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Topic: Stupid, absurd, non-defensible: New NEA president Lily Eskelsen García on Arne Duncan , standardized tests and the war on teachers
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
Stupid, absurd, non-defensible: New NEA president Lily Eskelsen García on Arne Duncan , standardized tests and the war on teachers
Posted: Aug 3, 2014 10:19 PM
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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

García, New NEA President, and Arne Duncan
(Credit: 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 Š 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 Š

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 Š we're going to go forward with you Š"
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

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

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

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

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

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

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: 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.

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