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An Interview With Dennis Van Roekel

Dennis Van Roekel started out teaching high school math in Arizona 46 years ago.  He joined the NEA there and rose through the ranks to head the Arizona Education Association, before becoming President of the NEA in 2008.  He has served in one of the most turbulent times in the history of the union, and is now stepping down.  I was interested in his reflections on his career and his time at the helm of the country's largest teachers' union.

Marc Tucker: Looking back, Dennis, was there a defining moment, a real turning point for you?

Dennis Van Roekel: That would have been 1983, when "A Nation at Risk" told the nation that our public schools were the problem, not the solution to some other problem, which is what Americans had been told time and again for decades as you and I were growing up.  After the war, there was the GI bill, then in my early school years, Sputnik and the National Defense Education Act, then IDEA, Migrant Education, and the Bilingual Education legislation.  Whenever our nation faced a challenge, we invested in education and education delivered.  That dynamic came to an end with "A Nation at Risk."

MT: Teachers are on the defensive now, but, as you say, it wasn't always this way.  They were once regarded by the public as the most trusted advocates for their children, not as an adversary, but now much of the public and many policy makers see them as the problem.  How did this happen?

DVR: When I started out in the 70s, I did not have to defend public education but now the attacks, from both right and the left, are constant.  In the 1980s and 90s, other nations invested heavily in their teachers.  Their dropout rates came down, student performance went way up and the difference in performance between their best-performing and worst-performing students declined radically.  Those countries are now at the top of the global comparisons.  The United States did not do that.  The United States apparently thought it could accomplish its goals in the schools by de-professionalizing teaching.  Take for example, the proliferation of alternative routes into teaching, the premise of which is that anyone with a degree in math can do what I do in the classroom.  As if my job as a teacher is to demonstrate to my students that I can do all the problems in the math textbook, as if teachers do not have and do not need any skills as a teacher.   If no professional knowledge is required, then anyone can teach and they will be very cheap.  That argument has led to more and more unqualified teachers in our classrooms.  This at the same time that the best-performing countries are ratcheting up their standards to become a teacher.  We desperately need to follow their lead, to strengthen the requirements to get into the profession.  I think it is wrong to tolerate unlicensed teachers as teachers of record.  Why would we take our most valuable asset — children — and allow them to be taught by someone who is untrained?  It is malpractice. Maybe teachers have been the target for so much vilification because the critics and policy-makers have embraced policies that de-professionalize teaching and therefore make teaching unattractive to young people who know they can be doctors, engineers and attorneys if they want to.

MT: You and I seem to agree that much depends on creating a true profession of teaching.  There are many ways that one would judge that that has happened.  Surely one of them is visiting a school and seeing that teachers are no longer punching a figurative time clock, demanding overtime for every minute beyond the scheduled day, but instead putting in as many hours as are required in any one day to get the job done, which is the way all the professionals in my own organization behave.

DVR: In the contract I helped bargain in the early 80s in Arizona, we got rid of the virtual time clock and required teachers to put in a "professional day," so teachers would arrive and leave whenever was necessary.  As a teacher, if I had to meet with parents at 5 PM then I would.  We were professionals.  If teachers did not show up when they were needed then the necessary avenues were used to take action.  

MT: We aren't going to get a true profession of teaching if we don't have real career ladders.

DVR: We spent a lot of time on a career development system in Arizona in the 80s.  The trouble in the United States is these words are so burdened with history.  Many union people's conception of career ladders was defined by very poor implementations of the career ladder idea.  Speaking personally, I really like Singapore's career development system of recognizing expertise in the profession, which includes a very well developed and sensible career ladder.  It makes it possible for the best of their teachers to get additional responsibilities but still stay in the classroom.  Part of the idea of a career ladder system is the way it is used in the professional practices of attorneys, doctors, engineers and so on, as the backbone of an advancement system in which increased responsibility and increased pay go hand in hand.  The current compensation system for teachers is not that, but it is easy to administer and it's the cheapest way to pay a large group of people.  We need to get beyond that, but, to do that, we will have to increase teacher's pay overall.

MT: One could view the NEA as an organization that wants the status, autonomy, and compensation that come from professionalism, while at the same time, trying to hang onto the blue collar union benefits it got during the 1980s.  Doesn't the NEA have to choose?

DVR: We will always need teachers' unions, as you yourself have said. My need and desire to advocate for polices and resources for my students are what brought me into the union — the need for the professionals' voice remains and the union is the means of providing professionals that voice.  But there is going to have to be a transition to a new kind of contract, one that is a better fit for professionals.  Union members, however, are not going to give up their industrial union rights to enjoy the benefits of being treated like real professionals until they are treated as real professionals.  Jerry Weast, former superintendent of the Montgomery County Schools, understood that.  He offered the union a real partnership, but he said he would leave the old contract in place while using a collaboratively developed MOU to navigate new ways of working together. It worked there and could work everywhere.

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