NEA’s new president denounces testing

August 20, 2014

Newly elected National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García addresses delegates at the union's national convention in Denver in July.

In the midst of her first swing through California, the incoming president of the National Education Association praised the Common Core State Standards and California’s measured approach in implementing them while warning that the nation’s largest teachers union would fight efforts to use the new tests for the standards in ways that “harm kids” and punish schools and teachers.

A former elementary school teacher and Utah Teacher of the Year, Lily Eskelsen García, 59, has scheduled events with teachers and the news media today in Los Angeles and the Bay Area later in the week. She takes charge of the 3-million-member union next month.

“I was impressed with Common Core,” Eskelsen García said in a telephone interview this week, and found “nothing sinister” about the standards. But she said she share the concerns of many of her friends and colleagues, who predict that in many states the new tests, like the Smarter Balanced assessment that California will give, will be used to declare schools failing and hold students back a year – “one more test that means very little with big consequences and punishments.”

California is different, she said, because, unlike New York, another heavily Democratic state, it didn’t hastily develop poorly designed Common Core tests and hold teachers and schools accountable for the results before teachers were trained in the standards.

“California said, ‘All right. The standards seem to be OK, but we are going to take it one step at a time. We are going to call a moratorium on any high-stakes consequences. We’re going take time to train people … to align the curriculum,’” Eskelsen García said, referring to a one-year hiatus, possibly longer, on giving tests not required by the federal government. And, she said, California is taking its time in deciding “what really makes sense in terms of consequences” for the standards and how to assess them.

The Smarter Balanced tests will be given for the first time next spring. Test designers say the new tests will measure critical thinking and problem solving. If, however, they turn out to be another multiple-choice test, “it will be a disaster of Biblical proportions,” Eskelsen García said, and the union will lead the opposition.

“People I taught with say, ‘You know, politicians are going to corrupt this. It doesn’t matter if they are good standards or bad standards. They are going to make this one more silly thing that takes away from teaching and true learning.'”

Eskelsen García takes charge of the union next month at a time of rising backlash among the ranks against standardized testing. Testing becomes “toxic,” she said, when multiple-choice exams become the basis for holding back students a grade, such as in Florida and Michigan, and declaring teachers failures, even though the tests weren’t designed to evaluate teachers.

California is different, Eskelsen García said, because, unlike New York, another heavily Democratic state, it didn’t hastily develop poorly designed Common Core tests and hold teachers and schools accountable for the results before teachers were trained in the standards.

A dissenting teachers group that claims it has 50,000 members, the Badass Teacher Association, has called for an abandonment of Common Core and the elimination of standardized testing. Eskelsen García said their hearts are in the right place, and their suspicions, after more than a decade under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, may be warranted, but the union realistically must play “the adult in the room or they (politicians) are bound to get it wrong.”

It’s not just teachers, but also some PTAs and school boards, that are angry about standardized testing and are taking stands against it, she said. “The movement has begun.We don’t have to light too many matches to throw in” to ignite it, she said. As a result, she claimed, conservative and liberal political leaders are “scrambling right now to fix what they broke.” The NEA shouldn’t have to reach out to Democratic leaders who have split with the union on testing and other issues, she said. “They should be coming to us, hat in hand, saying you’re right … now help us fix it (education).”

A chief target of their anger is U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. At the NEA national convention in Denver last month, delegates approved a resolution calling for Duncan to resign. Similar resolutions in past conventions were not passed.

Soon after the vote, Eskelsen García and current president Dennis Van Roekel had “a very intense conversation” with Duncan. “It was up to us,” she said, “to explain what was behind all of that, the true, honest feelings of our members, that they have been left behind, that they have been demonized, made to be the bad guys in this. And we wanted to say that some really bad policies have been passed, local, state and national, and it all seems to swirl around this almost religious faith in scores on standardized testing.” Eskelsen García said she knows Duncan has no intention of quitting, and, having conveyed the members’ perspective to him, “ I have every intention of working with the secretary going forward.”

Credit: National Education Association

Eskelsen García marshals Texas teachers at a civil rights and education rally in Austin in 2010.

While she says she often cites California as an example of a state that does things right, California is also home of Vergara v. California, the lawsuit challenging five state laws establishing teacher tenure or due process rights after two years, requiring layoffs by seniority and creating due process protections from firings. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge’s tentative ruling (a final decision is due later this month) voided the laws, stating they are unconstitutional because they harm children. The ruling inspired a similar lawsuit in New York. It also has become another source of friction between the union and traditional Democratic allies, among them Duncan and retiring California Congressman George Miller, who issued statements (here and here) supporting the decision.

Eskelsen García called the lawsuit “an interesting distraction from the real issues.” The focus on tenure is misplaced, she said, because “the majority of teachers are good teachers; they’re dedicated people who care about their students. What we want to see the debate around is how do we recruit fabulous people, how do we keep them in the classroom, how do we make them constantly improve their profession?”

Easing the burden on financially strapped college students so that they can consider teaching is one theme of Degrees Not Debt, a new NEA campaign that Eskelsen García will detail at CSU Northridge this week. The campaign calls for more need-based federal Pell Grants, lower interest rates for student loans and expanded loan-forgiveness programs for all college students. But Eskelsen García, who put herself through school with student loans and scholarships and by performing as a folksinger in coffee shops (she brings along her guitar to NEA rallies), said she will make the pitch for new or expanded scholarship programs for students willing to teach in high-poverty schools.

“We’re hoping we can show states and even the federal government where they can invest in scholarships so that we can start talking about how we can increase the pool of talented people who want to spend their lives changing the world by making it a better place for someone else’s child,” she said.

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