By Kimberly Hefling
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - The new president of the nation's largest teachers union is a guitar-playing, Spanish-speaking author who takes over as once-sacred tenure protections are challenged and new Common Core standards roll out in much of the country.
The National Education Association's Lily Eskelsen Garcia, a former Utah teacher of the year, does not shy from criticizing what she describes as "toxic" testing. For the union's 3 million members, standardized tests are a cause for concern. Supporters of the tests say they are a way to measure schools and students, and to make sure no one falls through the cracks.
Eskelsen Garcia knows she's leading teachers at a trying time. Earlier this year, a California judge dealt a blow against teachers' labor protections, ruling that laws on teacher hiring and firing have led to an unfair, nonsensical system that drives excellent new teachers from the classroom too soon and keeps incompetent senior ones.
Five things to know about the NEA's priorities, based on an Associated Press interview with Eskelsen Garcia:
Eskelsen Garcia says she won't be subtle. She says teachers and their schools are being unjustly judged by how students do on standardized tests, and the "best teachers I know" are saying they don't want to teach anymore as a result.
"What's really behind the toxicity of this testing insanity is that they are now hooked to high-stakes, life-changing punishments if you don't hit your cut score," Eskelsen Garcia said.
No Child Left Behind, the President George W. Bush-era education law, required annual testing and put into place ramifications for schools that didn't show improvement. The Education Department under President Barack Obama has issued waivers to states to help them around many unpopular parts of the law but told them they had to develop a plan for meaningful teacher evaluations. Recently, the department has said states with a waiver can apply to delay using test scores as part of those evaluations.
Immigration is another top concern for educators, Eskelsen Garcia said, because too many children go to school afraid that they or their family members will be deported.
"To see children afraid just breaks our hearts, and we want something done to give these families relief," Eskelsen Garcia said.
Recently, Eskelsen Garcia met with educators on the Texas border who are working with students who were among the wave of tens of thousands of children and teens, mostly from Central America, who illegally crossed into the U.S. by themselves and enrolled in schools with limited English skills and in need of support services. She said the visit was inspirational because while some people want to make these students out as a liability, they were being welcomed there by teachers and principals.
Lessons from schools like these should be shared elsewhere, she said.
"They need to be welcomed into school, and it's an opportunity for other students to say, 'We have some new friends, boys and girls,'" Eskelsen Garcia said.
Beyond the California judge's ruling, there has been other legal and legislative action to end teacher tenure protections. Critics say tenure protections make it nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher.
Eskelsen Garcia said the NEA is for "making sure you have due-process rights, so a good teacher can't be fired for bad reasons." She said tenure opens the door for teachers to stand up and say, "In my professional opinion, this is not the right thing to do for children," without fear of being fired. Often, she said, people have the mistaken belief that tenure means you can't fire a bad teacher.
"I think most people agree that the vast majority of teachers are good, caring, competent educators, and what we want to make sure of is you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater," Eskelsen Garcia said.
COMMON CORE STANDARDS:
The NEA early on supported the Common Core standards, which have been adopted in much of the country and spell out what English and math standards students should master at each grade level. The standards have become unpopular in much of the country, leading some states to reconsider or even scrap them altogether. Some of the discourse focuses on the assessments tied to the standards. Many teachers, for example, are concerned about how the results will be used.
Eskelsen Garcia said: "We want high standards for kids. Critical thinking, creative problem solving. Those are standards worth fighting for. But there's nothing magic about the Common Core."
She said even if it was agreed on that the standards were perfect and the assessment results were used to prevent a student from moving up a grade because the student barely missed a score, "Then, they have turned a perfectly good test, perfectly good standards, toxic."
NEA CALLING FOR EDUCATION SECRETARY ARNE DUNCAN'S RESIGNATION:
At its summer convention, NEA delegates passed a business item that called for Duncan's resignation.
Eskelsen Garcia said the vote was years in the making. She said many members felt that under Duncan's leadership the department has ramped up punishments under No Child Left Behind, creating an environment in which educators are labeled good or bad based on student standardized test scores.
"Every year it's gotten more and more support, and this year, it was hotly debated," Eskelsen Garcia said. "But it passed and it's an honest expression of the honest frustration of really good, caring educators saying enough is enough."
Duncan, who has held his post since Obama took office, declined to comment immediately after the vote, saying he wished Eskelsen Garcia, who would soon be taking office as president, "the best of luck."