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High Stakes Testing is 'Toxic' Warns New NEA President

Stories about Lily Eskelsen García typically mention the fact her career began as a lunch lady in a local school in her native Utah. But the new head of the nation’s largest teacher’s union, the National Education Association, offers a slightly different take: “I was the salad girl,” she said. “They wouldn’t even trust me with hot food.”

On the urging of a kindergarten teacher she later returned to school, paying part of her way by singing folk songs in coffee shops around Salt Lake City. Nine years later Utah named her Teacher of the Year.

This September, she takes the helm of the 3 million-member NEA. As the first fluent-Spanish speaker to hold the post, she comes in just as a majority of the nation’s public school students will be non-white for the first time in the country’s history. She also comes in amid heated political battles over the future shape of U.S. classrooms, from the Common Core education standards to legal tussles over teacher tenure rules and the growing charter school movement.

Speaking at a briefing for ethnic media in Los Angeles Wednesday, Eskelsen García acknowledged the challenges ahead of her. “What we’re up against,” she said, “are people who use good words like reform, and accountability, and progress.” But their real meaning will be to “narrow what it means to teach a child to fit on a standardized test.”

Eskelsen García believes the push toward high stakes testing and efforts to measure teacher performance on how well students do on these tests is "poisoning what it means to teach and learn in this country." She points to Texas, where she says teacher salaries have been determined by test results, leading many to artificially inflate scores. In Oklahoma, some 8000 third graders were held back because they failed to “hit a cut score that some politician decided meant something.”

Eskelsen García described such practices as “toxic.”

Echoing her comments, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Thursday stated that high stakes tests were “sucking the oxygen out of rooms in a lot of schools.” He also said states could delay for another year using tests in teacher performance ratings. The move is sure to please NEA members, who last month approved a resolution calling on Duncan to resign.

Meanwhile states across the country continue to roll out new standardized tests aligned with the Common Core. California will introduce its own version of the Common Core test, known as the Smarter Balance, next spring. The new tests will be computer-based and will require students to articulate their answers in writing, instead of filling in bubbles. California is still working out how to use the tests in teacher evaluations.

Eskelsen García told audience members Wednesday that she was initially “as critical as anyone” of the Common Core standards, which were designed to revamp the way schools instruct and assess students. She has since come to support them, though she said her fear is that they will be “corrupted” by efforts to limit what textbooks schools could use and to create “cut scores that determine if a student gets punished.”

Eskelsen García spoke alongside Mikki Cichocki, secretary treasurer for the California Teachers Association (CTA), and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) President Alex Caputo-Pearl. The briefing was held at the UTLA offices in downtown LA and was organized by New America Media.

Caputo-Pearl, who taught for 12 years at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles and has two kids enrolled in the district, said many in the education reform world liken test scores to “profit margins,” taking a “top down corporate” approach to addressing educational issues. “Schools aren’t businesses,” he said. “They are more like families.”

He also laid out some of the areas UTLA plans to focus on, including an emphasis on increasing staff around music and the arts, as well as enhancing afterschool and extended learning programs that are culturally relevant to the students they serve.

Asked about the recent Vergara vs. California decision on teacher tenure laws, Cichocki said the ruling was “incredibly disappointing.”

The case, brought by students in the Los Angeles Unified School District and several advocacy organizations, challenged state laws around layoffs and seniority, as well as due process and tenure for teachers after two years. A superior court judge gave a tentative ruling in favor of the plaintiffs earlier this year, saying the laws were harmful for students. A final ruling is expected later this month.

“The [case] focused on all the wrong problems, and offered the wrong solutions,” said Cichocki, who stressed the importance of “teacher driven change.” Eskelsen García was more blunt, calling the decision an “absurdity” that did not take into account ways to “protect good teachers.”

The child of immigrants, Eskelsen García also acknowledged the challenge around serving an increasingly diverse student population even as teacher ranks remain predominantly white. She noted part of the problem stems from the high costs for college that “block out a lot of minorities,” an issue the NEA is looking to tackle through its new Degrees Not Debt campaign.

“We want to work to identify not just problems, but solutions,” she said. “A huge part of the solution will involve reaching out to minority communities.”

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