Exaggeration and misinformation can only get you so far. You still need a reasoned argument for change and we didn’t get one from National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia last week. In a series of
EducationWeekblogposts she focused her attention and rhetoric on her favorite target: standardized testing. She unapologetically opposes standards-based accountability, but the gaping hole at the center of her argument is that she never offers an alternative way of holding ourselves responsible for educating children. If we are not accountable for student achievement, what should we be accountable for? She doesn’t say. Describing accountability systems, Eskelsen-Garcia offers sentences like this one: “If one student misses [the] cut score by one point on either test in any grade level, the school has officially failed.” This is an extreme reading of the law that rarely plays out in practice and usually carries no real consequences. There are numerous other examples of hyperbole, which we will highlight on our
Red Pen page. For example, she suggests that advocates for “accountability” believe testing is the “purpose” of education and then asks, “Do good scores mean a good life?” Most thoughtful people recognize education’s purpose and do not equate good scores with a good life, so why ask it? She blames the “federal testing feeding frenzy,” for putting too much “pressure” on students but the pressure mostly comes from the adults closest to the children. The federal testing mandate has not changed in 13 years but what has changed is the behavior of local administrators who believe more testing and test prep will boost scores, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. In fairness to her, making test scores one factor in a teacher’s evaluation has contributed to the testing mania, but retreat is not the right response. Instead, administrators must find the right balance for teacher evaluation that includes student outcomes, classroom observation and other locally determined factors. Eskelsen-Garcia’s Education Week blogs also feature a few inconsistencies. For example, she claims accountability drains schools of everything but test prep but then describes a low-income school in Montana that gets good test scores without narrowing the curriculum or over-emphasizing tests. On Tuesday, she laments the high-stress educational culture in Singapore and Hong Kong, but on Thursday she praises Singapore, along with Canada and Finland, for its “highly prepared and respected career educators.” She also claims that the Finns understand that the purpose of education is to “build a good life,” but then says that Finland weds “education to economic development.” Good life and good job sounds like the American Dream. Are we really any different?
Heeding the Civil Rights Community
President Eskelsen-Garcia’s personal story, from folksinger to lunch lady to award-winning teacher to union president is inspiring, but her rhetoric is dividing communities who put their deep faith in education as a way out of poverty. Her position on accountability puts this national leader of color at odds with all of the leading civil rights groups in America, just as the public school student population becomes majority-minority for the first time in our history. Today, virtually
every major civil rights organization endorses standards-based accountability. The accountability debate also undermines public confidence in public education. As of last fall,
35 states were at or below pre-recession education funding levels. Today, nearly 10 million students are educated outside the traditional public school system. Endless debates over accountability fuel both disinvestment and disenrollment. With a national election just around the corner, politicians will pay more attention to education if we can find common ground among those who work in the schools, the taxpayers who support them, and the families that rely on them. It starts by recognizing our collective interest in making our schools the very best they can be.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with