I just received a copy of Dennis Van Roekel’s speech to the NEA RA in Denver.
It is his last, as he is retiring as President.
He waxed nostalgic but he hit out appropriately at the toxic culture of the corporate reformers. He lambasted NCLB. He is a mild-mannered and kindly gentleman, so it is hard to imagine him getting really angry.
In all of our history, we have always advocated for ways to improve education, but now we had to fight for the very existence of public education. As public education policy shifted from leveling the playing field into turning education into a competition with winners and losers, we needed to become the champions of equity, to define solutions that drive excellence and success for all students. The report “A Nation at Risk,” was the beginning of an attempt to totally redefine America’s system of public education. First, they labeled public education as a failure, a liability. And then in 2002, they lowered the boom with No Child Left Behind. Now, this was passed with overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans, but No Child Left Behind became an insidious tool used to undermine and attack public education. It’s been driven by mandatory high-stakes testing in grades three through eight. It became the mechanism for labeling and blaming public education, and by establishing a flawed measure of success–Adequate Yearly Progress, politicians created the means, the opportunity for corporate reformers to remake public education into a whole new source of profits that would be gathered at the expense of students.
And so now, 12 years after No Child Left Behind, where are we? These politicians and their policies have created a difficult environment for students and educators, delegates. You know clearly the issues that have become part of our daily lives and discussions: intense dissatisfaction with the conditions of learning and teaching, the need for more time in almost everything we do, time to teach, time to learn, time to plan, and time to collaborate with colleagues as we deal with all of these new demands placed upon us. The issue of privatization of more and more jobs of our education support professionals. The intrusion of for-profit players, both in higher education and K-12. Especially troubling is the increasing influence and control of huge corporations like Pearson and others. And the incredible onslaught of corporate reformers like Democrats for Education Reform, Michelle Rhee, and the like. Attacks on educators’ rights and even attempts to silence our voice. And if that were not enough, our lives revolve around testing–the overwhelming amount and the offensive misuse of scores from high-stakes standardized tests. For the delegates in this hall, for our members back home, the feelings generated by these and other issues are strong and they are real. I’ve seen them. I’ve heard them from you. And I share them with you. Feelings of anger, frustration, disappointment, and unrealized expectation of the Department of Education. Whether student, active, retired, whether higher ed, ESP or teacher, it doesn’t matter. We are all impacted and demoralized by these attacks. And your feelings are totally justified. I mean, really, 12 years is plenty long enough to evaluate their strategy of mandatory testing and test-based accountability. Plain and simple, their strategy has failed America’s students, especially students who are poor and students of color. And I say to you that it is simply not acceptable to continue down this path. The direction must change? Am I right? Am I right?
As an organization, public education, we’re at a critical point. We’re at another milestone in our history. You know, I guess getting older does have some advantages. It has allowed me to see and to experience many different things. And I can tell you that living through “A Nation at Risk,” No Child Left Behind, and the increased intensity of corporate reform, I have seen so many examples of injustice in our systems, and the negative impact on students. When I think of the 10 years preceding No Child Left Behind, I wish I could go back and do things differently. If I had only understood then what I understand now. You see, all of us in the education family–all of us–we knew the system was not fulfilling the promise, not fulfilling the promise for all of its students, not doing what they needed, and we allowed the politicians of the day, Congress, to define the solution, and their solution was No Child Left Behind. Now, I want to state something very clearly. We, the NEA, cannot allow politicians to define the terms of change and accountability for yet another generation of students. We cannot let that happen again!
That is strong stuff coming from a kindly man like Dennis. But notice what he did not say. He did not mention Race to the Top, which mandated the idiotic program of evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students. He did not mention “value-added assessment,” which has forced teachers to teach to the test. He did not mention Arne Duncan, the worst Secretary of Education in our history, who supports toxic testing in every form. He did not mention the Vergara trial, which challenges the due process rights of teachers.
I do not mean to be unkind to Dennis, who is leaving the presidency of the nation’s largest teachers’ union and who was generous enough to name me as NEA’s Friend of Education in 2010, a memory I will always treasure.
But I wish, I wish, I wish that he and Randi and every teacher leader would shout from the rooftops that what is happening now under the misguided “leadership” of the Obama administration will not stand! I wish they would recognize that Arne Duncan is a tool of DFER, and that the Obama administration has outsourced American education to the Gates Foundation. I wish they would issue a call for teachers to stand together to say NO to policies that hurt children, such as the Common Core tests that last for 8-10 hours. I want them to be angry and determined and proud and determined. I wish. I wish.