Teachers Unions Step Up to Lead on Education Reform

By Dennis Van Roekel,
President of the National Education Association

For as long as we have had struggling schools in America’s cities, there have been efforts to turn them around. Those of us committed to equal opportunity have always believed that education gives students a foothold on the ladder to success. Yet recent studies show the role of education as a force for equality is threatened.

Research at Stanford University found that the gap in test scores between affluent and poor students increased by 40 percent in the past 50 years, while a University of Michigan study found that the disparity in college completion rates increased by 50 percent since the 1980s.

These trends do not bode well for the more than 20 percent of children who live below the official poverty line, including a third of African American children. While there’s room for improvement in almost every school, we clearly need to focus on those schools with high concentrations of poor students who have not been getting the education they need and deserve.

Instead of playing the blame game, local teachers unions are stepping up to the challenge of raising academic performance in these schools. I know this because I have seen it in schools across the country, including those that are part of the National Education Association’s Priority Schools Campaign.

Last year I visited Romulus Middle School just outside Detroit, an NEA Priority School that had struggled for many years. Its student population — 62 percent African American, 75 percent eligible for free and reduced lunch — resembles that found in many urban centers.

Romulus was named one of the lowest achieving schools in the state by Michigan’s Department of Education. The unflattering label followed the students’ consistently low scores on state tests, yet failure was not “The Romulus Way” — school officials’ values were steeped in responsibility and resourcefulness.

In the summer of 2010, Romulus was one of 28 Michigan schools to receive a federal School Improvement Grant (SIG), funds targeted to low-performing schools under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The infusion of cash was important — for new technology, revamping instruction and teacher training. But what really put the transformation effort over the hump was the collaborative efforts of teachers, administrators and the community.

When I toured Romulus Middle School in September here’s what I found:

  • Teachers taking responsibility for their profession. Romulus teachers helped write the SIG grant proposal, and over the summer attended in-service sessions and developed a new curriculum. To accommodate the new delivery of instruction, they added 25 minutes to the school day. And teachers adopted an alternative compensation program with an evaluation system based on student growth. These were bold moves designed with one goal: improved student learning.
  • Renewed community and family involvement. We’ve said for years: We can’t do it alone, and you can’t spell “partners” without “parents.” Romulus faced a tough local election to renew a portion of its funding. School leaders and community members joined forces with NEA and successfully engaged voters to pass a $10 million millage, providing much-needed resources for the next decade. A strong partnership was critical — the effort had failed twice before. It’s time we take partnership as seriously as we take curriculum, standards and tests.
  • A tweak here or a toggle there will not lead to fundamental change. In Romulus, district and school administrators, educators and union leaders seized on the public policy window afforded by the SIG program to remove the stigma of a “failing school” and change a system that didn’t work for them. They focused on significant and sustainable improvement.

After countless grand policy initiatives, and decades of education reforms and gusts of innovation, here is the lesson I think we can draw: the only way to turn around struggling schools is to work together — by demanding concrete changes that make low student achievement totally unacceptable for any group of students.

Done right, this approach can not only help students in so-called “failing” schools, but is a scalable strategy for fixing America’s troubled urban school systems. It’s hard work, and the transformation won’t happen overnight, but that’s all the more reason to get started as soon as possible.

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