Union Leader Urges for Restructuring in Education

The teaching profession in the United States needs a makeover, the president of America’s largest labor union—the National Education Association—said at the Graduate School of Education on Tuesday.

Dennis Van Roekel, who heads the union, said Tuesday that the current level of educator recruitment is insufficient to meet the demand for the 1.6 million new teachers the U.S. Department of Education says the country will need over the next decade. His union, the NEA, represents 3.2 million public school employees.

“We’ve got to find a way to find people who ought to be in teaching, who want to be in teaching, and they choose that as their profession and they stay there, or we’ll never succeed in meeting students’ needs,” Van Roekel said.

Van Roekel praised the recruiting done by Teach for America, but said that the two-year stints that teachers hired by the nonprofit work in schools are too short to have a long-lasting effect on the profession.

In his experience, he said, lacking a sense of achievement often leads new teachers to leave the classroom.

“We need to find a way to offer those different challenges young people are looking for without leaving education,” Van Roekel said. He suggested that frustrated teachers could take on other roles within the school, such as writing curricula.

He also pointed to lack of diversity as a problem plaguing the teaching profession. “We have got to change the face of the teaching force,” he said. “It’s got to reflect the way our students look.”

Responding to criticism that teachers’ unions like his allow ineffective teachers to keep their jobs, Van Roekel instead blamed the training that bad teachers received.

“We have to be far more aggressive in defining what it takes to be a good teacher and to ensure that no one gets in the field without knowing that,” Van Roekel said.

Van Roekel also criticized the use of students’ standardized test results as a means of evaluating teachers, as the No Child Left Behind policy prescribes.

“The high-stakes testing one day of the year—and taking that as a snapshot to evaluate students, schools, teachers, everything—is just wrong,” he said. Van Roekel suggested evaluations by fellow educators and by students as alternate options for reviewing teachers’ performance.

Maren E. Oberman, a student at the Ed School, said she enjoyed hearing Van Roekel’s take on the NEA’s values and goals. However, she expressed skepticism that his ideals can practically be put into place.

“I wanted to hear about how his vision has any chance of being implemented on the ground,” Oberman said.

—Staff writer Elizabeth S. Auritt can be reached at eauritt@college.harvard.edu.

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