Jeff Bryant Interviews New NEA President Who Is Not Afraid to Speak Truth to Power

In its new president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the National Education Association (NEA) has a gifted spokesperson for school teachers and for public education.  Eskelsen Garcia knows the issues, connects the dots, and frames a pro-teacher, pro-public education agenda that puts into words the kind of commitment to children and public schools that I have observed over many years to be the priority of the NEA.  In an extensive interview with Jeff Bryant, Eskelsen Garcia discusses her priorities.

When Bryant asks Eskelsen Garcia about the resolution passed at NEA’s recent convention, a resolution to demand Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s removal, she replies: “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… But he (Arne Duncan) 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…  The testing is corrupting what it means to teach… 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.”

Eskelsen Garcia clearly connects the dots between today’s federal demands and state legislative policies that are undermining public schools.  Bryant asks Eskelsen Garcia about a conversation she had with Arne Duncan after the recent NEA convention. She reports that Duncan suggested NEA is not giving the Department of Education enough credit for its efforts to promote preschool and to make college more affordable.  Then she describes, “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 bad policy.  You became the catalyst for something really idiotic.”

At the conclusion of the interview, Eskelsen Garcia speaks about the necessity that NEA, the nation’s largest union, defend the future of public education itself.  “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… Now we know we’re fighting for our existence.”

These days it too often seems to much of the public as though policy just sort of happens—because it really wasn’t the federal government that passed it—but instead it was a response from a state legislature whose members did it to please Arne Duncan and his staff—all  for the purpose of making federal money flow to the state.  It is difficult for the public to parse all this out, particularly because the press can’t seem to sort it out either.  With his friendly handshakes, aw-shucks manner, and federal policies that control laws and programs enacted by state legislatures (due to federal requirements), Arne Duncan is accustomed to deflecting criticism.

Now NEA has a president willing to get the details straight and place responsibility squarely where it rests: in the policies of the department and the implementation of programs like Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, Innovation Grants, and No Child Left Behind waivers negotiated between states and staff at the U.S. Department of Education.  And she is willing to tell us we had better pay attention.

Good for Lily Eskelsen Garcia for telling the truth and assigning responsibility for what has to change.  I urge you to read Bryant’s interview with NEA’s new president.

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