A listening post monitoring public education and teachers’ unions.

How Slow Can You Go?

Written By: Mike Antonucci - Apr• 03•13

Richard Lee Colvin interviewed NEA president Dennis Van Roekel for the April 2013 issue of the Phi Delta Kappan. He focused on Van Roekel’s efforts on teacher performance and quality.

“Some union insiders report that Van Roekel is meeting internal resistance in these efforts, which are moving more slowly than he’d hoped,” Colvin wrote, adding that Van Roekel recognizes that “the changes he envisions for the union won’t be finished by the time his term ends in 2014.”

In a previous piece on the same topic, Colvin noted the parallels between Van Roekel’s situation and that of NEA president Bob Chase in the late 1990s. Chase advocated for a “new unionism” that emphasized teacher quality issues as much as salaries and working conditions. “But Chase got out ahead of others within the union, and his ideas were attacked and they quickly disappeared,” Colvin wrote. “Van Roekel, who is friends with Chase, said he learned a lesson from that. He will go forward as quickly as he can, but as slow as he needs to.”

Here’s an excerpt from a letter that the NEA president wrote in defense of his ideas. It’s a long clip, but necessary for a full understanding:

NEA is heading in a new, more assertive, direction regarding the national debate on professional issues and education reform. Judging from the reaction so far from around the country, that goal is being accomplished.

I believe, as do most friends of NEA, that NEA simply cannot afford to continue standing along the sidelines of the education reform debate, because the forces arrayed against NEA are most often the same forces that are arrayed against the very idea of public education in America. NEA has a strong, credible, and well-deserved reputation as a union and a political force. We worked hard to achieve our union and political reputation, and it has served us well to now.

However, according to polls, critics, friends, the media, as well as our own members, NEA does not possess anything approaching a strong and credible voice in the education reform debate. That reality for NEA is not only alarming, but also dangerous for public education. Without a strong, credible voice in this arena, NEA cannot continue to protect public education; if we cannot protect public education, we cannot protect our members and their jobs. Of equal significance for this country: without a strong, vibrant, improved public education system, millions of children will be shortchanged in their effort to be productive citizens.

…I believe that NEA must focus much more attention to the professional side of our organizational equation, while maintaining our strong commitment to the advocacy side.I believe that is necessary because for the last twenty-five years or so, we have allowed our union role to dominate at the expense of our professional, educational role. This professional atrophy has created many problems for our members who struggle every day with non-traditional union issues, and are desperately looking to NEA for new directions, new leadership and guidance.

…Of tremendous consequence is the equally sobering fact that NEA is not viewed by virtually anyone in the education, political, social environment as a creative, positive, and influential leader in making America’s public schools better. Quite the contrary, NEA is increasingly viewed as an obdurate and powerful protector of the status quo, which translates to the average citizen as the protector of bad public education. Even worse than being seen as irrelevant, we are seen as part of the problem. All the wishing in the world and all the organizational chest pounding we can muster will not change that fact.

If we are to protect our members’ jobs, I believe it is folly to continue demanding that NEA think and function the same way as in the past, while the education industry itself is verging on collapse. That’s what the steel unions did, and when the steel industry died, so did the jobs of hundreds of thousands of steel workers. If we in education are so charmed to the past that we can only do things the same way as always, public education as we have known it will soon become extinct, so will members’ jobs, so will the ability of kids to get an education regardless of economic and social status.

That letter was dated March 13, 1997 and written by Bob Chase. If the situation 16 years later is almost entirely the same, there is no reason to believe Van Roekel’s campaign will make a major difference in the 17 months remaining in his term.

Mission transformations are not impossible. I remember when The Learning Channel was about learning. Now it’s about extreme couponing and Honey Boo Boo. But it usually requires a change of ownership, so until that happens it makes more sense to bet on NEA remaining NEA.


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