A little over a decade ago, Lily Eskelsen García began her education career as a lunch lady in her native Utah. Today she is poised to take over as president of the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teacher union.
Eskelsen García will assume the post as of September 1, the first Latina ever to lead the 3-million strong union. She comes in amid a swirl of issues confronting educators nationwide, including the Common Core education standards, and the “high stakes” testing that is increasingly used to evaluate teacher performance.
Eskelsen García spoke last week at a press briefing for ethnic and community media at the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) Plaza in Los Angeles. “We are up against people who use words like ‘reform’ and ‘accountability,’” Eskelsen García said. “They (really) mean that we will narrow what it means to teach a child to what will fit on a multiple-choice, commercial, standardized test.”
Eskelsen García described such tests as “toxic.”
A former superintendent in Texas is now in federal prison after having raised test scores by forcing out lower-performing students in exchange for financial gain. “You push them out, you humiliate them, frighten them, until they drop out,” Eskelsen García said. “It is corruption of the worst kind.”
Eskelsen García does support the Common Core standards, which place more emphasis on critical thinking skills in math and English Language Arts. Her concern is that the standards will be “poisoned” by efforts to attach them to high-stakes tests and “arbitrary cut-off scores” that determine whether a student can advance to the next grade level or not. “They’re pretending there’s some magical number you hit if you’re a smart child and if you don’t hit it, you are not a smart child,” she said.
This coming spring California students will sit for the official Common Core-aligned assessment, known as the Smarter Balance. Results will be factored into school’s Academic Performance Index (API) scores. State officials are still determining how and if those test scores will be tied to teacher evaluations.
Eskelsen García, who paid her way through college in part by singing folk songs at cafes in Salt Lake City, also addressed recent cuts to arts programs. “The arts were very meaningful in my life,” she said. Touching on her own cultural heritage as the child of immigrant parents from Latin America, she added, “It’s in your blood. It’s who you are.”
Funding for arts education in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has been cut by 76 percent from 2005 to 2013, reflecting a national trend. The cuts have impacted low-income schools in particular.
UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl and California Teacher Association (CTA) Secretary-Treasurer Mikki Cichocki spoke alongside Eskelsen García at Thursday’s briefing.
Caputo-Pearl, who taught for 12 years at Crenshaw High School in East Los Angeles, noted UTLA’s efforts to help return arts programs to LA’s public schools through its Schools L.A. Students Deserve campaign.
He also described a back-to-the basics push by the union to reconnect with parents and community members. It’s an approach both he and Eskelsen García are looking to as support for teachers unions dwindles nationally.
NEA membership has dropped by more than 300,000 people since 2010. Teachers unions in California also sustained a major blow when state Supreme Court judge ruled tenure laws as unconstitutional in June.
Cichoki, who described the ruling as “incredibly disappointing,” said many people confuse tenure with teachers having a job for life. She explained the current rules protect a teacher’s right to due process.
Eskelsen García also addressed the challenge of increasing teacher diversity, despite the high-stress and low-pay for most teachers and at a time when the nation’s student population will become majority non-white for the first time ever.
“I wouldn’t disagree … about how difficult it is [to be] a teacher today,” said Eskelsen García, adding however that for her, “Teaching has always been my social justice contribution to the world. I wanted to be a teacher because I was excited about changing the world, one child at a time.”