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'Don't Wait For An Act Of Congress': Union Chief On Politics And Testing

Lily Eskelsen Garcia is the first Latina to run the NEA.
Marvin Joseph
The Washington Post/Getty Images
Lily Eskelsen Garcia is the first Latina to run the NEA.

Before we can even be seated in the Midtown cafe where we meet, Lily Eskelsen Garcia has begun her barrage of plainspoken, provocative opinions. A Democratic superdelegate, she's just come from a spot on a morning news show, where, she declared, "Hillary is winning no matter how you look at it."

Garcia started her education career as a lunch lady. Today, as president of the National Education Association, she represents 3 million classroom teachers, plus support staff like school bus drivers, classroom aides and substitutes. The NEA has 200,000 members who work on university campuses as well, for an overall membership that makes it the largest single organization in the shrinking category of organized labor, once a stalwart of political power within the Democratic Party.

I think the next big thing is doing the opposite of all the bad things.

But "shrinking" doesn't describe Garcia. She firmly declares that the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act earlier this year, the major federal education overhaul, opens the way for her members, in partnership with parents and other groups, to reinvent education for the better — this time, with an eye toward equity and educating the whole child. "I think the next big thing is doing the opposite of all the bad things," she says.

Let's talk about the presidential campaign, since you were just talking about that. Where do you think the education policy is going to go from here?

So the bad news is that our education policy has been so incredibly idiotic and I mean no disrespect to idiots. It's just been this hodgepodge of one more test and if you don't hit your quota, turn it over to a charter school that has a worse track record.

I don't care if you were Ted Kennedy or George Bush. Nobody thought to say to a third-grade teacher: What would happen if we just demanded that every child in America hit a particular score on a standardized test or they get punished? What might be the unintended consequences?

So ... that's the bad news.

And the good news?

It's come to a screeching halt. For no other reason than it was such a catastrophe. Parents, for the first time in the history of history, were organizing to say, "My children will not be tested."

Everything was done so poorly that ... Republicans and Democrats and President Obama agreed to stop doing stupid things.

But they haven't stopped, have they? [The Every Student Succeeds Act still requires annual testing of all children in grades 3-8 plus once in high school.]

I got to look over the president's shoulder and sign the end of No Child Left Behind's federal mandate to support high-stakes testing. There is no more AYP — Adequate Yearly Progress. The federal government is no longer requiring that states do things like close down schools, fire half the staff, remove the principal, give students, uh, charter schools while they shutter their neighborhood public schools. That's gone. And what we replace it with is an opportunity. And the opportunity will now meet — or not — its goals state by state.

And what is that opportunity?

We don't want less information. We want better information.

You've given us a standardized test score; it tells me an inch deep of this ocean called education. And then you were making high-stakes decisions based on whether this kid missed a cut score by 2 points.

We want a dashboard of good information. So yes, things like grad rates. Yes, things like attendance rates. We got language in there that even our best friends said, "You're never getting in." And those two little words make all the difference in the world in this big old legislation. We said on this dashboard, you have to have multiple indicators of success.

But we also pushed on. ... You left out of this thing called accountability that the politicians should be held accountable for actually giving an educator what he or she needs to do his or her job.

That was what 1965 and [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] was all about. It was an acknowledgement that states weren't doing a very good job on equal opportunity. The extra resources have been left out of the whole accountability debate.

And how does the multiple-indicators idea address this?

So what we said to our friends on the Republican and Democratic side and [to] the president: On this dashboard, we want you to have to measure service and supports.

Who has access to that AP class and who doesn't even have access to recess?

Who's got a school nurse? Where are the services and the broad range of programs that a child should have, like the arts, like foreign languages?

It will be our responsibility as advocates to use that transparency to say: This is federally required information, so you have to give it to us and we can see the great divides. The gaps by ZIP code.

This sounds an awful lot like the conversation in our school funding series. But I haven't seen too much discussion of these provisions.

What got in there was "at least one" [service and support indicator].

So one of that list? They're required to report just one from the possible list?

Those are magic words. At least one. It means that's the floor, not the ceiling. That's not where we'll end up. We will be screaming to National Public Radio and everybody else where things are reported and you can see the divide.

You're saying that which indicators are chosen in different states becomes the basis of advocacy?

So what we want to do now in 50 states is work with a broad coalition who can come together and say yes, at least one, but what's wrong with 10 service and support indicators?

There's a lot that goes into it.

Educating that whole child is complicated. So you start thinking not of that gimmick — our bubble kids got a few more points and all we had to do was destroy our arts and sports programs. This would be something that parents would rally around.

What other innovations are you excited about?

The other thing that we're really looking at, and this is coming from our state and local school district affiliates, as people have now started to see charter schools as: Wow, there are studies that say they are really no better, depending on which charter schools and how selective they are, and they're not really improving the public schools the way the original concept had hoped.

More and more of our local affiliates are saying: Have you heard about community schools?

They aren't as shiny. They've been around for a long time. It's that merging of social services and education in the poor community.

[In Minneapolis, I visited] the Brooklyn Center International Baccalaureate high school.

What they decided was, we have to beef up a more rigorous academic program at the same time that we work with social services to bring in a health clinic. They have a dental clinic. They have evening classes in English for the parents. They have a parent center in the school.

And while I'm there, this high school kid comes in and whispers something to this parent coordinator who points her over to this closet, this big walk-in closet in the library full of clothes.

They've worked with churches to gather clothes for high school kids. She said, "This young lady's living in her car with her mom. She has no place to wash her clothes. And every so many days she comes in and I let her take clean clothes." So, instead of her saying, "I'm too embarrassed to go to school," she's in school and she's on time.

This is like whole-child reform at its finest and there's no bells and whistles on this.

Wow. You guys don't watch out, you're going to find yourself running the entire health and human services department.

Our teachers, the support staff, the school secretary, the bus driver, the people I talk to who are members of the NEA in these schools love it. Time and time again in so many words they said, "This makes it so we're not alone." So it doesn't say, "Well, we could give this money to social services, or, we could give it to preschool programs." ... Now we're all together. We look at that child's needs all together.

We don't want to run social services any more than they want to run what's going to happen in our classroom or plan lessons for us.

You want to collaborate though.

It is a true collaboration.

My best teaching gig ever was when I taught at a one-room school in a homeless shelter in Salt Lake City. And as much as I had to step over drunk people sleeping on the sidewalk waiting for the shelter to open to get to work, I loved teaching at the homeless shelter.

I was part of a team. There was a dental clinic and a medical clinic and social workers that worked with the families. You know what was happening in that child's life. Someone would come in and say, "Dad was just hauled off. And this kid is going to have a really bad day today." So you had people you could talk to and nurture that whole child.

I have a really personal question for you. My daughter's going to kindergarten next year. My neighborhood school is working really hard. It's trying to stay diverse. It's got a bilingual program. It's got a lot of arts. It's got a greenhouse that the PTA raised money for. It's three blocks away from our house. But I know she could be doing so much more. I know the curriculum is really standardized. They couldn't go out to play the other day because the big kids were taking the state test. She's in pre-K but she's already affected by it.

How do you persuade parents like me to stick with the public schools when you know that they could be so much better?

Because they're going to be better because of you. You are not buying a commercial product here, OK? And that's what I tell even my own teachers. Because it's like, Who is going to fix this? Well, why aren't you "they"?

A dark cloud has just been lifted off the country. No Child Left Untested just blew away in smoke. We have not yet embraced those possibilities. I said, "What would happen, my friends, if a bunch of you got together and you said, we're all going to go talk to the PTA? We're gonna convene something in the school library."

Don't wait for an act of Congress. Those people are not your friends; they are not going to get it right. What can you do in your school with nobody's permission? Proceed until apprehended!


I actually went to a school in Connecticut who did just that. This was four years ago.

It was a junior high, and the University of Connecticut said, "We have no money but we can facilitate some conversations about the school community."

They created a literature program. They instituted a new discipline program. They started collaborating in ways they hadn't before.

There was a parent they introduced me to. This parent did not like the school. It was a low-income mom who said, "This is my last kid going through this school and I hated it. The only time I heard from them was when my kids were in trouble, and my kids were always in trouble."

And I said, "What do you think now?" And she pointed to the wall and she said, "I OWN these bricks. They built this school around my kid." It was so powerful. ... Wow. They did it. And you can do it too.

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.