NEA president visits Somerville on Back to School Tour

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel and MTA President Paul Toner met with fellow educators in Somerville on Sept. 12 and held a wide-ranging conversation on issues including the Common Core State Standards, teacher evaluations and the need for educator activism.

The town-hall-style forum, held at the Winter Hill Community Innovation School, was part of Van Roekel’s nationwide Back to School Tour.

Jackie Lawrence
STA President
Jackie Lawrence
The tour – which also included stops in Chicago, Minneapolis and two communities in Oregon – has helped raise awareness about the NEA’s initiative to strengthen public education through the power of the organization’s 3 million members.

The Massachusetts event, moderated by Somerville Teachers Association President Jackie Lawrence, featured a frank exchange of views about a range of crucial issues facing public education.

MTA educators – most of them from Somerville and other eastern Massachusetts districts – posed questions to Van Roekel and Toner about the impact of poverty on students and communities, the need for educator empowerment, collective bargaining, organizing, problems facing unions across the nation, and the influence of moneyed interests in politics and policy, among other subjects. During the session, which lasted for about an hour and a half, a number of educators voiced specific concerns.

In response to a Cambridge teacher’s comment that she is “terrified” about how PARCC assessments will be used to evaluate teachers, Van Roekel said she is not alone. He said there is a need “for a new conversation about the use of tests,” and he pledged that the NEA will continue to “fight against the abuse of test scores” in teacher evaluations.

Paul Toner
MTA President
Paul Toner
Toner noted that the MTA was involved early on in the development of the Massachusetts teacher evaluation system, exerting its expertise at the policy level and insisting that high-stakes assessments not become a major determinant in the process. Van Roekel said he holds up the Massachusetts system “all the time” as a model of the way to do teacher evaluations the right way.

Van Roekel noted that one of the goals of the NEA’s Great Public Schools initiative is to get “transformative ideas” about education shared around the country. Toner said he would like to see more teachers “at the microphone” at civic gatherings and other forums, making personal connections in their communities and speaking out about issues important to educators.

He and Van Roekel both said that if educators speak out, they will be helping to combat negative media stereotypes about unions and public education.

Toner said that a “whole lot of players” have joined the education debate and that educators must be active on all fronts to make sure student-centered policies prevail. On issues such as “education reform, bargaining and digital online learning,” he said, unions and those who support them must “engage people, meet with them, talk to them.”

“We need to be part of the change,” Toner said.

Dennis Van Roekel
NEA President Dennis Van Roekel
Van Roekel’s visits have drawn attention to ongoing and threatened cuts to education, the implementation of the common core, the fight for publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs and full-day kindergarten, and efforts to strip collective bargaining rights from workers.

Van Roekel said that labor unions need to go “back to their roots and really organize communities” if they want to fight the well-financed forces that would privatize education.

He thanked the educators for coming to the meeting and engaging in “the lost art of the exchange of ideas,” reminding them that “everything we’ve ever gotten in this country has been the result of collective action.”

Today’s challenges are unprecedented, Van Roekel said, but it is “our obligation as the adults in the system” to bring about positive change.

A collection of tweets, photos and Facebook posts is available on Storify. More photos are posted on the MTA Flickr page.