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Leading the Profession

NEA's Bold New Plan for True Education Reform

By Will Potter and Tim Walker

Education reform is one of the most pressing issues facing the country, but the conversation about teacher policy is being driven not by the experts—teachers themselves—but by pundits and politicians who have not taught or spent time in a classroom. Historically, educators, unlike other professional groups such as lawyers or accountants, have lacked the authority to govern their profession. And the minimal influence they have had on education policy has only waned over the last two decades. In a recent MetLife survey, 69 percent of teachers felt their voices are not heard in discussions of public education.

What would it mean to change course? What if educators were leading the way, instead of being on the receiving end of misguided policies? What would reform look like if it were led not by pundits and politicians, but by teachers?

For years, the National Education Association (NEA) has been answering those questions. NEA has been learning what works, and what doesn't, from local and state affiliates and from top-performing education systems in other nations. This research prompted NEA President Dennis Van Roekel to call for an independent Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching (CETT) in the summer of 2010 to analyze the data and develop guidelines for the future of the teaching profession and the role of teachers in governing it.  

While this independent panel convened, the NEA also listened to thousands of members, and conducted dozens of hearings and meetings, seeking ways to transform the teaching profession and boost student learning. The CETT completed its report,

"Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning," in December 2011.

Now Van Roekel has announced a bold, new action agenda for the nation's largest organization of educators that will help transform the teaching profession and accelerate student learning. Speaking at the Renaissance Hotel in Washington, D.C., in December, Van Roekel detailed "Leading the Profession: NEA's Three-Point Plan for Reform." The plan's clear message: Teachers must take the lead, and they must take responsibility for their profession.

The net effect of the plan will be to increase the quality of teacher candidates, ensure that teachers remain at the top of their game throughout their careers, and improve student learning by helping educators become leaders in their schools.

"The NEA aims to ensure that every student has a qualified, caring, and effective teacher," Van Roekel said. "We will support a stronger profession of teaching, and I will put the full weight of our national organization behind this effort."

The action plan incorporates proven best practices from thousands of leading teachers from around the country, as well as input from the independent CETT report on how teachers can improve their own profession.

"This agenda takes up some key recommendations of the commission and addresses long-neglected problems that have inhibited effective teaching," said Maddie Fennell, the chairperson of the CETT and a fourth-grade teacher at Miller Park Elementary in Omaha, Nebraska. "It’s a crucial step toward more effective teaching and student learning and encouraging the union to meet those needs."

1. Raising the bar for entry

The first pillar of the plan is to ensure that all teachers are rigorously prepared for the challenges of the classroom. Van Roekel said it is critical to raise teacher standards both at the postsecondary-admissions and pre-service stages.

"In order to prepare the coming generations of students, all teachers must be effective—period," he said. Specifically, every teaching candidate should complete a one-year residency under the supervision of a Master Teacher before earning a full license.

The University of Maryland’s Master's Certification program is a model of this type. Teacher candidates complete coursework while working alongside seasoned professionals. At the end of the 16-month program, students earn a master's degree and are recommended for Maryland certification.

Georgia State's Network for Enhancing Teacher Quality program offers another style of mentoring. It is a residency program in metro Atlanta that provides teacher candidates a living stipend of $25,000 as they work with a mentor teacher for one year. As a condition of the program, candidates commit to teach in Atlanta for three years.

 The NEA plan recommends that, after a residency, prospective teachers pass a rigorous classroom-based performance assessment to ensure that they are prepared to lead their own classrooms.

To raise the bar for entry into the profession, the NEA will work with higher education and other partners to support the implementation of at least 50 high-quality residency programs over the next several years. The NEA will also advocate for regulations in the 26 states that are piloting Teacher Performance Assessment standards that would require teacher candidates to pass a performance assessment.

2. Teachers ensuring great teaching

Ensuring that only qualified teachers enter the classroom is just the first step. But the profession must continue to support teachers, providing them with career options, and helping them develop throughout their careers.

To that end, Van Roekel announced that the NEA will advocate for a new career path that has different compensation and responsibilities for Novice, Professional, and Master Teachers. Just as junior and senior members of any profession are given different levels of responsibilities, more advanced teachers should take on the most difficult-to-serve students.

By meeting novice teachers at their current level of experience, professional and master teachers can help improve their skills and help them advance along this continuum. It may sound like a common-sense way to organize a school, but it doesn’t always happen.

For instance, English teacher Stephen Bongiovi (pictured left) was nearly fired at the end of his first year. Fortunately, he wasn't let go, and he enrolled in a master's program at Hofstra University, where he worked with a mentor who shaped his outlook on teaching and his hands-on approach in the classroom. He was eventually named New York State Teacher of the Year.

Bongiovi's early career struggles aren't unusual. Too many administrators lack the time and training needed to provide consistent, quality evaluation. Often, there is simply no evaluation at all.

 On the complex topic of teacher evaluations, Van Roekel announced that the NEA will work with willing state and local affiliates to establish at least 100 new Peer Assistance and Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) programs over the next three years. Some NEA affiliates have long-established PAR programs that include structured mentorship, observation, and rigorous standards-based evaluations designed to develop great teachers.

 "I see this as the essence of a true profession: putting teachers in charge of the quality of their work," Van Roekel said. "Taking responsibility for the quality of teaching is essential not only to teachers but to the students they teach."

3. Providing union leadership to transform the profession

During the CETT's research and the NEA’s comment period, one message was dominant: Teaching feels more like a 19th-century line job than a 21st-century profession founded on expertise and decision-making. Educators need a loud, clear voice in decision-making if they are to transform the nation’s schools, and that collective voice is the union.

"Many local NEA affiliates are helping teachers and schools improve their performance—and raise student achievement—because teachers are taking responsibility for improving instruction, curriculum, and school performance," Van Roekel said. "When great teachers become great leaders, students reap the benefits."


Educators Rafael Bobenrieth, Rachel
Gardner, Hallie Gleason, and Brian Fain
(left to right) at Roosevelt High School in
Portland, OR are working together to achieve
National Board Certification.

 NEA members like Hallie Gleason are already leading the way every day. Gleason, a fourth-year social science teacher in Portland, Oregon, convinced seven of her colleagues to sign up for the nation's most rigorous teaching certification program, National Board Certification.

With the recognition that teachers like Gleason should be leaders in their schools, in the union, and in education policy, changes are taking place on a wider scale. In Evansville, Indiana, union leaders and district administrators are confronting challenges as partners, not adversaries. In 2009, they developed, and are now implementing, a groundbreaking strategy called Equity Schools that aims to transform schools through professional development for teachers and extended learning time for students.

To support the efforts already under way, the NEA will deploy its own national network to train 1,000 accomplished teachers for leadership roles. The NEA will also train educators from all 50 states in educational leadership based on the innovative curriculum being developed by the NEA Foundation’s Institute on Innovation in Teaching and Learning.

The bold plan articulated by Van Roekel has already garnered attention. Ronald Thorpe, president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, said it leads the way to where the teaching profession deserves to be.

 Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauded the plan as "stepping out of our comfort zones to challenge the status quo."

For Van Roekel, the agenda of the nation's largest organization of educators is clear. "I am committing NEA's strength and resources to making all these changes," he said. "Five years from now, we want people to look at NEA as a major catalyst for bringing about the kind of education all Americans want, all teachers can deliver, and all children deserve."

For more resources, see NEA web page Leading the Profession.

Findings From the Commission

In December 2010, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel invited 21 accomplished teachers and education leaders to be members of an independent Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching (CETT). Their task? To collect, study, analyze, and evaluate a body of data from diverse sources and determine a way forward for the teaching profession. Promising the full weight of the NEA’s resources and complete autonomy, Van Roekel instructed the commission to act boldly as they conducted their study and made recommendations for the future of the profession.

After a year of fervent discussion and debate on maximizing teacher effectiveness, and thousands of conversations with teachers, colleagues, and administrators from every type of school and community, the commission presented its report, Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning,” to Van Roekel in December 2011.

The commission’s vision for the teaching profession is one that, at its core, guarantees that students have the knowledge and skills they will need to be competitive, informed citizens in a fast-moving world economy.

With the primary responsibility for this vision, effective teachers must:

  • Know their content and have the ability to teach it to a broad range of students.
  • Be provided and avail themselves of professional development that is directly applicable to the classroom, and that fits their needs, from novice to master teacher. 
  • Share in the responsibility for teacher selection, evaluation, and dismissal through a fair and transparent peer review system.
  • Be compensated in a manner comparable with other professions requiring similar education preparation, knowledge, and skills, and determined by quality of teaching, assuming greater responsibilities, accepting challenging work conditions, and working an expanded schedule.

The report also calls for a National Council for the Teaching Profession to define and set the standards for a national system of preparation, licensure, and certification of all teachers and teacher educators.

Finally, the commission issues a call to action by the NEA, state and local affiliates, fellow educators, school districts, state legislatures, and the U.S. Department of Education to work in concert to guarantee the success of the programs recommended in the report to ensure that every American student has an effective teacher, and that teachers have all the backing they need to become and remain effective educators.

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