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Virginia Journal of Education


Marching Orders

Former VEA and NEA President Mary Futrell calls educators to action.


Dr. Mary Hatwood Futrell is a beloved figure in Virginia education circles. From humble beginnings in Altavista, she rose to become an internationally-recognized leader as president of the VEA, NEA and Education International. Today, she serves on the graduate school faculty at George Washington University. Recently, she spoke to delegates at the VEA convention; the following is drawn from those remarks.


We gather during some very challenging times in our nation. On one hand, we’re struggling to address political and economic challenges of proportions we haven’t seen in decades. On the other hand, we’re

• Living in an increasingly information technology-based society, increasingly defined by the globalization of the economy; 

• Seeing the transformation of our workforce in a globally competitive job market. We must prepare our citizens to be successful regardless of what careers they decide to pursue—whether at home or abroad. We do know that a high school diploma is no longer sufficient for workers to fulfill the demands of many of today’s jobs. For instance, you may have heard that 75 percent of the fastest-growing jobs require future workers to have some post-secondary education;

• Experiencing more demands on our education system. For example, by 2015, K-12 enrollments will reach 59 million students; at the post-secondary level, enrollments are expected to grow to 40 million by 2025—that’s more than double the number of students enrolled in higher education today. And it should be noted that 80 percent of those new students will come from minority and/or poor families.

While this transformative change is taking place, there is another wave of change quietly unfolding which we cannot ignore. In the next five to seven years, 52 percent of our current teaching force will be eligible to retire. That’s approximately 1.7 million elementary and secondary teachers and counselors—all of whom will have to be replaced and then more hired to meet the needs of our growing student population.  Equally daunting, the percentage of school administrators who will be retiring is even higher. 

Some look at this shift as a bleak time; I look at it as an opportunity—an opportunity to build on the foundation established by these educators and to make it stronger as we redefine education in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, the environment in which this transition is occurring has become more intransigent rather than innovative. Teachers and other education employees have been forced to respond to growing demands for more test-driven accountability, which is simultaneously narrowing rather than enriching the curriculum. What happened to America’s legacy as a nation that focused on academic excellence, but even more importantly excelled in the area of intellectual creativity?

Further, while demands on schools continue to grow, support to fulfill those demands continues to decline as resources are reduced or eliminated. Recently I heard that in one school district, school buses have been eliminated so parents have to arrange to transport their children to and from school. Not surprisingly, this resulted in students missing more school days. 

Educators continue to feel the impact of inadequate funding. A recent national study showed that teachers are spending over $1,000 out-of-pocket annually for classroom supplies. That same study showed that over half of teachers work a second job to supplement their income. They’re doing this so they can afford to stay in the profession, not because they want to have another job. 

Recently, I attended the first-ever International Summit on the Teaching Profession, held in New York City. It was co-sponsored by international groups such as OECD, UNESCO and Education International as well as national groups including the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and NEA. The summit, hosted by the U. S. Department of Education, was attended by over 200 ministers of education, presidents of teachers unions and other key education leaders from 16 countries. The ministers and teacher leaders from each country talked about how they work together to address issues such as teacher recruitment and preparation; development, support and retention of teachers; teacher evaluation and compensation; and teacher engagement in education reform.

As I listened, I was struck by the stark contrast between how these high-achieving nations regard education, especially how they treat their teachers, and what’s happening here in the U.S. One of the most unforgettable things was the high regard with which the ministers and their countries hold teachers. Several leaders, from countries including Finland, Norway, Japan, China and Brazil, talked about how proud they are of their teachers, comparing them with doctors and lawyers, and spoke about how appreciative their nations are of the contributions educators make to society.

What else did I learn from the summit?

• That those 16 nations are focusing on strengthening their teacher preparation programs and recruiting teacher candidates from among the highest-ranked students.  An example of the high standards they set is that a number of countries require candidates to have earned a bachelor’s degree before entering the teacher prep program.

• Teacher prep programs in other countries are rigorous, with an emphasis on developing strong content knowledge as well as a pedagogical repertoire, and on using research to improve teaching and learning. Several ministers also emphasized the need to provide financial and other support for candidates as they go through the internship segment of the program. For example, Singapore pays $40-50,000 to future teachers while they are completing their internship.  Another country reported that since raising its standards and salaries for teachers, last year alone it had over 6000 applicants for 600 teaching positions. 

• In several countries ministers talked about building collaborative work time into the school week, thus enabling teachers to work together to address issues and support each other.  One country indicated that teachers have an average of 15 hours per week to collaborate with their peers. And they receive an additional 100 hours of professional development during the school year—not “drive-by workshops” consisting of one or two days.

• Several of the ministers made it clear that there were no proposals for reducing professional preparation for teachers or ranking teachers based on test scores. They talked about how they work to ensure professional autonomy for teachers, trusting them to work together to resolve critical educational issues. There was no demeaning of teachers.

• All agreed that evaluation of teachers is important, and two ministers shared how they and teacher leaders work together to develop such evaluations. In all instances, the evaluations focus on how well teachers help develop the whole child, not digitally ranking them based on test scores. 

• Equally important, ministers underscored that teachers should be paid salaries that more accurately reflect the contributions they make. 

• Finally, I was also impressed by the fact that ministers talked about how closely they work with educators and their organizations to address education reform issues. They said that their countries, despite dire economic times, are investing in education as a way to build a stronger future for themselves and generations to come.

Why am I sharing with you what I learned at the teaching summit? I think it helps us examine the strategies we’re using to position our nation. Rather than downgrading education, cutting back on its resources, demeaning its teachers and other employees, and demonizing public employees organizations, we need to work together to resolve the issues that are fragmenting us. 

Our peers around the world personified the belief that education has performed and will continue to play a critical role in the social, economic and political viability of every country. The same is true for us. The future of America is predicated on how well we educate every single child, regardless of the color of their skin, socioeconomic status, or whether they live in rural, suburban or urban communities.

As I listened to the discussion, I remember thinking to myself “what a contrast!” I kept wishing that every governor, state superintendent and state board of education chair in America could have been there to hear it. 

I thought about how, in many areas, education funding has been cut, not increased; programs, including summer school and the arts, are being eliminated; class size has increased; technologies are not being upgraded (if they exist at all); and thousands of school employees, especially teachers, are being laid off. I thought about the more than 5,000 teachers here in Virginia who have lost their jobs over the last few years because of budget cutbacks, and about countless other teachers who have not received pay increases for the last two or three years.

No one denies that these are difficult times; however, these are times when all of us should be working together, not pitting one employee group against another, or one generation against another.  
 
The last few months have been very demoralizing for public employees all across America.  We’ve watched them struggling to hold onto their bargaining rights, tenure, pension plans, salaries and equally important, their dignity, their voice as hard-working men and women. Public employee rights, including those of educators, have been attacked supposedly for economic reasons, but probably more for political reasons. As I have talked with educators from all over our great nation, many are dismayed that these rights are being threatened or even taken away.

We can empathize because we’ve been there. Thirty-four years ago, Virginia decided to strip public employees, including educators, of their collective bargaining rights. The decision was made that since there was no law allowing for collective bargaining in the state, such agreements were illegal, although they had been in place for years. I remember how devastated the teachers in Alexandria, where I taught, and all across Virginia, were when we lost that right. Shortly thereafter, there was also an attempt to significantly reduce state funding for education and for employee benefits.  We decided to rally against those initiatives.

For the first time in the history of the state, we, the educators of Virginia, gathered together in Richmond to protest. More than 7,000 of us gathered at the Capitol on a cold day in February to march in unity for our rights and against the cuts. We did not win the battle to restore our bargaining rights, but we did defeat the funding cuts. 

In many ways those struggles united us as we had never been before—and we are stronger today than we were almost three-and-a-half decades ago. 

We didn’t lose our commitment to the children of Virginia. Despite efforts to divide us, to even break us as an organization, we, as members of the Virginia Education Association, continued to fulfill our professional responsibility to ensure that every boy and girl in this state received the best education we could possibly provide and they could earn. Today, Virginia is ranked among the top 10 education systems in the country. Our commitment to do everything within our power to guarantee a quality education did not waver then, nor will it waver now in these daunting times.

I am, however, concerned that the attacks we have seen over the last few years, where educators are constantly demeaned, where accountability is used more to degrade teachers than enhance their effectiveness, and where policies are put in place which de-professionalize teaching, will hurt our ability as a nation to attract and retain strong, highly-qualified candidates into teaching and, thus, weaken our very foundation.  

Near the close of the constitutional convention that wrote the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin said, “We must hang together, or we will all hang separately.” That’s true for every member of this great organization. None of us can sit on the sidelines and expect that what we want to happen will happen. You—every one of you—holds the keys to change. Believe in yourselves; stand up for yourselves; advocate for yourselves—for the more united you are, the stronger will be the voice for public education, the teaching profession and the VEA. And, as you stand, send a message to the broader community to join you in guaranteeing every child in Virginia the best education this state can and should provide.

 You can help create a culture of collaboration. Assure that teachers receive dignity, respect, trust and more voice regarding professional issues in their schools, especially about making teaching and learning more intellectually attractive, and in the teaching profession. Equally important, assure that teachers have the professional autonomy to work together or independently to make decisions that they believe will improve their schools.

Rather than reduce support for education, encourage investment in curricular content reform aligned with standards and ensure that teachers have the resources to support achievement. Rather than narrowing the curriculum, enrich it to make it more intellectually challenging. After all, what students learn in school and how they’re able to apply it will last them for a lifetime.  

Rather than digitize accountability, work with teachers and other education professionals to develop an evaluation system designed to enhance teacher effectiveness through continuous, collaborative professional development, reflective practice and action research, with a focus on educating the whole child.

And, yes, fight for paying teachers and other education employees the professional salaries you’ve earned and deserve. Help make the teaching profession in Virginia one where the very best teachers want to come, teach and remain throughout their careers.

I grew up in Lynchburg, where I attended Payne Elementary and Dunbar High School. I know I would not be standing here, nor would I have achieved all that I have achieved in life, if it had not been for teachers such as Ms. Jordan, Mr. Clark, Mrs. Morris and Mrs. Watson, who taught me, who believed in me and who never gave up on me. My family, especially my mother, as well as the community that supported me, were also always there for me.

As you look back on your lives, I’m sure many of you can share similar stories. But in looking back, we also must look forward.  To each of you:

Thank you for all that you have done and continue to do to ensure that the children in the great state of Virginia earn the education that will allow them to open the doors of opportunity; 

Thank you for encouraging them to dream and then to realize those dreams; to look not only at where they are, but see where they could be; 

Thank you most of all for being the dedicated, caring professionals that you are;

Thank you for being the foundation of our democracy, of America and its future. 

I’ll close with a quote from Hillel which I have used to guide my life. He said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But, if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

 

 


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