Friday, August 1, 2014

How Lovable Is New NEA President?

NEA president-elect Lily Eskelsen Garcia is, if nothing else, much more lifelike and good with words than her predecessor. We don't have to rehearse the sad story of how Dennis Van Roekel lost my love; the question I'm asking now is, can I be wooed by the new boss?

My initial reaction was not full-on delight. LEG has an unabashed love for the Common Core, and consequently extends her love to the Gates Foundation and other like-minded doers of good. When she starts talking about GERM and the various enemies of public education, she seems to have a blind spot in her left eye. It will be interesting to see how she deals with places like Connecticut, New York and Chicago, where the attacks on public education are coming from Democrats.

And she has made some good moves. She has actually opened a twitter account, sort of. She has twenty whole tweets and is following fourteen feeds (mostly organizational, but some carbon based life forms). She actually contributed to the @stephenathome twitter blitz prior to Campbell Brown's appearance. It's not much, but it's roughly 23,157,391 times more activity than Van Roekel ever engaged in (of course, it's also about 0.00000312 % of Randi Weingarten's twitterage).

I say "sort of" because her twitter account is actually for her blog, and since the election, LEG's blog has turned weirdly third-person. It used to be chatty and personal; now it reads like some administrative assistant PR person is running it for her. This is not a great thing-- NEA historically suffers hugely from Imperial Presidency Syndrome, and it just needs to stop. I know the president of NEA is a Busy Person with Lots To Do. I don't care. Get down out of the castle and live and work and tweet and blog like the rest of the staffless teachers you represent. NEA continues to have huge HUGE problems because of the enormous Grand Canyon Sized gulf between leadership and rank-and-file. Do something about that.

But boy can she talk.

The comment sections are filled with folks talking about how LEG has brought them to tears at conventions. Find some videos-- she can spin words well. The caveat is that some of those same comments sections includes the line on LEG that she talks a good game, but doesn't deliver. At this point, even talking a good game is a step up.

But if you want to see everything there is to be hopeful about, read LEG's Salon interview with Jeff Bryant. Diane Ravitch fell in love with LEG over this interview, and I don't think she's the only one.

In the interview, LEG displays a kind of tough love for the US Department of Education and the hapless Arne Duncan. She has absolved him of evil intent, but not of terrible outcomes, and that's a great political bank shot, because it both holds his feet to the fire and gives him a way to make things better. She gets one of the most annoying things about Arne-- he says lovely things, and then pursues policies that foster the opposite of what he just said.

And her explanation of how federal policy created the test-and-punish atmosphere is nuanced and smart, explaining how it didn't explicitly require such policies, but created a situation where bad policies are predictable and inevitable.

The Department of Education has become an evidence-free zone when it comes to high stakes decisions being made on the basis of cut scores on standardized tests. We can go back and forth about interpretations of the department’s policies, like, for instance, the situation in Florida where teachers are being evaluated on the basis of test scores of students they don’t even teach. He, in fact, admitted that was totally stupid. But he needs to understand that Florida did that because they were encouraged in their applications for grant money and regulation waivers to do so. When his department requires that state departments of education have to make sure all their teachers are being judged by students’ standardized test scores, then the state departments just start making stuff up. And it’s stupid. It’s absurd. It’s non-defensible. And his department didn’t reject applications based on their absurd requirements for testing. It made the requirement that all teachers be evaluated on the basis of tests a threshold that every application had to cross over. That’s indefensible.

There's a lot to love there. It remains to be seen if LEG can grasp-- or acknowledge-- that in the same way, adopting national standards must lead to national standardized tests, and those test must be bad. The new NEA stance of toxic testing = bad, but CCSS = good is going to be awfully hard to pull off, like saying that we love and cherish the beautiful river, but must shut down the waterfall at the end of that river.

I have no doubts that DVR is a swell person, but he set the bar really, really low for effective NEA leadership, and so it would be Very Bad News if LEG couldn't surpass that standard. But while some signs are encouraging, I can't forget that she is a product of the tightly controlled NEA machinery. And she has me wondering how such an apparently smart person handles so much cognitive dissonance. So I'm not in love yet. But I'm willing to be courted.

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