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Upfront - May | June 2010

Retire here!

It’s not just the fall foliage, powder slopes, and Cherry Garcia calling you to Vermont to teach and retire. It’s the huge victory in protecting and increasing pension benefits won recently by the committed educators and leaders of Vermont-NEA.

Earlier this year, a hostile governor convened a state commission—without a single educator on it—to study the Vermont State Teachers’ Retirement System. Almost immediately, it demanded dramatic increases in employee contributions, an increase in retirement age, cuts to health benefits, and an eventual shift to a defined contribution plan, like a 401(k).
“It was really scary what they were proposing, this really draconian stuff,” said Vermont special education teacher Donna Waelter. 

 But VT-NEA quickly organized a spirited “Keep the Promise” campaign with a specific message to legislators and governors: “Keep your retirement promise to teachers,” and members fired off more than 5,000 emails—almost one for every two members in the state.

In the end, Vermont teachers won a stronger state commitment to preserve and fully fund their pension system. While contributions grew slightly, so did average compensations. Retirement age was protected and new spousal health benefits were won. At the same time, the union’s plan cut $15 million from the state’s deficit.

“Now they look at us with a favorable eye because we’ve saved them $15 million,” said VT-NEA President Martha Allen. “People are thrilled!”



Every four years, the World Cup unites millions of soccer fans around the globe. With such an enormous reach, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the governing body of the World Cup, is teaming up with global organizations, including the Global Campaign for Education (GCE), to bring unprecedented public awareness to the Education For All goal—a free quality education to all children worldwide by 2015.

Through the 1Goal Campaign, GCE is building on the momentum created by last month’s Global Action Week to rally support and pressure politicians around the world. Their efforts will culminate in events surrounding the 2010 World Cup, held in South Africa in July. Some of the world’s most famous soccer players, musicians, and actors have signed up to be 1Goal Ambassadors, including Bono, Shakira, Mia Hamm, and Clive Tyldesley.

For more information on how you can support Education For All, visit the 1Goal Web site at



Mirror, mirror, on the wall

Who is the best behaved of all?

It’s hard to walk past a mirror without a peek of self-examination. (Oh noes! I need a comb!) And then you just can’t help standing up a little taller.

So why not use that instinct to improve behavior?

In Manassas Park, Virginia, a small, diverse suburb of Washington, D.C., all schools have rows of tall mirrors in their hallways. Superintendent John Martin says, “When kids walk past mirrors and see their reflections, it improves the way they dress as well as their behavior. It’s also true for faculty.”

Kids react as if they’re being watched, glancing over their shoulder at their own image, tugging their pants up, and walking purposefully to their destinations. But, of course, the eyes on them are their own!


It can be done!

You think you can’t get a raise in this economy? You think that the best you can do at the bargaining table this year is walk away, hat in hand? Well, take a look at the teachers in Cumberland, Wisconsin, who recently ratified a contract with an 11.9 percent raise for all. The key to their success: Strong, unified membership that met weekly in every building. They hung together to reject management’s first offer and persevered in the fight for a fair contract. You can do it too!


Fund a Future Teacher’s Dream

Isn’t it a shame to think that the cost of higher education will prevent some would-be teachers from ever entering the field? NEA-Retired members think so. That’s why they established a scholarship program for deserving students pursuing degrees in education who are active in their respective state NEA Student Program chapters. Established shortly after the 2002 passing of Delaware NEA Retired leader Jack Kinnaman, the fund accepts donations, which are tax deductible, throughout the year. Find the details at


Global Takes

Where are the girls?

The right to a quality education still hasn’t been realized by far too many girls across the globe. In Chad, fewer than one out of four girls attended secondary school in 2005. Across the seas, in the Dominican Republic, that figure reached one out of two, according to Education International (EI). This month, EI, of which NEA is a member, will host its first World Women’s Conference in Bangkok, and educators will tackle issues of gender equality in schools—as well as unions. To read more, visit


Haiti: what’s next?

Even before the catastrophic January earthquake, just half of Haiti’s children actually attended school. Now, with nearly half of the country’s schools in ruins, and at least 1,000 teachers killed, conditions are much worse. But Haitian teachers are determined to replace the old system with one of quality, and they’re insisting that education be part of the nation’s recovery. To hear more from them and their hopes for recovery, go to


Do they have science fair projects in Tibet?

A recent New York University study might make you think before assigning that next chapter of sines and cosines for homework. It turns out that home-work completion is the best predictor of an English Language Learner’s grades —even more weighty than their fluency in English—and that’s not necessarily good news.

Consider that many immigrant students are poor and may lack a quiet study environment. They might be responsible for baby-sitting or working a part-time job after school. And, unlike their English-fluent peers, they probably don’t have parents who can help decipher Shakespeare.

The wrong kind of homework is discouraging and unfairly penalizing, wrote researcher Hee Jin Bang. But the right kind allows students to practice English or skills already learned. “It has to be an assignment that can be handled by the students, by them-selves,” agrees Ricardo Rincon, a Las Cruces, New Mexico, teacher whose students are primarily first-generation Latino.


Into the wild blue yonder!

This July, a team of whitewater kayakers will head to Kamchatka Peninsula, a volcanic, 700-mile long peninsula in Oregon where one-third of Pacific salmon spawn. Their mission: To explore previously unmapped rivers and raise awareness of salmon conservation issues. Their leader: Hood River Valley high school teacher Rob Hart, author of a 20-week ecosystem salmon curriculum. Check it out and learn more about the expedition at http://www.kamchatka.


The number of hard-working Central Falls, Rhode Island, teachers who may be fired next month in a misguided attempt to “transform” a low-performing school there.

Source: The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.


Lunch for all

In her recently released book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, Janet Poppendieck ducks into school kitchens to get the real fixings on menus, calories, and, most of all, politics. Why have our children’s diets been outsourced, she asks. Is healthy food reaching our students? She offers a sweeping vision for change: Instead of forcing schools to meet unreasonable bottom lines, the market should be kicked to the curb. And, instead of giving free lunch to poor children only, all kids should get subsidized lunch—an expensive, but worthy recipe for universal health, she believes.


Kindling sparks of interest in reading

If a visitor took a peek into Deanna Isley’s third-grade reading class, it might be hard for them to identify the “better readers.”

The playing field has been leveled by the innovative use of electronic readers, Isley says.

Last year, when Isley won a grant to buy Kindles for her Charlottesville, Virginia, class, she aimed to encourage kids of all reading levels to actively engage in discussion. And it’s worked wonderfully, Isley says. “Features like ‘text-to-speech,’ which allows students to run their fingers over an unknown word, hear it pronounced, and get the definition, have made my students so much more confident.”

Electronic readers may have much more value than the costs they cut from book budgets at the high school or college level. To learn more about the possibilities—and add your own experience—go to

—By Meredith Scaggs




Earlier this year in East Providence, Rhode Island, teachers were robbed of $3.2 million in salaries and benefits, when its school committee unilaterally cut salaries by 5 percent, implementing their last offer at the bargaining table—in defiance of an arbitrator’s decision.

And they didn’t stop there. They also forced educators to suddenly pay 20 percent of their health costs, in defiance of the contract. And now? A pay-for-test-scores pay plan that school officials hope to jam down their throats.

And you just have to ask: Is this really good for public education?

As it is, East Providence’s new teachers—as well as its most experienced—are the worst paid in the state. That, on top of the constant hostility, makes for a not-pleasant working environment. “The bottom line is, no teachers feel valued or respected by the committee, the superintendent, or his staff ... The consequences are not measurable,” said local president Valarie Lawson.


Where’s the Merit?

Here’s how to help more of your students get National Merit Scholarships: Move them to Wyoming. That state turns out to have the lowest cut-off scores on the qualifying test for Merit scholarships, according to FairTest, a national group that campaigns against overuse of standardized test scores. There’s a four-way tie for the toughest to win: District of Columbia, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. Why does the Merit Scholarship organization have different criteria for judging “merit” in different states? They want their scholarships to be distributed around the country. But test scores are strongly affected by social class and parent education, so a few states with lots of educated, well-to-do families would corner the market if the score were the only criterion. So Merit puts its thumb on the scoring scale. For more, go to


Question and Answer

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman Authors

In their bestselling book Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have a simple but scary premise: child rearing today isn’t going well because nobody’s paying enough attention to scientific research that argues for better methods. For example, kids are praised too often and for too little (“You are so smart, Jacob!”), and as a result, they look for the path of least resistance academically. They’re tested far too early to determine if they’re gifted. And classes start too early in the morning to elicit anything but bleary eyes, the authors argue. We chatted with Bronson and Merryman about their work that’s raising eyebrows and opening minds. 

Much of the research highlighted in the book in some way affects educators’ work. What sort of feedback are you getting from them?

Merryman: People are saying, “I’ve changed the way I’ve talked to my kids pretty much overnight.” For example, the chapter on talking about race [which posits that many do it so abstractly that children don’t get the message about racial equality] is helping teachers approach lessons in a more specific way.

You talk about children being tested at the wrong age for gifted programs. What’s going on?

Bronson: With gifted testing, we know that millions of families are struggling with the fact that society is judging kids too early. Millions more aren’t even part of that thought process. Kindergarten is still going to start when kids are five or six. We could be so much better off if we just waited a few more years to place kids accurately. You wouldn’t race cars when they don’t have engines in them yet.

Merryman: Brains are still developing on a sort of neurological level at those early ages, and intelligence is not fixed. I’m not saying a four-year-old curing cancer isn’t a genius, but other kids in that room may be geniuses who need more time. Researcher Cecil Reynolds says if we tested special education kids the same way we test gifted kids, we’d be breaking federal law.

Nurture Shock shines a light on research arguing children are praised too often and don’t challenge themselves to avoid losing those kudos. What role do educators play in this regard?

Bronson: Teachers can very much control the integrity of their communications. Kids today hear so much praise that they begin to hear it all as vacuous and false.

By the time they’re in second grade, that’s a clear pattern kids have picked up from all this cheerleading and confidence building. We have the best of intentions, but it’s manipulative, insincere, and ineffective—kids don’t believe it. Kids want to learn.

Merryman: It gets back to the idea of the bigotry of low expectations. But really it’s almost the flip side. We’re praising kids for doing well rather than encouraging them to do more. The uber-tip is: be honest. If you believe that kid worked hard and did well [say so]. But if you’re using that as a tool of manipulation…

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