Rabble Rouser

Lily Eskelsen Garcia is the new president of the NEA and she’s got something to say…


EduShyster: You recently met with President Obama. I’ll ask this first question on behalf of all of my readers: did you set him straight?

Eskelsen Garcia: I can tell you that I had an amazing opportunity to have a very short conversation with the President. I got to ride in the Presidential limo on the way to a labor rally in Milwaukee and I was able to tell him a little about the back-to-school tour I’ve been on and what I’m hearing from teachers. I told him that the constant testing is the number one issue and that teachers tell me again and again: *I’m so excited for school to start and I love my job. Now if I could just get these idiot tests out of the way so that I can actually teach.* I had a chance to express what I think are very honest, passionate and heartfelt responses of educators all over the country. I could see that the President’s wheels were turning.

EduShyster: You have such a remarkable personal story. You started your career as a cafeteria lunch lady and are now heading up the largest union in the country. 

Lily Eskelsen Garcia: Let me qualify that. I wasn’t actually a lunch lady—I was a salad girl. I didn’t have the status to work with the hot foods. Folks want to know what brought me here. That’s how it all started—in the cafeteria. I used to joke with my kids that they’d better be careful because I’d be the one picking who got to play them in the made-for-TV-movie. But everyone has a story. Everyone has joys and tragedies and disappointments in their lives. I think what’s unusual about my story is that, by all stereotypes, I’m not supposed to be here. I come from Utah!

lily class 2EduShyster: Your passion, along with the sharp way you’re talking about these issues, is winning you some serious admirers. My sister, a teacher in southern Illinois and an AFT member, keeps texting me: *you won’t believe what Lily just said :)*

Eskelsen Garcia: I try to be as clear as I need to be. That’s how I’ve always been, but when you have a title, all of a sudden people pay a different kind of attention to you. All I know is that I have a responsibility to express that this is really important, and express it in a way that people can understand. That’s something I learned how to do when I was teaching 6th graders. When you see a student bullying someone on the playground, you pull them aside and say *this is not going to happen in our school.* Without threatening, you have to convey that *she’s serious.*

EduShyster: I get the sense that your message about not being a fan of tying high-stakes consequences to standardized tests is sinking in. But I have to channel the skeptics here and ask about your vocal support of the Common Core. How can you—not just the NEA but you personally—be such a proponent of something that many teachers believe is basically a 50-state delivery system for high-stakes tests? You even have a Common Core app on your phone!

Eskelsen Garcia: Everyone should have a Common Core app on their phones. But listen, I have this exact conversation with my best friend all the time. She hate, hate, hates the Common Core and she always says: *You know exactly what’s going to happen, Lily. You know the Common Core is just going to be turned into one more high-stakes punishment. It will be all about cut scores, you get fired, this kid doesn’t graduate.* I can’t disagree with her on that. She’s basically describing what happened in New York. Before teachers were even trained to know what was in the Common Core at their grade level, before they had time to do anything in a thoughtful way, it was clearly so much more important to have the cut scores and the punishments in place. But here’s what I tell my friend. Let’s say you could develop the perfect standards. They’re so perfect that everyone is throwing up confetti because that’s how perfect they are. And you find the perfect curriculum and you have text books that are aligned to these perfect standards. And you only have to give one test a year instead of a thousand of them. In other words, it’s perfect! But some politician says, *you get punished, you get a prize.* It’s not the standards. It’s not the curriculum. It is the high-stakes punishment that is hooked to them. That’s why people are so upset about the standards, because of the high-stakes punishment that’s now attached to them and that has corrupted what it means to teach. We have to get rid of that. 

lily guitarEduShyster: Well that sounds easy enough. How do we do it?

Eskelsen Garcia: So much of the resistance is bubbling up organically. I think the challenge for unions is to figure out how to organize the organic. Parents, principals’ associations, school boards—they’ve had it with excessive testing and the excessive consumption of time and resources. I’ve been down in Florida on our back-to-school tour and a school board in Lee County basically said *that’s it—we’re not going to do this testing anymore.* They had their hands slapped as a result, but their hearts were in the right place. You can bet that they were applauded by other school board groups all over the country. 

EduShyster: How did you personally end up becoming a union rabble rouser?

Eskelsen Garcia: People tell these stories—*oh, my grandfather was a union member*—but that’s not our culture in Utah. We’re a right to work for less state. We’re a Republican state. We’re a passive aggressive state. But we’re also a state that is extremely passionate about children. I got active in my union just a few years after I started teaching. I had 39 fifth graders. The governor at the time had a plan to balance the state budget by dumping as many kids into classrooms as he could, and I thought: *who is going to help with this?* I loved the PTA and the moms, but they weren’t going to stare down the governor. My union would. My Utah Education Association would. They would have rallies at the statehouse and tell anyone who would listen that the underfunding of our schools was undercutting our ability to do our jobs. And I thought: *I want to be a part of that.* You know why? Because I hate whining, and I just can’t stand to be in the presence of whiners. We would sit around the faculty room at school and we’d complain about this or that. Whatever the problem was we were talking about, we immediately moved to *what should we do?* What are we going to do that makes this situation better? That’s what a union is. We don’t whine. We do.

EduShyster: I can’t help that think that the anti-tenure lawsuits that are now bubbling up across the country are aimed at keeping teachers from doing exactly what you just described.

But you know, as bad and stupid as things are right now, I actually feel really excited. Folks who never really thought about a union or whether they needed one are now looking around and asking *what in the world is going on? I’m a teacher and I want to do my job and people are throwing things at me. I need my colleagues.*

Eskelsen Garcia: You’re right. There’s so much talk about bad teachers, and every morning celebrities and billionaires wake up and say *I want to make the world a better place by firing more teachers.* My question, by the way, and one that they never address, is who they plan to replace all of these teachers with. That’s what people should be focused on. But you know, as bad and stupid as things are right now, I actually feel really excited. Folks who never really thought about a union or whether they needed one are now looking around and asking *what in the world is going on? I’m a teacher and I want to do my job and people are throwing things at me. I need my colleagues.* We have no billionaires, we have no real wealth, we have each other. We’re finding each other on Twitter and blogs, in meetings and at rallies. And we’re coming together, not just for ourselves and the integrity of our profession, but because we see what they’re trying to do to our students. None of us got into this profession because we wanted to get rich. We got into teaching because we have a real passion for kids. And when we see our kids in trouble, we’re going to step up and protect them and that means we have to come together. I think the opportunity has never been greater to show the relevance of power of coming together in a union.

EduShyster: My final question for you comes from one of your members. He wants to know what you can do to make the NEA less cold and corporate seeming, as he put it. 

Eskelsen Garcia: I’ve been on this back-to-school tour that started in Alaska. Everywhere I go, I’m blown away by the response of members—not leaders, members—who say *keep saying it the way you’re saying it because you talk like we talk.*  And that’s my job—to represent that voice and to try to say it in a way that makes people sit up and pay attention. People have to hear our hearts.

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  1. “Let’s say you could develop the perfect standards.”

    First, it’s not possible to develop “the perfect standards”. Kids are different – they have different strengths and limitations, they come from different areas of the country, different races, religions and cultures, they have different goals and aspirations in life. You cannot standardize children and who the hell would want to?

    Second, even if it were possible to develop “perfect standards”, are you (Lily) seriously saying you think Common Core fits that bill? Have you not read the reams and reams of criticism of CCSS? Do you not find any of those valid?

    Third, the standards are inextricable from the tests. What’s the use of “standards” if you can’t prove kids are meeting them (or not) and how are you going to prove that if you don’t have tests? And what’s the point of having tests if there are no stakes attached to them? And even if it were, in theory, possible to separate the standards from the tests, do you really think that’s what the powers that be intend? Do you think David Coleman, Bill Gates, etc. have invested so much time and energy into developing and nationalizing the standards without knowing that the whole thing is a package deal with the tests and the data collection? That sounds frighteningly naive for the head of such a large union.

  2. I have great admiration for the current NEA president and her willingness to take teachers’ fights to the policy makers.

    I have to disagree that the problem with CCSS should be restricted to the testing system and the evaluation system. That is the worst and perhaps most damaging problem with them, but without it, they would still be highly problematic. The manner by which they were developed and disseminated was opaque and impervious to accountability for policy makers. While people whose judgement I trust say the math standards are generally an improvement, the pace of implementation has meant the so called aligned materials are poor.

    And the ELA standards are a disaster. They do not merely privilege close textual reading (which is likely appropriate at upper grades); they exclude any other way of enjoying and appreciating a text. It is a woeful world in CCSS English when even Kindergarten students are set about to the role of being teeny tiny graduate students in English.

    No divorce from high stakes testing will save the standards from their willfully narrow vision of reading.

  3. Dear Lily,

    I’m a big fan. But reducing the issue of common core to simply about high stakes testing and brushing off real criticisms of the standards is rather demoralizing and disrespectful to those dealing with them. It validates the suspicion that you might not understand the issue as well as you might think. Also, why do we need standardized testing in every grade? You state this as if it is fact and it would be unreasonable to think otherwise. Don’t tell Finland.

  4. Good for Lily…..keep on saying it! As a retired teacher, superintendent, and professor, I believe we do need to agree on a basic level of learning standards for all students, including those with learning and language difficulties. Unfortunately, there are too many cooks in the kitchen with individual agendas — money, power, the next election (which has to do with money and power) — and the value of students and their education go out the window.

    We will always have excellent, good and poor teachers — just like any other profession. The solutions lie in not only consensus about student learning, but also consensus about treating teaching as a profession — from unions to administrators. And an understanding that big business, such as Pearson Education, have extraordinary access and lobbying power.

    There’s big money to be made in education, from K-12 Inc. to online colleges. Big money and politics drive the education debate, rather than the profession of teaching and learning. But part of that is in reaction to the inability of the education profession, as a whole, to make significant inroads to the towers of money and power.

    Fixing that will be extremely difficult as long as we don’t present a united front……

  5. Lily, I love your energy. But it’s time to stop giving Obama & the Dems excuses. They’ve played NEA/AFT for fools. Here’s the latest Clinton screed. In his usual both-sides-of- the-mouth rhetoric he proclaims New Orleans a grand success yet charters must be accountable. How so, Bill? The charter lobby & TFA are writing our federal education legislation. Nothing in this speech adds up.
    And Lily, Arne is NOT a nice man. Don’t go riding on the Hillary train of humiliation. This says pretty much what the Dems think of teachers & our Unions:
    “Darling-Hammond appointment was only a sop to a faction that would have no real influence,”
    Arne was the well planned farce Obama/Clinton played on teachers’ unions. If the NEA/AFT don’t stop pretending that Dems are our friends and make real demands in every election, public education will be a lost memory in 15 years.


    “The reformers’ arrogance is best on display when Brill gloats about the charade of appointing anti-reformer Linda Darling-Hammond to lead Obama’s official post-election education planning, while DFER, with funds from Eli Broad, wrote a secret memo for the “informal yet real education transition team.” Jon Schnur organized the effort and strove to calm his nervous fellow-reformers, assuring them that the Darling-Hammond appointment was only a sop to a faction that would have no real influence, while DFER’s secret memo set forth the Administration’s actual policy – including the naming of key Gates Foundation and Teach for America operatives for crucial administration policy posts, and calling for use of student test scores to evaluate teachers. It is disclosures like this that make Brill’s book something less than the unambiguous morality tale he aimed to present. Had the reformers been a little less sure of themselves, they might have less to answer for when their program, as it certainly must, eventually implodes”

  6. Hate to tell you, Lily, but the state of Utah is STILL saving money by dumping as many kids into a classroom as possible. This is NOT a past tense thing. I wish you would realize what is still happening in Utah–enormous class sizes, dwindling resources, and increasingly segregated schools, particularly by income, but also by race. WHY won’t the state NEA affiliate actually ADVOCATE for students and teachers in Utah? We are being buried here, and, even though the NEA president in from Utah, there is NO WORD coming from NEA about the problems in Utah. We are one of the very few states to have had actual Common Core testing, and between 56% and 71% of kids have now been labeled “failing” by those tests. Speak up for US, for once.

    1. I currently have 240 8th ad 9th grade social studies students. I have to give them SIX HOURS of new social studies testing this year, because of Utah’s NCLB waiver. A secondary student in my Utah district will have NINETEEN HOURS or more of standardized testing to sit through this year. The Obama administration, particularly Duncan, are responsible for that.

  7. Thanks for this post! Please ask Lily if she has returned Bill Gates’ money. This is the reason she’s refusing to criticize his Common Core stuff.

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