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Hillary Clinton Meets With NEA, Talks Testing, Accountability

Last week, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, and far-and-away front-runner for the Democratic nomination, met with the American Federation of Teachers. And this week, it was the National Education Association's turn. 

So did Clinton's rhetoric sound any different this time around? With the AFT, she talked about the importance of teachers, and made it clear that they shouldn't be "scapegoats" for broader problems in K-12. 

And in speaking to the NEA, Monday Clinton sounded, perhaps, a shade or two more skeptical of standardized testing than she has in the past. (As a senator back in 2001, she voted for the No Child Left Behind Act, which introduced annual standardized tests, but hasn't really addressed the testing question since then.)

Here's a snippet from her comments to the union, circulated by the NEA:

"My campaign is about making the economy work for everyday Americans; to rebuild the middle class so it means something again. I'm excited about what we can do. I don't see this campaign as much as about me as about us. It starts with listening to each other." 

"What we can do together to deal with the issues we know are at the real core of making it possible to look at every little boy and girl and say, 'Yes, you will have the best chances we can give you.'"

"Are tests important? Yes. Do we need accountability? Yes. But we've gotten off track in what we test and what we test for that we sacrifice so much else in the curriculum, in the school day and school year."

And she hit on another issue that many parents and educators (and their unions) consider critical: the need to invest in arts, music, and other enrichment classes, alongside academics.

"So many of our poorer schools have cut off all the extracurricular activities. We've taken away band, in so many places we've taken away a lot of the sports. We've taken away arts classes. We've taken away school productions."

"I would like to see us get back to looking at individual children, looking at age-appropriate learning experiences, looking at enriching the classroom experience." 

It's hard to discern the shape Clinton's K-12 policies might take from that rhetoric. She's not going far outside the box by, say, calling for getting rid of federally-mandated tests or, on the other end of the spectrum, using test scores to figure out how teachers should be paid (like President Barack Obama did as a candidate back in 2008).

Lily Eskelsen Garcia, NEA's president, praised what she called a "frank and robust conversation" and said the union will be looking at equity issues when deciding who to endorse this time around. "Are politicians willing to commit to the success of every student regardless of his or her ZIP code? That is the key question that educators will ask over and over again. Because when all students succeed, we not only create strong public schools, we are building a stronger America."  

Both unions are getting an early start in vetting candidates—the NEA has sent out questionnaires to pretty much anyone who has ever breathed in the direction of Iowa or New Hampshire, and the AFT met last week with other major contenders for the Democratic nod, former Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. 

NEA didn't endorse Clinton—or anyone—back in the 2008 primary, but I think most folks in the political world would be stunned if it didn't support her this time around.

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