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NEA kicks off national tour in Denver

The head of the nation’s largest teachers union chose Colorado on Monday for the kickoff of a U.S. schools’ tour highlighting reform efforts in which union members play a leading role.

Dennis Van Roekel, a veteran math teacher from Arizona who is in his third year leading the 3.2-million member National Education Association, praised initiatives underway in Denver Public Schools.

“I don’t believe you can change something as complex as a school system if you don’t have administration, school board, the employees and their union involved,” he said, “and Denver is modeling that perfectly.”

Scroll down to see video clips of Van Roekel’s interview with Education News Colorado.

Van Roekel spent part of the day at the Math and Science Leadership Academy, a two-year-old innovation school led by teachers. MSLA, in southwest Denver, was created by educators using the district’s RFP process for new schools.

He also participated in a roundtable of teachers, principals and administrators involved in creating a new educator evaluation system, funded by a $10 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Teachers such as Zachary Rupp, a music educator at MSLA and Columbian Elementary, met throughout the summer to craft a pilot evaluation plan that includes peer observers – or teachers evaluating teachers – working alongside principals.

Up to 25 schools are being asked to pilot the system starting in January, with rollout districtwide scheduled for fall 2011.

Lori Nazareno, co-lead teacher at Denver's Math and Science Leadership Academy
Lori Nazareno, co-lead teacher at Denver's Math and Science Leadership Academy
Grace Tatter

“It’s more than an evaluation system,” said Lori Nazareno, co-lead teacher at MSLA and another member of the summer work groups. “It’s a teacher support and training and leadership development system that everybody’s been calling for, for a long period of time.”

Van Roekel called the district and union work “very exciting.” He said the goal of his five-state tour, which includes Florida, Missouri, Ohio and Texas, is to see initiatives showcasing collaboration.

“What’s different now about what’s happening, I think, across the country and where I’m going this week are examples where all of the people who are in the system are doing it together,” he said.

Van Roekel’s first Denver stop on Monday was the new sixth-grade International Baccalaurate Academy at Lake Middle School in northwest Denver, a school that became the subject of bitter debate last fall.

DPS leaders proposed transforming Lake, the district’s lowest-performing secondary school, and co-locating a high-performing charter there. Denver teachers’ union members unsuccessfully fought the move and then worked to ensure Lake’s enrollment didn’t suffer from the charter’s proximity.

“I talked to the parents and wow, their involvement, their enthusiasm about what’s happening to the kids there,” Van Roekel said of Lake. “That is how you change that system … so that it will be sustained change and it will really deliver what we want for years to come.”

The NEA president visited Colorado in April to testify against a bill, now a law, that has won national attention for tying student test scores to teacher and principal evaluations. He said Monday that he still does not believe tests exist that can accurately measure student learning.

“We just don’t have those tools,” he said. “And what I’m a believer in is, until you do that part right, you really can’t move forward.”

Instead, Van Roekel cautioned against listening to “people on the outside” at the national level about how to improve public education. The answers should come from within the classroom.

“Those of us in education have to defend our own profession,” he said. “We have to come up with the answers, we have to change the status quo and we’re going to do that.”

Hear NEA President Dennis Van Roekel talk about the need for collaboration in school reform:

Listen to Van Roekel talk about why he doesn’t support linking test scores to teacher evaluation:

Hear Van Roekel talk about his hopes for the spotlight now shining on teacher effectiveness:

Nancy Mitchell can be reached at

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