Great Public Schools for Every Student


John Stocks: Student-Centered Leadership and the Long Game

Thank you President Van Roekel, Vice President Eskelsen-Garcia, Secretary-Treasurer Pringle, members of the Executive Committee, Board of Directors, delegates and staff.

For three years now I’ve had the honor of addressing the Representative Assembly on July 4th, the holiday when we celebrate America’s independence and our freedom.

This week also marks the 50th anniversary of the day that President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act – a landmark law that promised to establish equal opportunity for all Americans.

Today, we’re reminded that in order to enjoy the benefits of our freedoms we must do the hard work of defending and protecting them.

Today, I want to speak with you about student-centered union leadership and playing the long game.

It’s often said that good leaders confront the most difficult challenges of their time “head-on,” but that great leaders do more….

Great leaders also chart the course to a better future with conviction, character and courage.

For the last six years Dennis Van Roekel has been that great leader. He has led the organization during one of its most challenging political and economic times.

He has fought for all of us with deep conviction…. And he has confronted our greatest difficulties with respect for our past … a sense of responsibility for the present… and always… always with a commitment to safeguard our future.

Dennis… it’s been a great honor and a privilege to work alongside you.

You represent what it means to be a servant leader…. You’ve enriched the lives of our members….You’ve fought mightily to build a strong union…. And you’ve championed the causes of social and economic justice.

We all owe you a debt of gratitude for all that you’ve done to challenge our union to put students at the center of everything we do.  

And at a time when our adversaries are demonizing our professions… privatizing our jobs… attacking working families… and undermining the public’s confidence in our schools… you have taught us the importance of playing the long game.

Yesterday, Dennis talked about all the frustration, worry and anger that so many in this hall are feeling.

We’re frustrated by the barrage of bad ideas from so-called education “reformers” …. 

We’re worried by the assaults on our individual rights … and our collective rights to organize.

And we’re angry because many of the people behind these attacks are questioning our integrity and our commitment to our students.

Our opponents want to do more than just wear us down. They want to

destroy and dismantle our public schools.

You might be wondering… why in the world would they want to do that?

Why would they want to tear down the institution that built the economic engine of the world?

Why would they slam-shut “the door to opportunity” for millions and millions of Americans?

Why destroy an institution that created the middle class in our country?

… that gave Americans from all walks of life a sense of common purpose and destiny ….

These are big questions…. And, frankly, they all have a simple answer: money.

That’s right – money.

WE look at public education as an investment in our children and our country … a down payment on a brighter future.

But THEY see the dollars that are spent on public education, and they wonder how they can grab a fistful.

It’s not hard to connect the dots when you look at all the ways they reap their profits:

*Testing and more testing
*Privatizing food… custodial… and transportation services
*Vouchers that siphon resources from public schools to private ones, and
*For-profit companies that are privatizing our schools and threatening the greatest higher education system in the world.

So, yes, some people have a very clear financial motive for wanting to dismantle public education.

But it’s not just their motives that make me angry…. It’s the fact that their policies are BAD for students… and BAD for educators.

Policies that prioritize testing over teaching… that label and punish … and that completely disregard the important role that experience plays in effective teaching and learning.

These policies harm students … and they undermine the public’s confidence in educators and public education.

It seems like every day, we are fighting to beat back yet another attack on public education. And we’ve gotten pretty good at playing defense.

But we know that playing defense alone is not enough.

We have to mount an offensive strategy that makes public education stronger.

We must do more for the 33 million low-income children in America whose only chance of achieving the American Dream is by walking through the doors of a great public school.

Public education is supposed to be about equal opportunity. But today, the education a child receives depends largely upon the income of his or her parents.

That is simply unacceptable... and we cannot let that continue.

Sisters and brothers, we are the ones who must unite our members and lead the nation to fulfill the promise of public education for every student.

Our success depends on our student’s success.

We must make public education synonymous with excellence for every student in America.

If we don’t live up to this promise, we’ll find it harder and harder to defend public schools… and it will only embolden our adversaries to stay on the attack until they have destroyed public education and our union.

So how can we do it? How can we not only resist their attacks … but actually strengthen public education and our union?

Well, we can take some lessons from our biggest adversaries…the ones who know how to play the long game. Some of you might have heard of a couple of guys named the Koch Brothers.

The media is finally waking up to the fact that the Koch Brothers are behind a lot of the attacks on public education … attacks on unions … attacks on working families… attacks on our democracy.

All of this attention to the Koch Brothers is a relatively new thing … but their activities are nothing new.

The Koch family has been building the infrastructure to make their case for more than half a century… creating think tanks and advocacy organizations and buying newspapers and television stations to create a propaganda machine to control the public debate.

First, it was the John Birch Society – the pre-cursor to the modern-day Tea Party movement.

Then, it was the anti-government, right-wing Cato Institute.

Today, it’s the “so-called” Americans for Prosperity.

They laid the groundwork for their agenda decades ago … secretly funneling unlimited amounts of money to one conservative organization after another to push their ideological agenda.

They have pursued their goals with discipline and determination.

The Kochs play a long game because they can.

They can afford to invest resources today, hoping for a payoff 10 to 20 years down the road.

But most American families can’t play the long game.

Most American families have to deal with the here and now…. They have to pay the rent or the mortgage … put gas in the car … pay for health care … save for retirement … and send their kids to college.

Our opponents are banking on this. They think they can win the long game if they just grind us down, year after year…until we finally give up.

But that’s why we have unions – unions like the NEA.

Our unions give the American people a fighting chance – a chance we would never have as individuals.

So I have news for the Koch Brothers and all the others who want to destroy our democracy and our public schools:


NEA knows how to play the long game, too.

If we want to safeguard public education for future generations, we must lead the way… in our classrooms… in our schools … in our lecture halls… and in our communities.

We are the agents of change. We can’t count on anyone else to show us the way forward.


We must lead our professions….

We must define what good teaching and learning looks like.

We must ensure that all of us work together… to meet the needs of the whole child.

We must be student-centered union leaders.

And we must play the long game.

So what does student-centered union leadership look like?

There are some extraordinary leaders in this hall who are empowering educators to work together with their schools, their lawmakers and their communities to drive student success.

Imagine for a moment a school district that has been devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs… where the majority of students are living in poverty… where the district faces more than 16 million dollars of debt and the very real threat of a state takeover… where anxious parents are removing their children from their neighborhood schools by the thousands.

That scenario was all too real in Michigan for the president of the United Teachers of Flint, Ethel Johnson, and her members.

Ethel knew that the fate of their community was tied to the fate of their schools.

She also knew that rebuilding their schools and doing what was right for their students would require a lot of sacrifice – from everyone.

So she did what any leader would do. She asked for help… from the Michigan Education Association, the NEA and the NEA Foundation….

And then she joined forces with her district, local universities and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation to chart a way forward for Flint’s schools.

Together, they created a new education plan that puts their students at the center of everything they do.

Their plan is focused on building leadership... redefining good teaching and learning… ensuring accountability… and engaging families and their communities as stakeholders in the future of their public schools.

Well, brothers and sisters, they’ve drawn rave reviews for the unprecedented collaboration.

And this past week Ethel reported that their education plan was unanimously passed by their school board.

Ethel Johnson is here with us today….

Ethel, will you and the other UTF leaders please stand?

Ladies and gentleman, THIS is what student-centered union leadership looks like….

Now, I want you to imagine a state where 1 in 4 children lives in poverty… a state where public school students speak more than 59 languages… a state that is deeply in debt to its schools to the tune of 60 billion dollars.

The state I’m talking about is California where CTA President Dean Vogel is giving real meaning to the old axiom that the best way to predict the future is to create it.

CTA has proven by its actions that this is their time.

They’re empowering educators to define what it takes to help all students succeed. They’re advancing a student-centered agenda in their legislature and at the ballot box….

And they’re reaching out to their communities to engage them in the conversation about what’s best for their children… their communities… and their state.

And they haven’t done this overnight. They have a comprehensive strategic plan and they’re playing the long game.

Four years ago, CTA elected Governor Jerry Brown – a stalwart supporter of public education.

And, together, they pushed through Proposition 30 – the first tax increase in 20 years. It includes 47 billion dollars for their public schools and colleges over the next seven years.

They’re also implementing a new school funding formula that directs more resources to the state’s neediest students.

And then there’s CTA’s leadership around Common Core. Rather than be daunted by the major implementation problems, they saw the standards as an opportunity to drive the education debate.

CTA challenged the federal government’s top-down mandates…. And they stared down Arne Duncan when he threatened to pull their federal funding.

CTA is demanding that educators be involved at every step in the implementation process. They see it as “a right” for educators to have a voice… but they also see it as their professional responsibility to students.
Thanks to CTA’s leadership California is becoming a model for other states on Common Core implementation.

Dean Vogel, will you and the other CTA leaders please stand?

Ladies and gentlemen, THIS is what student-centered union leadership looks like.

And, now, I want you to imagine a community blighted by riots in the 1960s… a community riddled with crime… and abandoned by the middle class…. a community where families are disproportionately poor… and where their governor has taken control over its schools.

Now, I want to tell you about some union leaders in that state… some tough-minded, hard core trade unionists who believe with all their hearts and minds in the power of collective bargaining.

These same unionists created the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning… a non-profit that grew out of the heads, hands and hearts of educators… an organization whose mission it is to work with educators to build and expand successful programs that help all students succeed.

The Center believes that providing all students the opportunity to learn science and mathematics is critical to advancing social justice by giving ALL students access to the careers that will drive the modern world.

Today, the Center is training four times as many new physics teachers as any college in America.

And the students who take their science classes at high-poverty schools are outperforming the students at more affluent schools.

At Technology High School in Newark, almost 90 percent of the students come from low-income families – and 43 percent of them take AP Physics!

The overall numbers are impressive … but the stories of individual students are even more amazing.

Bob Goodman, the Center’s Executive Director, told me the story about a former student who struggled with math and science, but who was encouraged to take physics in 9th grade…. Thanks to his teacher, Sean excelled in physics in the ninth grade and went on to take advanced physics classes.

After high school, Sean joined the Navy where he found out just how superior his education was to his peers in the military. He aced the entrance test, and was given his choice of fields to pursue. He chose electronics and today he operates a military system that helps keep our country safe.

Recently, he returned to the Center in his Navy uniform and he personally thanked them for giving him the skills and confidence that changed his life.

This is just one of the many stories of students who have returned to the Center to share their success.

The Center’s success has been so remarkable that other state affiliates have adopted its programs with NEA’s help – leaders in states like Colorado, Utah and Vermont.

Remember those hard core trade unionists I mentioned? Well, I want you to meet the founder of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning – Joyce Powell, former NJEA president, a member of the NEA Executive Committee and a long-time educator and union leader.

Joyce, will you and the NJEA leaders please stand?

Ladies and gentlemen, THIS is what student-centered union leadership looks like.

So we have a formula for student success. It is based on empowered educators like the ones in California… accomplished professionals like the ones in New Jersey… and dynamic collaboration like what is happening in Flint, Michigan.

In order for this formula to work, it requires union leaders to put students at the center of everything we do.

In difficult and challenging times we are often called to lead.

Lying deep within each and every one of us is an untapped source of enormous power capable of changing our destiny.

This power within us often lies dormant until something or someone questions our integrity… tramples on our core values… or threatens something that we hold dear….

When this happens, the leader within each one of us is revealed… and our power unleashed.

… the power to advocate for education professionals

… the power to unite our members and the nation

… the power to fulfill the promise of public education

… and the power to ensure that every student succeeds

That’s what we stand for.

That’s what we’re fighting for.

And that’s why we will never give up!

Thank you, NEA members, and thank you President Van Roekel for your great leadership.