Saturday, September 13, 2014

My Afternoon with NEA President Lily Garcia

This afternoon I got to join a small group of New Jersey bloggers\people with large social media presences who met with National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. She is on a national tour, traveling to all different states and meeting with bloggers. Rather than meet with mainstream media sources who "have already written the story before you are even interviewed," the goal is to meet with trusted, independent writers who research and link to evidence rather than just stating what was already decided ahead of time - which, sadly, has become a characteristic of many mainstream media outlets.

In this meeting I was with so many of my education- blogger- inspirations, such as Jersey Jazzman, Marie Corfield, Ani McHugh, Melissa Tomlinson, and Darcie Cimarusti. All of them, I'm sure in the next few hours, are going to write amazing pieces summing up today's meetings with links to sources for further reading and suggestions for steps moving forward. I will keep this short, leave the rest of the writing to the experts I mentioned above, and offer my concluding thoughts and reactions to today.

Ms. Garcia's main message of today, and what the NEA has launched a campaign around: "End Toxic Testing." From the NEA website

"Delegates to the National Education Association’s annual meeting in July voted to launch a national campaign to put the focus of assessments and accountability back on student learning and end the "test, blame, and punish" system that has dominated public education in the last decade.  The campaign will among other things seek to end the abuse and overuse of high-stakes standardized tests and reduce the amount of student and instructional time consumed by them. 
"The anti-toxic testing measure also calls for governmental oversight of the powerful testing industry with the creation of a “testing ombudsman” by the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Consumer Protection Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission. The position will serve as a watchdog over the influential testing industry and monitor testing companies’ impact on education legislation. NEA will continue to push the president and Congress to completely overhaul ESEA and end mandates that require yearly testing, and to lift mandates requiring states to administer outdated tests that aren’t aligned to school curricula."
One example of this high-stakes testing monster can be found in stories from other places across the country, where, as Ms. Garcia mentioned, students deal with situations like this:
"Andrea Rediske’s 11-year-old son Ethan, is dying. Last year, Ethan, who was born with brain damage, has cerebral palsy and is blind, was forced to take a version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test over the space of two weeks last year because the state of Florida required that every student take one. His mom has to prove that Ethan, now in a morphine coma, is in no condition to take another test this year."

One of my biggest take away's from this meeting is actually a quote from Ms. Garcia herself: “Maybe we need more people to say no to a bad idea than to put lipstick on a pig.” I feel the same way about the Common Core State Standards, which was not mentioned once during this meeting. I was planning on bringing up the issue of the standards, but we were running low on time and that is not a conversation you can have in-depth in the last 30 seconds. While I completely support the campaign against 'toxic testing,' I don't think you can ignore Common Core in that discussion. Common Core and high-stakes standardized tests are a package deal, driven by one another. To really address the root of the issue, both would have to be discussed. But education is just as much a political game as the next, so I really wasn't expecting much more than what was said: nothing. 

The Common Core debate is not about whether or not the standards are 'good' or not; this is an issue of what the Common Core State Standards are intended to do and what they represent: an undemocratic process of philanthropists and businesses trying to exert control over public education through the size of their pockets. No matter what the intention behind 'education reform' and those funding these changes, the standards are a part of a bigger machine. Diane Ravitch sums up my thoughts best:

"After much deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that I can’t wait five or ten years to find out whether test scores go up or down, whether or not schools improve, and whether the kids now far behind are worse off than they are today. 
"I have come to the conclusion that the Common Core standards effort is fundamentally flawed by the process with which they have been foisted upon the nation.The Common Core standards have been adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia without any field test. They are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time. 
"Maybe the standards will be great. Maybe they will be a disaster. Maybe they will improve achievement. Maybe they will widen the achievement gaps between haves and have-nots. Maybe they will cause the children who now struggle to give up altogether. Would the Federal Drug Administration approve the use of a drug with no trials, no concern for possible harm or unintended consequences? 
"President Obama and Secretary Duncan often say that the Common Core standards were developed by the states and voluntarily adopted by them. This is not true. 
"They were developed by an organization called Achieve and the National Governors Association, both of which were generously funded by the Gates Foundation. There was minimal public engagement in the development of the Common Core. Their creation was neither grassroots nor did it emanate from the states."
Next time I get the opportunity to meet with Ms. Garcia or any high-ranking member of the NEA, this will be the first topic I will bring up. If we don't want our students to suffer how they have in the past and currently are, we must be brave enough to cross the political boundaries and have the conversations that need to be had: including Common Core, high-stakes standardized testing, school closures, charter schools, poverty, infrastructure issues, income inequality, etc. 

Until we have those conversations and work to make change where the actual problems are - and address the root of the problems - it's just another nice meet-and-greet opportunity.

**Let me add the following: Ms. Garcia was an absolute pleasure to meet with and I was so honored to have been asked to join. She was approachable, friendly, listened to all of our questions and thoughts, and expressed many of the same concerns as those of us in the room. I hope that under her leadership, we can turn this ship around and begin to both have these discussions and take action for the best of the students and the future of public education. 

Meeting with Ms. Garcia. Photo credit to Jennifer Marsh. 

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