"Stupid, absurd, non-defensible": New NEA president Lily Eskelsen García on the problem with Arne Duncan, standardized tests and the war on teachers

Arne Duncan has met his worst nightmare -- an NEA president armed with facts and guts. She tells Salon what's next

Published July 30, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Lily Eskelsen García, Arne Duncan       (NEA.org/AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Lily Eskelsen García, Arne Duncan (NEA.org/AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

For years, politicians and policy leaders have been running the nation's public education system basically by the seat of the pants, drafting and passing legislative doctrine that mostly ignores the input from classroom teachers, research experts and public school parents.

Just the latest example of this fly-by-night leadership came from Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky and expected GOP presidential contender. According to the Politico newsletter, Paul is "planning a major push on education reform, including 'education choice, school choice, vouchers, charter schools, you name it."'

Gotta love the "you name it" proposal, don't you? So reassuring to parents. "Relax, we're enrolling your kid in the 'You Name It' program this year. Everything will be fine."

In an astonishing display of incoherence, he told the Politico reporter how much he, and his children, had benefited from traditional public schools – "I grew up and went to public schools. My kids have gone to public schools" – and then suggested we create something that looks nothing like them.

"Have one person in the country who is, like, the best at explaining calculus … teach every calculus class in the country," he rambled, in belief, somehow, that having "2 million people in the classroom" would ensure more children "have a teacher that may be having a more hands-on approach." Really?

Have education policies from the Democratic Party been any better?

Apparently, most teachers don't think so. As Politico, again, reported, teachers are organizing at an unprecedented level. Through their unions, teachers have amassed "tens of millions in cash" and have acquired "new data mining tools that let them personalize pitches to voters," in an effort to "run a huge get-out-the-vote effort."

Education Week suggested that a "new era" in teacher organizing has begun, with "a remarkable policy convergence, portending what could indeed be a more unified response to national and state education issues.

"The convergence, observers say, is the product not only of the unions’ need to assume a defensive posture in the face of legislative and legal attacks, but also of the pressure brought by internal factions that have urged the unions to take a tougher stance against market-based education policies."

What's got teachers stirred up? How real and potent is this upsurge of their activism? Why should people who identify with progressive causes care? Salon recently posed those questions, and others, to Lily Eskelsen García, the new president-elect of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, at the recent Netroots Nation conference in Detroit.

First of all, congratulations on becoming the new NEA president.

Still president-elect. I take office Sept. 1. We have an incredible president, Dennis Van Roekel, who basically said a transition period should be a transition period, not go stand in the corner. So he gave me the president-elect title and told me I would take the press calls, go to Netroots, meet with Arne Duncan, start establishing where you want to go and be as vocal and as visible as you can possibly be. Our members have asked NEA to step up and take things to another level. There's too much at stake for us. There are policies that need addressing and we have some of the best policy expertise in the nation, but those ideas need a face to the NEA, a face for the American teacher that is channeling the voices of these 3 million educators, and when you hear the words come out of her mouth it's not just her opinion -- it's a whole lot of teachers and support staff who are saying here's an important thing for the American people to hear and an important thing for Arne Duncan and President Obama to hear. So he told me to start being that voice today.

The voices of these teachers are important, aren't they? And too often we don't really hear their stories about what it's really like to teach in American schools, do we? For instance, I was just at a meeting of the American Federation of Teachers, where a teacher told us about showing up to school one morning and finding a man had been shot to death in front of the building the night before. The body was still on the sidewalk as the kids were coming to school, and the teachers had to decide how they were going to handle this with the children. So many of our teachers are really serving as first responders for kids, aren't they?

That's true. So how did the teachers handle this?

They quickly had to abandon all they had planned to do with the children that day and spend the day addressing what the children had experienced, how they felt about what they had seen in front of their own school.

That was very wise of them. I taught for 10 years in a regular school. I also taught for six years at a homeless shelter – two different shelter schools. The needs of these students were so different. What you just described happening to that school is never going to happen at Orchard Valley Elementary School in West Valley, Utah, the fairly affluent school where I started teaching. But think about what teachers are being called on to deal with today, depending on where they are. I was teaching in the homeless school on Sept. 11, 2001, the day the twin towers fell. I was teaching students who didn't know where their parents were because these were hard-to-place foster kids. I had to tell my students what was going on because they saw everyone was riveted to the news and couldn't avert their eyes from what was going on. These were terribly frightened kids. Look what happens these days without the social workers and the counselors, and the class size going through the roof. People say that class size may not matter to the test score, but class size mattered to me being able to have a relationship to my students and being able to put my arm around them when they were having a bad day. So God bless the teachers you're describing and everybody in that school. They had to come together as a family. That's the kind of thing that is going to give kids nightmares. So they had to assure the kids that their school was still going to be a safe place to come to every day.

These are the types of stories that, you've reminded us, persuade us that educating children is something that should be above politics, and not about what's the Republican thing to do or what's the Democratic thing to do but what is the right thing to do.


And sometimes it is above politics. You've reminded us of your experience in Utah – a deeply red, conservative Republican state – where the electorate stood with the teachers' union to defend public schools and defeat a universal voucher bill.

That's true.

But we know there are politics involved. Right now U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a sore spot for both your union and the AFT. Both NEA and AFT have asked for Duncan's resignation. Your demand was unconditional, and AFT's had some very interesting conditions …

Yes, The Arne Duncan Improvement Program. I love it.

So what's the politics of this? Why is this happening now?

The conflict has been building for quite some time, and it's just spilled over. The resolutions are not new. Similar ones have been introduced ever since Race to the Top. We've really expected something better from the Department of Education after living under "No Child Left Un-Tested." For these many years, Duncan has said, "We're going to collaborate with teachers and not do reform to teachers … we're going to go forward with you …" I have a list of beautiful things the secretary has said about not reducing a child to a standardized test score, but then insisting, "Yes we will," by demanding that students' standardized test scores be used to evaluate teachers even though there's no scientific research or evidence that says there's any connection.

What's wrong with basing teacher evaluations on test scores?

The years I taught at the homeless shelter, I had different kinds of students than the year I taught at Orchard Elementary. Also, there was the year I had 24 kids and the year I had 39 kids. You can't put that in a value added formula. It doesn't work. Then there was the year I had three special ed kids with reading disabilities, and I did a bang-up job with them. So the next year they gave me 12. I had all of the special ed kids that year. No other teachers had any. Just me. So in a class of 35 kids, 12 had reading disabilities. Now I'm guessing if we had just used test scores back then to evaluate me, you maybe would have thought that I had suddenly become a really crappy teacher that year. Test scores alone wouldn't have told you what happened. They wouldn't have given you an analysis of why.

Other than being unfair to individual teachers, does basing evaluations and school ratings on test scores hurt students too?

Using test scores is basically saying to educators, "Hit your number or you get punished." Or even worse, "Hit your number in El Paso, if you're an administrator, and we'll give you a bunch of money." That would encourage the administrator to use a push-out program for low-scoring students like those who don't speak English. That's what Lorenzo Garcia did as district superintendent in El Paso, and he is in jail now. He was the first person to go to jail for lining his pocket with bonus dollars because he could hit his numbers. And he made presentations about how you can "light a fire under lazy teachers to get those numbers up." But what really happened is he would call individual students into his office to threaten and humiliate them with deportation if they wouldn't drop out or transfer. He pushed out over 400 students in his high school. It was the El Paso Teachers Association that got the community together to talk about what was happening and to make sure that never happened again. That NEA chapter just won a national human and civil rights award for establishing a way for parents and teachers to alert the community when they see district administration engaging in unfair practices to students.

What does Arne Duncan think about this? Why does he still insist on basing his policies on test scores?

I spoke with Secretary Duncan yesterday [July 16]. He's very upset with the NEA Representative Assembly's decision to call for his resignation. We had a hard conversation. He was very straightforward with me. He felt he wasn't being given enough credit from NEA for advocating for expanded early childhood education and greater access to affordable college. And it's true there is no light between us on those issues. So he asked why we didn't explain to people all the good things he has advocated for. I said I would send him copies of speeches I give where I've been supportive of the good things the Obama administration has done, and I'd give him position papers from the NEA addressing the need to work closely with his department.

So what's the frustration for teachers?

Here's the frustration – and I'm not blaming the delegates; I will own this; I share in their anger. The Department of Education has become an evidence-free zone when it comes to high stakes decisions being made on the basis of cut scores on standardized tests. We can go back and forth about interpretations of the department's policies, like, for instance, the situation in Florida where teachers are being evaluated on the basis of test scores of students they don't even teach. He, in fact, admitted that was totally stupid. But he needs to understand that Florida did that because they were encouraged in their applications for grant money and regulation waivers to do so. When his department requires that state departments of education have to make sure all their teachers are being judged by students' standardized test scores, then the state departments just start making stuff up. And it's stupid. It's absurd. It's non-defensible. And his department didn’t reject applications based on their absurd requirements for testing. It made the requirement that all teachers be evaluated on the basis of tests a threshold that every application had to cross over. That's indefensible.

So any good the Obama administration has tried to accomplish for education has been offset by the bad?

Yes. Sure, we get pre-K dollars and Head Start, but it's being used to teach little kids to bubble in tests so their teachers can be evaluated. And we get policies to promote affordable college, but no one graduating from high school gets an education that has supported critical and creative thinking that is essential to succeeding in college because their education has consisted of test-prep from Rupert Murdoch. The testing is corrupting what it means to teach. I don't celebrate when test scores go up. I think of El Paso. Those test scores went up overnight. But they cheated kids out of their futures. Sure, you can "light a fire" and "find a way" for scores to go up, but it's a way through the kids that narrows their curriculum and strips their education of things like art and recess.

Doesn't Duncan understand that?

No. That reality hasn't entered the culture of the Department of Education. They still don't get that when you do a whole lot of things on the periphery, but you're still judging success by a cut score on a standardized test and judging "effective" teachers on a standardized test, then you will corrupt anything good that you try to accomplish.

So are the tests the problem?

I told him I personally don't like standardized tests. I think they're a waste of time and money. I agree with Finland that when something tells you so little you have to question why you are doing it. But the problem is not the standardized test itself. I gave the Standards of Achievement Test to my fifth graders in Utah. When the district used the scores to look at big picture reading achievement data over time, they realized, "Oh look, our reading achievement scores are going down." So they analyzed the data for probable causes and realized that they were getting many more English language learners in their schools. So their response was to pump up the English language learner training for teachers. In other words, they used the test score results to analyze what's going on and use the scores as information to guide what to do better to serve students. But now the test scores are being used to print teachers' names in the L.A. Times with an "Effecto-Meter" next to them, so, "Boys and girls, look up your teacher's name to see if they suck."

You've used the term "toxic" before to describe the current uses of test scores, arguing that those uses have polluted education policy to the extent that little else matters in terms of the good the Obama administration is trying to accomplish.

Here's how I put it to Duncan: We now have bad state policies that insist, for instance, a child can't go to fourth grade because he didn't hit a cut score on a standardized reading test, and the state legislature did this in order to get Race to the Top money. You can say you didn’t require the state to do that. But when you required states to base their education programs mostly on test scores, and let states respond with "OK, we'll just do this," you encouraged the bad policy. You became the catalyst for something really idiotic.

Yes, you would think that someone like Arne Duncan who bases all his policy decisions on a philosophy of rewards and punishments would get that maybe he has rewarded really bad behavior.


But going forward, you know teachers can't win this fight on their own. You've talked about successes where teachers have reached out to parents, their communities, and progressive activists to muster enough force to create positive change. What is the union doing to build on this and reach out to the broader progressive community?

People in the progressive movement have to realize that regardless of the particular fight they are engaged in, it starts with education. Whether you're fighting for environmental causes, women's rights, voting rights, all of these causes – and the very foundations of democracy and how our society makes decisions -- start at a schoolhouse door. Progressives also know now that anyone could be the next Wisconsin, the next Michigan. All it takes is one bad governor with one bad legislature to set back our entire movement. So we have to stick together. The narrative that's been created by Fox News and others is that teachers' unions only care about their pensions. But that's not true. Teachers understand that all us teachers can show up in force during elections – every one of us – and lose. We have to organize the parents; we have to organize the business community. We acknowledge that we have not always built bridges to others in the progressive movement. Now, we've built those bridges in some communities. And we're ready to build more. We also know the stakes have changed. We always had to fight legislators in order to fund us. Now we have legislators who want to dismantle us brick by brick. The existence of public schools was always something you could take for granted. I mean, we never in the past had a division of the union that was there to fight for the existence of public schools. Now we know we're fighting for our existence. And we're only going to win if we all combine forces. We've proven that when we ask people to sign petitions and show up at the ballot box to support public schools, they will. And they will do it in droves.

By Jeff Bryant

Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

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