TAMPA — It's a tough time to be president of the nation's largest teachers union.
On one side are teachers across the country, who are being laid off and furloughed in record numbers amid the worst recession in generations.
They are doing the same job with more students and, in many cases, less money. They say it's no time to ram through hasty reforms.
On the other side is the president of the United States, his Education Department and a chorus of experts clamoring for improvement.
They see thousands of struggling schools, high dropout rates and a persistent gap between the haves and have-nots. They say change can't come a moment too soon.
On Thursday, Dennis Van Roekel said both sides are right.
Speaking to local union members and district officials in Hillsborough County, as well as the St. Petersburg Times editorial board, the president of the National Education Association said it's clear public schools aren't working for too many students.
Only about 75 percent graduate from high school, and those rates are far worse for minorities, he said.
"And it happens year after year after year," said Van Roekel, a former high school math teacher. "The idea that we tolerate that in this nation makes no sense to me."
But he said reforms won't get far if legislators don't consult teachers, or hang everything on the results of a high-stakes test.
"Being right here in Hillsborough is no accident," Van Roekel said, as superintendent MaryEllen Elia and School Board members looked on. "I'm going to places where there are groups of people who understand what collaboration is and actually practice it."
He praised their seven-year, $202 million partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
It toughens teacher evaluation, adds a peer evaluation system and ties student test scores to teacher pay. Those scores count for 40 percent of a teacher's evaluation, using a value-added calculation that shows how much each teacher contributes to student learning, with peer and principal ratings making up the remainder.
But it's tricky territory for the national teachers unions.
At its convention this summer, the 3.2 million-member NEA welcomed as keynote speaker one of the fiercest critics of the Gates Foundation and its education agenda, New York University education historian Diane Ravitch.
The smaller American Federation of Teachers union, meanwhile, invited Bill Gates himself. Most Florida teachers unions are allied with both groups.
NEA delegates also passed a vote of "no confidence" in the federal Race to the Top competition, and this week Florida won a $700 million share of that money with the support of some local unions, including those in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
The federal program pits states against each other to overhaul teacher evaluation systems, fire ineffective teachers and principals, and tie teacher pay to student test scores.
Van Roekel has called such tactics anti-teacher, at least if they're made without teachers' input. But he said he has no argument with the goals of federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
"What we're debating is the best way to get there," Van Roekel said.
He said the NEA strongly supports reforms aimed at making teachers more effective, as long as they come with the support needed to make them work.
"Do you think teachers want nonperformers in the classroom?" he asked. "Absolutely not. We want all teachers to succeed."
Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.