From Salon, Wednesday, July 30, 2014. See
"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
By Jeff Bryant
SIDEBAR PHOTOS AT END OF ARTICLE: Lily Eskelsen García, New NEA President, and Arne
Duncan (Credit: 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Yes, The Arne Duncan Improvement Program. I love it.
So what's the politics of this? Why is this happening
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
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
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
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
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
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.
SIDEBAR PHOTOS: Lily Eskelsen García, Arne Duncan
(Credit: NEA.org/AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Jeff Bryant is Director of the Education Opportunity Network, a
partnership effort of the Institute for America's Future and the
Opportunity to Learn Campaign. Jeff owns a marketing and
communications consultancy in Chapel Hill, N.C., and has written
extensively about public education policy.