by David Safier
You know that 6th grade teacher, the one who makes it onto people’s “all-time favorite teacher” lists because she wants nothing more than for you to be the best “you” you can be? The teacher you can’t take your eyes off of, because maybe she’s about to say something or do something great, and you don’t want to miss it?
That’s how the new National Education Association president, Lily Eskelsen García, comes across, probably because she was a teacher for 20 years. Now she’s turned that energy and enthusiasm, coupled with a thorough grasp of educational issues, toward making the country’s largest teachers union as effective an advocate for students and teachers as it can be.
Eskelsen García was in Tucson Thursday attending a fundraiser for Felecia Rotellini at a local home and a Get-out-the-vote rally at Tucson Magnet High School, her first stop on a multi-state GOTV tour. I had a chance to talk with her for what was supposed to be 10 minutes but stretched to 25, and it would have continued if the people whose job it is to keep her on schedule hadn’t pulled her away. She doesn’t believe in short answers when she’s talking about tough issues — and all issues pertaining to education are tough these days. She’s direct, plainspoken and opinionated, and she wants everyone, including President Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, both of whom she’s had face-to-face meetings with, to know what she means in no uncertain terms.
Eskelsen García is not your typical teachers union president, or your typical teacher for that matter. Her first school job was as a lunch lady in the cafeteria. She went on to become the first college graduate in her family (she sang in bars and coffehouses to supplement her student loans), then earned a masters degree before beginning her teaching career in Utah, where she was named Teacher of the Year and went on to become president of the Utah Education Association. She took the helm of the NEA in September of this year.
Full disclosure: I was a loyal NEA member during my 30-plus year teaching career. My main complaint then was, I wanted the union to stand up for students and teachers more strongly than it did, not be so cautious. Now, in the face of constant assaults on public education, the union's caution is being replaced by a greater assertiveness, and Eskelsen García is the kind of fresh voice it needs at a time when the stakes in education are so high. At its national convention this year, the NEA called for Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education, to resign. And in her meetings with Duncan and Obama, Eskelsen García let them know how strongly she objects to our current regimen of high stakes testing.
High stakes testing, or "toxic testing" as she likes to call it, is one of Eskelsen García's go-to issues. She's not against standardized testing. “We teachers invented the test,” she said. But she objects strongly to the use of the tests “that were generally developed to give you broad trend lines” to decide if a student moves on to the next grade or graduates, if a teacher keeps his or her job or if a school stays open. “That’s not what they were designed to do,” she maintains.
"We now have a federal law that was a punchline on Prairie Home Companion," she said, "that all kids will be above average. You’re supposed to laugh when you get to that part. We have a federal law that says on standardized testing you will have a rigorous standard — that means above average — and all kids will hit it. We always looked at that and said, you have in federal law a statistical impossibility. We are bound to look like failures."
"Too much testing is part of the problem," she continued, "but that’s not what makes it obscene. You could narrow it down to one test, it could even be a really good test, but then some politician says, ‘And here’s the cut score, and here’s the kid who doesn’t go to third grade if they don’t hit it, and here’s the senior who doesn’t graduate because they don’t hit it, and here’s the teacher who loses their job if they don’t hit it.’ You can turn even a good test toxic by misusing the data."
Eskelsen García has met with both President Obama and Arne Duncan and expressed her concerns. "I was on my toxic testing bandwagon with the President. The security guards probably didn’t want to let me get as close as I got." Obama and Duncan have both said they understand there's too much testing, but she's not convinced they're planning to change things any time soon.
I asked her about Common Core standards, which is a contentious issue in Arizona and around the country. "I’ve had wonderful debates with my colleagues who I know and love," she said. "I talked to Sue, and she said, 'I hate these things, I wish they would go away, they’re totally age inappropriate.' And then I talked to Angie, and she says, 'This has transformed the way I teach. This was the best thing that ever happened.' And the two of them teach the same grade level!" She believes the standards have a number of worthwhile components. "I looked at the 6th grade standards, and they say to the children, 'Give an opinion.' I love that, you can’t put that on a bubble test. 'Give the reason and evidence in a persuasive speech.' I loved the standards that I could pull out and say, 'You can’t do this on a bubble test.'” She believes, "The high stakes are what we have to focus on. It’s not the standards, it’s the tests and how the data is used."
I asked her if she thinks there's a place for charter schools in our education system. "The short answer is yes, but ...," she replied. She went back to Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers who suggested the idea of charters in the 1980s. What Shanker recommended was "something that could create schools run by teachers who could experiment with some great idea and inform the larger system. Charters were meant to be an incubator. They were not meant to be a separate, private school system run by a corporation, where basically they don’t empower their teachers, they give them a script. I've seen some good charters," she continued, describing a few started by innovative teachers which have the support of the local teachers unions. But she has no respect for charters which are run directly or indirectly by for-profit corporations. "You’ll never hear from me that charter schools are bad. But charter schools that are there for a profit will never put kids first."
Eskelsen García is working to forge a relationship with the American Federation of Teachers. The two unions have traditionally been at odds, with the AFT the smaller and more radical of the two. Recently, she sat down with AFT president Randi Weingarten, and the two found lots of common ground. The meeting resulted in Eskelsen García being invited to speak at the AFT convention, which was a first. "I got a standing ovation when I said, 'The AFT is not my enemy. The Koch Brothers are my enemy, they’re your enemy too.'”
The battles over education are being fought in political and educational arenas across the country. I can't remember a time when the stakes were this high. The NEA, by electing Lily Eskelsen García as its president and demonstrating its willingness to challenge bad ideas no matter where they come from, has shown it wants to be a visible, active participant in the fight.