It didn’t take long for the National Education Association’s new president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, to get to work.
Eskelsen Garcia has only been at the helm of the nation’s largest teachers’ union for a couple of weeks, but she’s already five states deep into her 2014 Back to School tour, which she’s using as an opportunity to meet educators, students, and parents from all over the country.
On Saturday, September 13th, some of my best edu-friends and I had the opportunity to spend time with Eskelsen Garcia and chat about the issues facing our nation’s public schools. With so much to talk about and only an hour and a half in which to do it, we started a general but very important conversation about some of the issues that are directly threatening public education in the United States. At the top of that list: the testing mania that’s sweeping the country.
It should be clear to anyone who’s paying attention that Eskelsen Garcia is on a crusade against what she describes as the “toxic testing” to which American children are being subjected. And for good reason: flawed high-stakes tests are at the heart of the education “reform” movement–and they’re being used to label students, schools, and teachers as failures. They’re also driving curricular decisions, putting undue stress on even the smallest of children, and consuming shocking amounts of instructional time. (Consider this Miami-Dade County Public Schools 2014-2015 testing schedule, which is evidently okay with standardized-testing cheerleaders like Jeb Bush.)
While at-risk students are the ones who are most vulnerable to punitive testing (consider that in 2013, nearly 70% of New York City students failed the state’s Common Core-aligned tests, effectively widening the black/white achievement gap), Eskelsen Garcia notes that even the highest-performing students in some of the most affluent suburbs are falling victim to the pressures associated with high-stakes tests. She spoke of a student who was under such pressure to be at the top of her class, get a top score on her SATs, and get into a top college that she had to be medicated for depression and anxiety. Indeed, even our best students feel the increasing pressure of high-stakes environments.
But perhaps the most egregious and disturbing example of testing abuse, says Eskelsen Garcia, is the story of Ethan Rediske–a Florida boy who was required by his state’s department of education to take a standardized test when he was in a coma.
How is this kind of abuse allowed to happen? Part of the problem, Eskelsen-Garcia says, is that despite calls for increasing “accountability” for teachers and schools, policymakers and legislators refuse to take responsibility for their roles in the testing madness that, says the NEA president, has “corrupted teaching and learning.”
The key to opposing abusive policies, says Eskelsen Garcia, is to force those who support and promote them to take responsibility. (Eskelsen Garcia notes that not even Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education who’s responsible for Race to the Top, will claim responsibility for the high-stakes environment that his initiative forced.) So who, exactly, was behind the prolonged insistence that Ethan Rediske–while in a coma–needed to somehow “take” the FCAT? Eskelsen Garcia is adamant that answers like “the state” or “the department of education” aren’t sufficient–so parents and educators must demand that the people behind corrupt testing policies are held accountable. All student advocates should ask: Who mandated this? Who says teachers must test-prep their students incessantly? What’s the name of the person who says that a child like Ethan Rediske must take a standardized test? Who are the state legislators that support these policies?Demand to know. Demand accountability.
And Eskelsen Garcia has advice for teachers who must administer tests they know to be bad for students: state your concerns in a respectful yet strongly-worded letter to your principal–and ask that the letter be placed in your personnel file. Is the protocol you’re being asked to follow harming students? Do the district’s testing policies betray IDEA’s guidelines for appropriate testing practices? Do you believe the district’s testing policiers could open the door for legal action from parents who are seeking to protect their children from abusive testing policies? If so, say it in writing.
Another topic of discussion: the growing number of charter chains that are setting up shop in many of our nation’s poorest cities. The day before our meeting, Eskelsen Garcia visited Pyne Poynte Middle School in Camden and spoke with the schools administrators, teachers, and students. The school, which is slated to close in two years, is currently co-located with a Mastery charter school–and as Garcia learned from the Pyne Poynte community and a group of unhappy parents with whom she spoke after her tour of the school, Camden students in traditional public schools are being short-changed because of the charter takeover that violates New Jersey’s Urban Hope Act. (See here for a New York teacher’s experiences in a co-located building.) As is the story in urban areas all over the country, traditional district schools in Camden are grossly understaffed and underfunded–and it’s hard to argue that such neglect isn’t part of a deliberate effort by reform proponents to drive students to charters.
In the same day that she visited Camden, Eskelsen Garcia toured West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North–an example of a school that’s thriving because, unlike the public schools in Camden, it’s well-resourced:
The school offers state-of-the-art technology, teams in 29 sports, various student publications, acclaimed performing groups in vocal and instrumental music and over 40 clubs devoted to specialized interests. Diversity is also celebrated at West Windsor-Plainsboro, where students speak 33 languages.
“I wanted to go to a school that has a lot of challenges, and I wanted to go to a school that has a lot of resources. And I want to talk about how we close that gap.” Eskelsen García explained at an afterschool meeting with educators at West Windsor-Plainsboro.
The answer? Educating the whole child. “You put the kid together first, and the world will follow,” said Eskelsen García as she wrapped up the day at a meeting with NJEA’s executive committee and county presidents.
The obvious conclusion (and one that’s been proven again and again by experts like Rutgers professor Bruce Baker): funding matters–and students in Camden–and in urban areas all over the country–deserve the same opportunities and educational experiences as their suburban counterparts.
What we didn’t get to…
Because our time with Ms. Eskelsen Garcia was so limited, we didn’t get to discuss the Common Core and its role in the toxic testing we spent so much time discussing. The NEA’s official position is one of support for the Common Core (the association is critical of the implementation of and testing associated with the standards), but the growing amount of opposition to the CCSS initiative–from parents, teachers, taxpayers, and legislators alike–is undeniable. A recent Education Next poll showed that the percentage of teachers opposed to the Common Core has tripled in the last year, and a growing number of state/local teachers’ associations–most notably, the Chicago Teachers Union–are formally opposing the standards. Many educators believe that the CCSS and the toxic testing Eskelsen Garcia describes are inextricably connected, so it seems inevitable that the NEA–along with the AFT–will need to aggressively address the issue of growing opposition to the standards among educators.
When it comes down to it, a union is only as powerful as its members: and that’s precisely why Lily Eskelsen Garcia’s work is so important. It’s glaringly evident that she values the input of teachers, of students, and of parents, and her desire to engage all public education stakeholders in a long-overdue discussion about damaging education reforms is so encouraging.
In short, Lily believes in empowering NEA members to be fearless in their defense of their students and of public education, and she knows that such fearlessness needs to have its roots at the local level. She’s excited to unite parents and educators in the pursuit of a common goal–achieving what’s best for America’s public school children–and I have no doubt that under her leadership and direction, advocates of public education will accomplish great things.