At last week’s NEA Representative Assembly, a new leadership team was elected that included Lily Eskelsen Garcia as president, Becky Pringle as Vice President, and Princess Moss as Treasurer. They are not the first women or women of color in these positions, but having all three positions filled by women of color is precedent setting. Lily is certainly a change in personality from outgoing President, Dennis van Roekel, but the question on a lot of members’ minds is, “will this lead to changes in how NEA does business?” This article from Politico is a nice introduction to Ms. Eskelsen Garcia as any, and shows both things that concern, and things that could point the way to a better direction for NEA.
Let’s start with the bad. Eskelsen Garcia’s defense of the work of the Gates Foundation in education is not inspiring. Even Randi Weingarten had to bow to pressure from members to not take money from Gates for the AFT Innovation fund. I’m not going to belabor this point since others have made it before, so for more on why the Gates Foundation is not a friend of education read Anthony Cody. Least you think I hold a low opinion of their work just because they are horn-ing in on my professional turf, the same critique has been made about their funding of health initiatives. Giving them a “B+” reminds one of the grading curve that can occur when you have a star athlete, or the child of a big donor in a class.
What else gives me pause, is her continued un-critical embrace of Common Core standards, which I remain skeptical of. I’ve met and heard Eskelsen Garcia in person, and her statements on CCSS have been consistent. She loves the standards and feels that they cannot be assessed with bubble test (presumably they are too creative or open, or some-such). Since many of the standards seem to be written precisely to become a multiple-choice questions, but given that, it would seem that she either thinks the new tests are going to allow for this creativity, and if they don’t she would oppose them. My own student’s experience with the test can be summed up in the comment one of them made, “It’s the same as the old test, it’s just on a computer.” Computer-adaptive algorithms that are supposed to roll-out next year will not change that.
So since the tests do not reflect Eskelsen Garcia vision of how the standards should be assessed, therefore they should be abandoned. What was never clear to me from her was how we were supposed to get from “these tests are bad and should be gone” to the “gone” part. Here is where I get more hopeful. The NEA campaign against “Toxic Testing” shows the organization moving in that direction. This is a very small effort and testing that is required under federal law in ESEA will not go quietly into that good night just because of one petition. It’s going to take a concerted effort with members getting behind it and leaders pushing and pulling it along. For those who hate both the standards and the tests, read here to see an explanation of why getting rid of the test may well be enough to get rid of the standards.
Now for what makes me really hopeful. Lily Eskelsen Garcia has a history of political action that’s talked about in the Politco piece. She worked for increased funding of public education in Utah and ran for congress. Not an easy task in a red state, although one that does value children and public education. If she continues to look out to the membership and the public more, rather than sitting around with getting cozy with the good old boys and gals in DC, she has a chance to make a difference. But, we cannot sit back and make that happen. We need a plan, we need leadership, and if we don’t get it, we will lead. We need to tell Lily and NEA we applaud your stand campaign on testing, but we need to know where this is going. We are willing to follow you on this fight, but we want a serious effort on your part because we’re serious about this too.
Here are some suggestions on an effective campaign against high stakes testing:
- You’re going to have to explain to all members what this means, and to do a BIG push. State and local affiliates will need to push this as well (which may mean changing their policy). Just posting it on your website and Facebook page will NOT get the job done;
- We need to bring parents and communities along on the idea that the benefits of testing are limited, and we’re over-testing students, and are in NO way an accurate measure of teacher performance;
- You’re going to have to explain to locals and states that have agreed to using tests for teacher evaluations that this is bad for all teachers, and is really bad for them (they probably already realizing the last part) and you’re going to have to support them in trying to get out from under these ridiculous agreements;