How One Association Is Reinventing Its Outdated Education Model

The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) is rethinking almost everything about its annual conference and member-education strategy. Here are 11 ways it is retooling.

The first NCEA Convention in 1909.
The first NCEA Convention in 1909.

The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) held its first annual convention more than 110 years ago. And like many professional associations with a long history, NCEA’s convention education program has clung to tradition and been slow to change.

Amy Durkin
Amy Durkin

The association was guilty of being “one and done” — focusing too much energy on on the few days each year the annual meeting is held and not enough on learning the rest of the year, said NCEA Director of Association Events Amy Durkin, CEM.

In addition, the agenda itself was static — more than 300 professional development sessions in traditional theater-room settings, with individuals up front wielding PowerPoint slides. “And they talk and they talk and they talk,” Durkin said. “We have not, in the past, ever had any follow-up after the convention.”

NCEA is changing all of that: Instead of trying to be all things to all people, the association is scaling back on the number of sessions offered and on the audiences it serves at its annual meeting to focus more on its core members — Catholic school leaders and teachers, said Patrick Lofton, NCEA’s executive vice president.

Patrick Lofton
Patrick Lofton

And instead of being focused almost exclusively on the annual meeting, the association has adopted the mindset that it is creating a comprehensive professional-development model, Lofton said. The convention will remain the premier place for members to gather and network, but the association is also looking to develop webinars that lead up to the convention as well as other regional meetings, and offering year-round professional-development opportunities.

“If we look at this from an adult-learning model and from an information-exchange model, adults need to see and hear things multiple times in order for it to sink in,” Lofton said.

NCEA's 2015 Blended Learning conference.
NCEA’s 2015 Blended Learning conference.

Here are 11 ways in which NCEA is retooling its educational offerings.

 1. Adding more voices from the field and reducing the number of talking heads at events. Attendees don’t want to listen to speakers “from on high” who lack practical experience, Lofton said. “We’re moving away from … pontificating to a more blended learning approach where there is interaction, there is group processing, there are sessions that are led by participants.” NCEA also is exploring using an Edcamp format — an unconference designed specifically for educators — for some sessions.

 2. Online + face-to-face. The association will add online events in order to continuously engage members in a select number of topics, Lofton said. NCEA has invested in revamping its website, which links it to the association’s membership database “so that learning communities can be created within our web system.”

3. Fewer sessions and varying lengths. Instead of offering nearly 350, 90-minute sessions for its 8,000 participants, NCEA is scaling back to between 275 and 300 sessions for 2016 and on using room sets, such as round tables, that facilitate interactive learning. Half-hour-long “power sessions” that offer deep dives into specifics topic will also find their place in the program, Lofton said.

4. Tailored content. The convention will include tracks, “so that if you’re a first-year teacher, you’re a first-year superintendent of schools, or you’re a first-year pastor in a parish that has a school, we’re going to create a series of sessions that are really geared toward helping you grow professionally,” Lofton said.

 5. Local input on topics. NCEA’s Annual Convention & Expo has a large percentage of drive-in attendees — about half of its total each year. So the association is reaching out to Catholic school educators in destinations where upcoming meetings will be held, to find out what issues are top of mind for them, and incorporating those topics into the convention program. During a recent site visit to San Diego, where NCEA’s 2016 Annual Convention & Expo will be held, the staff reached out to local superintendents of Catholic schools. “We asked them,” Durkin said, “‘What do your teachers and what do your principals need right now? What are the hot topics in your particular region?’”

 6. Access to homegrown expertise. NCEA is mining its members to find leaders who can regularly share their perspectives. For example, “one of our members is an attorney, who works in the dean of students’ office at a Catholic high school,” Lofton said. “We’re going to be engaging him throughout the year to write for us, to do webinars for us, as well as present at our convention. We have to have some consistent voices who have really practical experience and who really are living the issues.”

7. A holistic approach to all meetings. In addition to its annual convention, NCEA holds about four or five smaller meetings throughout the year. In the past, programs were developed independently. NCEA now issues an overall call-for-proposals and reviews them with an eye toward how one presentation that might not be the right fit for one conference would work well at another.

 8. Adding opportunities for pre-event engagement. At its 300-person symposium in June in Santa Clara, California, the association took a systematic approach “leading up to the meeting to engage people,” Lofton said, preparing them to discuss the symposium’s focus on how blended learning works in the classroom. Preview sessions at the 2015 Annual Convention & Expo, held April 7–9 in Orlando, teed up the topic, and symposium registrants were sent articles on blended learning to read ahead before the symposium.

9. Aligning content with standards of excellence. At the heart of Catholic elementary and high schools are four pillars: Catholic identity and mission; academic excellence; leadership and governance; and operational vitality. “Within those four pillars, there are specific benchmarks and standards that an excellent school would adhere to,” he said. “As we look at proposals [for presentations], we’re also looking that these proposals align. We’re asking the submitter to tell us how their presentation will help enhance people’s knowledge, skills, and abilities around these specific standards or benchmarks. The idea here is that learning has to be attached with standard of excellence.”

10. Teaching leadership skills. “The story of Catholic schools or many years has been a story of school closures, of decreasing enrollment, of all the challenges that are facing Catholic education,” Lofton said. “We need to show where there is excellence and set up models of learning that allow our members to learn from these [examples]. We need to tell our story more effectively.

“The bottom line is that schools rise and fall based on the quality of the principal, the pastor, and the teaching staff. It starts with leadership. I think our approach is really creating a professional learning community on a national level and on a regional level, which will hopefully trickle down to the local level.”

11. Connecting the dots. “In the past year, we have invested a great deal of time and financial resources in building a marketing communications department that is gathering voices from the field who write for us — whether that be in our written publication Momentum, our online newsletter, NCEA Talk, or who participate in our blog, who are on Pinterest, Twitter, or Facebook,” Lofton said. “It’s really connecting all these different avenues of learning and maximizing each avenue’s strengths.”

Look for more about how meeting organizers can help attendees cross the great divide that can separate what they learn during the event to actually implementing it in the workplace in our September CMP Series.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.