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NEA's Lily Eskelsen Garcia Talks Opt-Out, ESEA, and Why She Supports the Common Core


Orlando, Fla. 

Yesterday, I had a chance to sit down with National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia for a wide-ranging conversation.

Throughout our conversation, Garcia underscored the importance of teachers' professional autonomy and the negative influence she sees standardized tests having on students.  She tackled Common Core, the opt-out movement, and why the union is willing to buck civil-rights groups on its vision for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Lily, this is your first time running the NEA Representative Assembly on your own. Are you nervous? What can we expect your keynote to address?

A: Not at all. You know, I'm sitting here waiting to be nervous. But this has always been a family reunion.

Am I exhausted? Yes. As everyone comes in, folks say we'll have a student-teacher conference, a retired teacher conference, an empowered-educators day. So people pack in the meetings, and then they say we'd like to see the president come say a few words at each and every one.

What I've felt more and more comfortable about is not worrying about talking points, because you're living this for a year now. You're calling Senator Alexander. You're talking to Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC, and you're in charge of the press conference. You have to rely more on memory and the energy you brought to something.

I really am a true believer in this small-d democracy we have going on here. This is my 28th [RA].

You had good news at the budget hearing, where it was announced you've had about a 14,000 growth in members. Can you name the affiliates that are seeing that growth or where you've had the most success organizing?

We're seeing healthy growth where'd you expect it, in California. But we're seeing growth in places like Texas where we had been losing members consistently.

The model we're talking about is not, "Here's your dues and here's what you just bought with your dues." Basically, it is an organizing model that says, we're in charge, we're in charge of our own union, and everyone kicks in and everyone has a voice.

It's the same model I'm talking about, when we're talking about really turning around schools, giving them a voice in what's going on in that school so they own it and they make it work, as opposed to imposing it from the halls of Congress, for goodness' sakes.

We're going to keep going for class size, fighting for the resources you need, but in the meantime some kids are coming into the classroom tomorrow. Given what you have in the power of your professionalism, your ideas, your creativity, what do you do? It is what we have asked in so many words of the wonderful Senate [education] subcommittee.

The absurdity of "No Child Left Untested" is that 100 percent of children will hit an ambitious cut score on a test, a statistical impossibility. But we actually achieved that in the Senate subcommittee where 100 percent of the Democrats and 100 percent of Republicans hit that cut score [by approving a draft bill to rewrite the No Child Left Behind Act].

We want to replace [the accountability system] with a dashboard of multiple indicators, including resource indicators. And what's more subtle is that we said you have to put in the hands of the professional educators in that building the power and the authority to design something that really will work for that community. These one-size-fits-all monstrosities are always going to fail.

Your opportunity dashboard proposal is a big priority for the NEA. But is it enough of a lever to cause significant changes in schools that are underperforming?

[Our political work] is important, but not the answer. We're not saying you don't have a political voice, but why would you think even an education friendly governor would say he knows what he's talking about in terms of instruction? Our theory of success going forward is empowered educators.

And it goes to the indicators: Empowered educators are going to take good data and make better decisions about what students need. Maybe we need a school breakfast program. Maybe we need a school nurse. Maybe we need to get, as they're doing in Trenton, N.J.,  these kids who are taking remedial math to start taking A.P. Physics [as the New Jersey Education Association is doing through its foundation]. If you put us in charge and really gave us authority to do what we think our kids really need, you'd see some things really turning around.

It doesn't mean you can do it without more resources or by yourself, but what we've seen for 13 years is that the legislature will pick the textbook. Your school board will say, "we've decided on all these scripted reading programs." Whatever it is, when it's been said from on high, it has not worked.

You're known for your critiques of standardized testing...

[Mock surprise] Really? Thank you!

... and I've read your posts, on Rick Hess' blog on edweek.org...

[Laughs] How about that? He is uncensored!

...  I noticed that NEA doesn't actually have a formal position on the opt-out movement. Why not?

As I was talking to some of our teachers who will probably bring something, they are so passionate about this, I've said, parents should absolutely have the right, and they don't in some states, to say this is inappropriate. But that's not the goal. the goal is to have appropriate tests, appropriate assessments.

[When I was teaching in Utah], we had the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and by the way, it was not helpful for me as a teacher. The district administrators might see that something was going down here and say "Ah, more English-language learners have moved in. We need to beef up our ELL training." That's a very appropriate use, to look at those big trend lines.

No kid's report card ever had anything to do with the Iowa basic-skills test. But I also didn't ever have a parent upset, angry. It was three days out of their lives, in the spring. We didn't do test-prep. We said [to students]: "This is a snapshot of how you're doing, don't stress."

Now we have pep rallies for test month. We have computer labs, and schools shut down for two or three months a year for the sole purpose of administering tests.

But is that a function of the policy requiring annual testing, or poor decision-making by administrators and teachers?

It's the fear factor. And yes, bad decisions.

By the way, I don't think any of [those reactions] actually moves the needle on that test score. People obsess about this: We have teacher training on how to teach your children to be better test-guesser. Really?

It's wasting instructional time. And it's the drill-and-kill on the bubble kids [on the cusp of proficiency], but it's also the poor kids who are so advanced that we say, "Just float here for a while."

So it's bad for kids, it's stupid policy, but back to those parents. I never had parents say, "I don't want my kids taking the Friday spelling test." The stuff I did in my classroom was teacher-driven, I let parents know what was coming, and by the way, sometimes it was a project rather than a true-false, fill-in-the-blank kind of thing.

[The opt-out movement is saying] that if we had enough parents saying I'm not going to let my kid take this test, that would get the attention of policymakers. That's a strategy for them. But I don't want us to lose the endgame here: The end game is that you stop toxic testing.

I just don't want them to say that if we concentrate on a great organizing movement for parents, we've done something about bad tests.

That's one way to skin the cat. But for me, what can we get out of the Senate and out of the House that we can put in front of President Obama with a pen that says: "We are going to eliminate the fear factor, the inappropriate labeling of students"?

To me, you get rid of high-stakes assessments and use an assessment model that makes sense for kids and gives you good information.

Let's pivot to Common Core for a minute. What's the biggest challenge these days for your affiliates in states that have adopted it?

I tell people I have an app on my phone with the standards. [She pulls out her phone.]  You can get a common-core app! All the cool people have one!

As they were being rolled out, I read them. And I went right to 6th grade and I'm reading these standards: compare, contrast, and cite reason and give evidence. There was one on using different technologies to design a presentation. And I was very project-based as a teacher. I pulled out all the things that defied a standardized test, and I said, I could teach this.

The implementation, if you're in New York, has been absurd. But when people say, "We should  fight the common core," say: "What about the implementation in Texas?" Texas doesn't have the common core, but not having it did what in Texas? Nothing. They're just as bad on any high-stakes testing as anywhere.

In Kentucky, the Kentucky Education Association really wants the common core to work, and they've been hand-in-glove in implementation [with the state]. Colorado, the Colorado Education Association, the same thing.

Let's say that we had perfect standards, and let's say we could have a perfect test aligned to those perfect standards. It would mess it up if some idiot governor said, "And here's the cut score, and here's the punishments, and you've got to get kids with Down's syndrome to pass an algebra test." The toxicity is when you misuse the standards, misuse the assessments.

I never felt like I had to protest the Utah state standards. These types of discussions didn't happen 20 years ago because politicians weren't meddling in things they didn't know anything about. Now the whole thing is that accountability looks like a cut score and a quote of kids who hit it, and somebody's head is supposed to roll.

And by the way, what that has insidiously done for 13 years is that no one is talking about that original 1965 civil right [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as NCLB]. Why did we get Title I schools? During desegregation, it was so clear to everyone [states] were still shortchanging their poor and minority kids, not giving them equitable resources.

The rewrite of the ESEA is on the Hill now. The NEA differs from some of its civil rights allies regarding the interventions for schools not progressing. How does that affect your relationships with them?

They're our best friends in the civil rights community who passionately and honestly believe that you have to call out that disaggregated data. Which we would keep, too; that was a game-changer in 2002, we would never want to say, "Let's pretend everyone's doing OK because we can average it out." We are all on the same page with disaggregated data.

But what [those groups] are going back to is not just to disaggregate it and say there are gaps, but to say there needs to be a cut score, the number of kids that have to be above that cut score. Sound a little like AYP?

We're headed toward the same place. We're convinced after 13 long years, that the intervention will be [punishments]. Why would we think they'll lower class sizes, get a program for English-language learners? Why would we believe that anything would change? So we don't trust the powers that be and have been. We think they will still continue to focus on the standardized test.

I imagine that makes for some tough discussions with these allies.

It's like this! [She pulls her chair up close.] Where you sit down and say: "You are my best friend—[but] you are so wrong when you assume that something in terms of better resources and services and programs for these kids are going to happen."

So while they are going to focus on elevating that standardized test, we've said that we look at that standardized test the way a doctor looks at a thermometer. We're trying to cure a lot of diseases here, but all you did is take someone's temperature and decide where to operate. Use that if you must but it has to be coupled [with other measures]: How many graduate from high school with college credit? How many passed AP exams? We're focused on services, programs, resource equity, and looking beyond that standardized test when you talk about student achievement.

We are working on so many things with our friends in the civil rights communities. We are going to keep sending them teachers that they trust, people in their own ethnic groups.

We have reason and evidence, we have an argument, and we also have the experience of our own eyes, that we've seen which kids have less. And we're not going to let that continue.

Photo: NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia speaks personally about race while addressing delegates at a June 30th event.—NEA Today/Calvin Knight

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