While I was at Netroots Nation last week, I had the privilege of meeting Lily Eskelsen, Vice President of the powerful National Education Association teachers union. Honestly, all I know of teachers unions, in general, is what I read in the press and it is not good. They are often locking horns with their non-union counterparts like Teach for America and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee — all who I trust are in education to help children. (Michelle Rhee, by the way, made headlines last week for firing 241 teachers, or 6 percent of all D.C. teachers, according to the Wall Street Journal, which celebrated the move.)
At NN, I got to see a bigger picture, as Eskelsen is anything but incompetent. She is one of the highest-ranking labor leaders in the country and one of the most influential Hispanic educators with decades of classroom experience teaching our most vulnerable youth. At NN, she recalled a year, in which she taught 39 fifth-graders, and another year, in which she had 12 special education students in a class of 35. She has taught both gifted children and children who were homeless. In 1989, after only nine years in the classroom, she was named Teacher of the Year in Utah. Her accomplishments exceed beyond the classroom, as you can see in her online biography.
I got to ask her a few questions and was impressed by her breadth of knowledge. Check it out:
I want to ask you about the student achievement gap. Right now there is a disparity between minority and white students, and the high school dropout rates for African American and Latino men are abysmal. Is there anything that teachers and school staff can do to help narrow the achievement gap in public schools?
Eskelsen: And (the achievement gap is) growing. Absolutely. What Child Left Behind assumes is what you do is teach to the test. You cram for the test, and you practice for the test, and it is having a negative effect on every other aspect of student achievement. What has to happen you have to make learning relevant. You have to make it exciting. You have to make students want to learn. When you drill and drill for the test, you have the opposite effect.
Can you briefly summarzie a way to fairly evaluate teachers? Almost all schools have, usually, principal observations. They also keep track of whether there are parents who have complaints. That will affect your evaluation as well. In my district back in the ’80s, we experimented with something that was cool. The legislature gave (additional funding to) all the districts who came up with an evaluation system that looked at more than what (teachers) teach. It was voluntary…(Legislators) said, “Here is a menu of up to 10 different ways to demonstrate your effectiveness as a teacher.” One way was an anonymous survey of parents. You could have your peers evaluate you. You could use your students’ test scores, if you had chemistry AP students who passed the AP tests. They gave us a whole menu, including things like a principal evaluation. You could also pick an evaluation of peers where a team of teachers from another school came in and evaluated you.
Elisa’s note: Unfortunately, we ran out of time. But she encouraged everyone to contact their senator — NEA has a convenient link — to support a bill that promises to save more than 138,000 teaching jobs due to budget cuts.
Also, I did ask her about union antagonism towards charter schools at the education caucus. She said there were good public schools and bad public schools as there were good charter schools and “very bad” charter schools. Also, she said some charter schools were unionized, and in her opinion, the best ones were formed by educators and accounted for quality. Her two reservations about charter schools had to do with accountability, and also the “for-profit” motivation by landlords leasing buildings to charters.
Because our time was cut short — she had a jam-packed schedule at NN — she offered to answer any other questions we may have. Feel free to drop them here or in an e-mail at elisa at mothertalkers dot com.