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K12 professional associations adapt to survive

Professional groups strive to meet younger, more diverse member needs
ASCD, which held its annual conference in Chicago in March, promotes advocacy, in part through its Whole Child Initiative.
ASCD, which held its annual conference in Chicago in March, promotes advocacy, in part through its Whole Child Initiative.

Professional associations have a reputation for being averse to both change and risk, but they have started to look ahead and almost start from scratch to attract more diverse members and retain the ones they have.

“Most of the models that education associations labor with are long in the tooth,” says Gene R. Carter, executive director of ASCD. “Today, you need to constantly think ahead and put your energies forward as opposed to reinventing the past. Change will happen whether you are ready for it or not.”

Twenty years ago, a “play it safe” model worked just fine. Most associations had solid membership bases that renewed without much urging, they held large and successful annual conferences, and they produced a rich array of print publications. Today, however, shifting demographics, the lingering effects of the Great Recession, and rapidly evolving technology mean that an “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” mindset no longer applies.

“An economic recession forces you to make changes,” says Daniel A. Domenech, AASA’s executive director. “You take a hard look at all you do, and you develop an organization that’s lean and mean.”

Many associations had to reduce staffing during the Great Recession that began in 2007. For example, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) cut its then-staff of 55 roughly in half. NAESP also took the unusual step of selling half of its three-story, 19,500-square-foot headquarters in Alexandria, Va., to AASA in 2011. Patrick Murphy, senior associate executive director of administration and finance for NAESP, estimates that sharing the building saves his organization about $100,000 per year.

No more “slice and dice”

In her 2011 book, The End of Membership as We Know It, Sarah Sladek notes that a baby boomer turns 65 every eight seconds. To fill the membership gap as people retire, associations need to recruit younger professionals who often have different attitudes about joining associations.


  • The End of Membership As We Know It by Sarah L. Sladek (ASAE, 2011)
  • Leading at the Edge of Chaos by Daryl R. Conner (Wiley, 1998)
  • Maximum Engagement by C. David Gammel (American Association Press, 2011)
  • Race for Relevance by Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers (ASAE, 2011)
  • World Class Learners by Yong Zhao (Corwin, 2012)

“They seek and demand a return for membership,” says Sladek, “including tangible member services, high levels of accountability, identifiable career advantages, a sense of professional community, and opportunities to serve within the associations they join.”

Associations are learning to adapt to the changing demographic tide and, for the time being, seem to be doing so successfully. According to data released in 2012 by Marketing General Incorporated, more than half of the associations surveyed experienced membership gains during the past 12 months. Only 29 percent reported decreases.

Still, meeting member needs has become more challenging as diversity grows both ethnically and in terms of age. “In the past, we could easily ‘slice and dice’ demographics and get a good handle on member needs,” says Bob Farrace, director of communications and public relations for the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). “Today our membership has become just as complex as the various ways of delivering content.”

The changing demographic patterns have ramifications for the programs, products, and services that associations offer. For example, half of NAESP’s members are baby boomers, says Executive Director Gail Connelly. The association is constantly examining how to continue effectively serving them while also developing new services to engage younger members from generation X. It has, for example, established a social networking program that includes 10,000 followers on Twitter. And it has added a new series for early career principals in Principal magazine.

Personalizing PD

Just like schools, associations are exploring ways of providing more personalized, convenient learning experiences for members. The traditional modes of professional development—printed journals, books, and massive, multi-day conventions—are evolving.

For some associations, print books and journals have been supplemented—or even supplanted—by electronic publications. Furthermore, content and the modes of delivery are changing. For instance, ASCD this summer launched a series of 48-page books (published both in print and e-book formats), with each publication focusing on a critical issue in education.

“Educators can read each publication in one sitting and immediately put the knowledge into practice,” says Carter.

Not surprisingly, ISTE is a leader in using technology to deliver products and services. The association offers a wide range of webinars, online courses, and podcasts. “We’re committed to delivering content and learning opportunities to meet the needs of our members, who have busy lives, but are impassioned about learning,” says Brian Lewis, ISTE’s executive director.

In today’s age of information overload, associations can serve as a valuable filter. For example, a Google search on “Common Core standards” returns more than 30 million results. “Information is available everywhere,” says Farrace, “but we find that our association is still the place where principals are going for credible, vetted information about the things that really matter to their professional lives.”

Communities within conferences

Another place educators go for information and professional development is their association’s annual convention. For decades, the typical model consisted of a huge, multi-day conference with thousands of attendees, hundreds of sessions, and a giant exhibit hall teeming with vendors.

While this model still exists, some associations have tried to create a greater sense of community within a massive event. At the ISTE conference, representatives focused on giving their members regular opportunities to connect and collaborate, Lewis says. “Our ISTE 2013 Mobile App, for instance, gives our members the chance to search for one another based on location and/or interests,” he says.

ASCD also offered a virtual component to attendees at its 2013 conference. Participants could access all session handouts and resources online, and watch interviews with special guests. They also have access to archived streams of conference sessions until Sept. 30.

NAESP scheduled its 2013 annual convention for July instead of its traditional spring date because principals said attending a conference while school isn’t in session would be easier. And once five days long, the conference now lasts just over two days.

And this year, more than 100 principals began the conference early by helping to build a playground at a school in the host city of Baltimore. “Our principals come away feeling really good being able to volunteer their time helping a fellow principal and students,” says Connelly.

Creating this sense of community extends beyond conferences. NAESP’s Principal2Principal is an online networking community, and AASAConnect allows superintendents to share success stories and promote their district. Meanwhile, ISTE offers active special interest group forums and social media channels.

“We are promoting broader use of learning communities,” says Carter. “The goal is to help members connect with like-minded colleagues throughout the world.”

Indicating the success of such efforts, the ASCD EDge—the association’s online professional community—now has 60,000 members.

Navigating career “jungle gym”

More than ever, associations are working to help members—especially young ones—navigate a career path that often looks quite different from the past. In her 2013 book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg says that the traditional career ladder has become more like a jungle gym, with younger workers often changing companies—and even careers—multiple times along the way.

With those needs in mind, the Association of School Business Officials (ASBO) for Maryland and the District of Columbia is helping members become generalists who understand all aspects of school business. As part of that effort, ASBO is launching a new professional development effort that will enable members to become a certified school business official. A series of nine, one-day workshops, offered throughout the year, will cover topics such as school finance, transportation, and purchasing.

“The workshops will help attendees break out of organizational silos where people are focused on one aspect of school business,” says John Lang, executive director of Maryland/DC ASBO. AASA now offers the brand new, 18-month National Superintendent Certification Program for superintendents who have been on the job five years or less. NAESP also is looking to establish a program for principals who aspire to be superintendents.

Advocating advocacy

As education leaders face ever-intensifying pressure to improve standards-based student performance, school safety, and graduation rates, many are turning to their professional associations to present their concerns to politicians and other policymakers. “Advocacy enables us to crystallize for members what we are all about,” Domenech says.

Many education leaders today fear that assessments linked to the Common Core State Standards will result in the same “test-and-punish cycle” that they felt the No Child Left Behind law had created. With that in mind, AASA, NAESP, NASSP, and NSBA issued a joint statement in late May urging “adequate time” to implement the standards.

To try to change deeply ingrained attitudes some policymakers have about accountability, ASCD also continues to promote its “Whole Child” initiative—a holistic approach to learning that calls for the collection of both qualitative and quantitative data to determine student success. Research shows there is more to effective student assessment than simply standardized tests, Carter says.

Advocacy used to be the third or fourth priority for members of NAESP, says Connelly. Now it’s near the top. “We need to be more actively involved in advocating on behalf of our principals, and they have identified that as a need,” she says.

Staying relevant

To remain relevant for the future, NAESP has flipped its model for providing member services to place the focus more squarely on meeting members’ needs. “Instead of having the principals look to us and our kaleidoscope of offerings, we are now looking at the principals as the kaleidoscope and seeing how we can better meet their needs,” Connelly says.

And Farrace adds that planning on a future that is unclear is exciting. “It’s a fascinating time to be involved in association work,” Farrace says. “Anything you design has to be designed for a future you don’t completely have a handle on yet.”

In an era of uncertainty, one thing is certain: maintaining the status quo is not an option. As Sladek concludes in The End of Membership as We Know It: “Change or die. There are no alternatives.”

John Micklos, Jr. is a freelance writer and the author of 16 children’s books.