsement of the Common Core State Standards, despite misgivings from some quarters within the union. Over the last two years, he quietly oversaw the creation of the union's statement on teacher evaluation, and tried to patch up relations with Teach For America. Both moves required significant political maneuvering within the NEA.

At Scale

Whether this effort will change how the NEA does business remains to be seen. Historically, the union has struggled with similar attempts to focus members on teaching and learning issues, lighting plenty of "campfires" of its own that haven't always caught on

Some of that, said panelists at the forum, reflects the reality of trying to steer an enormous organization in new directions.

"The question is whether it can penetrate at scale," mused Elena Silva, a senior associate at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "[If] the locals just say 'no, that's not what we're doing,' then it ends. There need to be national players, there need to be state players, there need to be local players." 

Consider, for instance, NEA's regional-support program, known as UniServ, which aids affiliates—especially tiny or rural ones—with bargaining and greivances. UniServ has a wide reach in the country, but an NEA-commissioned panel acknowledged in a 2011 publication that UniServ directors were not really oriented beyond bread-and-butter matters. (That may be changing. One of the new grantees is, in fact, a UniServ council that wants to improve the professional development members get.) 

Leadership was another theme of the forum this week. This is not a minor issue: Union watchdog and critic Mike Antonucci recently reported on an internal survey that found that many rank-and-file members had little notion about what the union's leaders were doing, and saw no particular benefit to being more involved. (Frankly, you don't need a survey to tell you this is a concern for the union. Each year at the RA, the vast majority of delegates are baby boomers; it's rare to spot more than a few dozen delegates who are 25 or younger.)

Still, there are hopeful signs. Some of the union's leaders believe that a focus on professionalism is exactly what will engage a new generation of active union leaders. Paul Toner, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said that his union has seen much more interest in forums it's held on topics like the common core than on typical delegation meetings.

"ll be honest, I don't get 500 members when I do a 'traditional union meeting,' " he said.

Photo: National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel makes the case that unions should lead on matters of instructional improvement to an audience at the Center for American Progress, in Washington.  Image provided by CAP.

Follow along on Twitter at @Stephen_Sawchuk and @TeacherBeat.

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