The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New NEA leader to nation’s educators: Revolt, ignore ‘stupid’ reforms

Lily Eskelsen García (NEA)

(Correction: Changing word from hire to fire; typo resulted in wrong word used in first version of this post)

To call the woman who is about to take the helm of the National Education Association “outspoken” would be something of an understatement. Lily Eskelsen García, who will take over next month as president of the largest teachers union in the country (and, for that matter, the largest union of any kind in the country), is nauseatingly sick of what she calls “factory school reform” and she doesn’t mind telling everybody about it in clear, challenging words. “Stop doing stupid,” she says.

That’s not all. Acknowledging that sometimes it is hard for her to be diplomatic, García says she wants to shake things up: “The revolution I want is ‘proceed until apprehended.'” Translation: Teachers, administrators and everybody else involved should ignore bad school reform policy and do “the right thing” for kids. “Don’t you dare,” she said, ” let someone tell you not to do that Shakespeare play because it’s not on the achievement tests. Whether they [reformers] have sinister motives or misguided honest motives, we should say, ‘We are not going to listen to you anymore. We are going to do what’s right.'”

The biggest problem in education today, she said, is the obsession many school reformers — including Education Secretary Arne Duncan — have with standardized tests and using student scores to make high-stakes decisions on  whether students move to the next grade or graduate high school, how much teachers get paid and whether they can keep their jobs, and even if schools are reconstituted or closed. “I will go down to my last breath telling people that the most corrupting influence in public influence today is a high-stakes consequence for not hitting the cut score on a standardized test,” she said.

What would she do if she were still teaching and an administrator told her to do something in class to improve student’s standardized test scores so that her test-based evaluation would be better?  “I would totally ignore them,” she said. ” ‘Go stand out in the hall and don’t waste five seconds of my time.’ I would not make that change one thing in my classroom.”

You can read this story by my colleague Lyndsey Layton about García’s rise to the top of the NEA, a journey that started when she worked in a school lunch room, moved through years of teaching (during which she was named Utah’s Teacher of the Year)  and took her to the leadership of her union. And here are some excerpts from the recent interview I just had with García about her views on challenges facing educators today.

On Education Secretary Arne Duncan:

Arne Duncan is a very nice man. I actually believe he is a very honest man. And that cannot excuse the fact that he is wrong wrong wrong on just about every thing that he believes is reform. I could just give him hugs when he talks about preschool. I love when he talks about affordable college. Its not that he is in the pocket of the Koch brothers and wants to destroy public schools. But he has drunk the Kool-Aid. He has drunk the factory reform Kool-Aid.  So now it’s you have to hit a number and that number is what we call accountability and we have to blame someone and there has to be a punishment for not hitting that cut score. And I believe will go down to my last breath telling people that the most corrupting influence in public influence today is a high-stakes consequence for not hitting the cut score on a standardized test.”


On the Common Core State Standards and aligned testing:

On ‘value-added measures’ (VAM is a way of evaluating educators that takes student standardized test scores, plops them into a complicated formula that can supposedly weed out things like how much living in poverty or being sick affects a child’s performance on a test and determining the “value” of an individual teacher.)

Voodoo value-added. It is beyond ridiculous. Have you ever seen the formulas? Here’s what I think. Let’s make it so complicated no one will ask a question for fear of looking stupid. I’m the teacher who told my kids there is no such thing as a stupid question. … I looked the year I had 39 fifth-graders and looked at what is factored into the value-added formula to determine my value. That year I had Brandon and Chris, both of whom had behavior disorders. How is that factored in [to the formula]? You cannot surgically remove every factor that might affect some child’s test score, and then attribute a “value” to a particular teacher. I know that part of what I did was build on what the teacher the year ahead of me was able to accomplish. It is not surgery. And anybody that stands up and sends us the voodoo value-added should be ashamed of themselves.
I’ve always told people — because I am that obnoxious — that  I am the best freaking teacher you have ever seen. You want your child in my class… I am not afraid of an evaluation system. Bring it on. But what I would do with value added? I would totally ignore them. ‘Go stand out in the hall and don’t waste five seconds of my time.’ I would not make that change one thing in my classroom. If a principal said, ‘We can’t do the blood drive because we have to prep for the test,’ I would say, ‘Go away’. That’s where the rebellion would be.
There is no law that says we have to race around and catch that testing tail. We do it to ourselves. The revolution I want is, ‘Proceed until apprehended.’ … Stop listening to the salesmen. Stop listening to phony reformers. And stop listening to those good-hearted and absolutely wrong people and do the right thing with kids. We are the educators, the professionals. We actually know what to do with children.”

On No Child Left Behind:

“I am so convinced that No Child Left Behind is really based on the ‘I Love Lucy’ episode in the chocolate factory [when Lucy and Ethel work in a factory to box chocolates that appear on a increasingly fast assembly line]. I really believe that someone spent a little too much time watching ‘Nick at night’ and said, ‘Let’s just speed up the chocolate. We will find a way to wrap it and put it in pretty little boxes. And Lucy and Ethel couldn’t do it of course. We have corporate reform. It doesn’t make any sense.”

On corporate school reform and whether Democrats who support it have abandoned teachers union:

“I talk about factory school reform. Its not even like a well-run modern corporation that they are suggesting. It’s a 1920’s factory. And …on both sides of the aisle we get the same misguided list of reforms. Basically its privatized, standardized, deprofessionalized. The exact opposite of what very successful international success stories like Finland or even Singapore do. They personalize. They use data to make good decisions. They have ramped up the professionalism of education. They make it harder to get into your college of education than to get into your law school. They make it a career, not a summer project for someone who just graduated from college. Even KIPP [charter schools] will say one of the secrets of their success is a stable, highly professional faculty. How do you make sense of a churn system of Teach For America where you give two years and go on your way? The corporate factory reformers have this evidence-free zone that surrounds them… We are like waving red flags of evidence in front of them. Stop doing stupid. Can we just do what we can show you makes sense?…
“I would challenge the premise that the Democratic Party is not a friend of organized working men and women. But there are disconnects on more and more issues. And of course we are seeing that disconnect seriously in the education world….
“We just need to say this is no longer partisan. It is just stupid.”


On whether unions have been too slow to respond to criticism or get out a better message:

“We are not marketing specialists. We aren’t in advertising or in business and trying to sell a product. When someone asks us something as basic as, ‘Does class size matter,” or a study comes out that says class size doesn’t matter, which means that the researchers didn’t see any appreciable improvement on a standardized test, we’ll give really sincere, honest, wonderful 14-page answers. ‘Here’s what you need to know about class size.’  I had 39 fifth graders in a room. When someone asks me about class size, I want to say, ‘Don’t stand too close to me when you say class size doesn’t matter. I get a little energized.’ … Of course class size matters. You can’t personalize instruction with large classes.”

About new legal efforts to reduce or eliminate teacher tenure and other job protections:

“They have a machine. You could see it with Campbell Brown … They get a front who says, ‘I’m the face of the person that cares because teachers don’t care. I, who have never stepped into a class with 35 kids and never would in my life, listen to me.’ They have no credibility…. But they read a piece about some truly bad thing that happened and they are on a crusade to save the world from bad teachers. That is their narrative. Because if you can talk about something like that you don’t have to talk about why do these kids have an Olympic swimming pool and these kids have a leaky roof.  How come these kids get French classes and AP classes — and they should — and these kids don’t even get recess because they spend it drilling and practicing for the standardized test. Equity costs money, so you want to change the subject as fast as you can. You have all of these false strawmen: ‘Are you telling me there are no bad teachers?’ They will message those things as if they are legitimate arguments….
When you ask people what tenure is, they will say, ‘I heard its that you can’t fire a bad teacher.’ It isn’t. If you say you need a system that will protect good teachers from being fired unfairly — and there are teachers whose jobs are a stake because some parents are mad their kids didn’t make a team or get a good grade on something — people understand. But you don’t want a system that is so impossible to navigate that it does protect a bad teacher. You need to find the balance to protect the good teacher and make it possible to fire a bad, unprepared, unmotivated teacher…  When someone stands up to say, ‘It is impossible to fire a bad teacher,’ I tell them to go to Utah and other states that have reasonable transparent due-process laws and regulations in their districts.”


On whether too few bad teachers are fired:

“I belong to a union. We protect due process rights. We have a legal duty to protect their due process and represent their interests. And a lot of times it is in their interest to take a look at the evidence against them and look at their own colleagues who might be testifying against them and say here are the risks of going through this process and here are your chances. A lot of times those folks look and say, ‘Better for me to resign. Better for me to get a new career.’ People think you can look at those hard numbers and say how many people were removed by the process. You can’t.”