NEA’s Eskelsen Promotes DREAM, Proven Reforms at Netroots Nation

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By Kevin Hart

National Education Association Vice President and blogger Lily Eskelsen arrived at the Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis this week with a message for the progressive community: a generation of children is counting on them to stand up for public education and to push back against unproven reforms that foster inequality.

“The reformers are not fixing something broken and corrupt,” Eskelsen told attendees at Netroots, the nation’s premiere conference for progressive bloggers. “They’re implementing something broken and corrupt.”

Eskelsen had a packed schedule at Netroots, where she participated in a series of panels and interviews designed to inform bloggers about current threats to public education and to advocate for educator-led reform and sensible legislation that will benefit students.

In an interview with Markos Moulitsas, founder of progressive news and blogging website Daily Kos, Eskelsen stressed the need for Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship to undocumented students who avoid trouble with the law, graduate high school and complete two years of college.

“Without the DREAM Act, our children are condemned to life in the shadows,” Eskelsen said. “The DREAM Act is about treating kids with compassion.”

Eskelsen told bloggers it was important to keep DREAM Act advocates like President Obama in office, and to hold legislators who do not support the DREAM Act accountable.

“We will get a choice between President Obama and our worst nightmare,” Eskelsen said, looking ahead to the 2012 elections.

NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen (left) and U.S. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) discuss education policy at Netroots Nation in Minneapolis.

Eskelsen urged the progressive community to fight against silver bullet education “reforms” that are unsupported by research, undermine the professionalism of teaching, and are often thinly veiled attacks on organized labor.

“Why do billionaires like the Koch brothers care about union payroll deduction? Because they want to destroy unions,” Eskelsen said as part of a panel on public education with U.S. Representative Judy Chu (D-Calif.); Jeff Bryant from Campaign for America’s Future; blogger Sabrina Stevens Shupe, and Kevin Welner, an education professor from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Welner, who has extensively studied education reform through his involvement with the National Education Policy Center, warned that many current reform models are unsupported by research.

“Education research has a well-known bias against quick-fix solutions,” he said.  

Both Eskelsen and Chu cited a Stanford study of charter schools nationwide that found that most charter schools fail to outperform comparable neighborhood schools — a fact that does not seem to be slowing the proliferation of charters.  

Applying business models to education often fails, Eskelsen warned, because business is designed to create winners and losers and stratify opportunities. She cited her career as a public school teacher in Utah to expose some of the problems with evaluating and paying teachers based on test scores.

One year she had a class of 39 students, in which 12 had special needs – an assignment she drew because of her experience and skill working with special needs kids. But if she had been evaluated based on student performance that year, she may have been deemed less effective than other teachers working with few or no special needs students.  

A concept like linking pay to test scores may seem logical, but it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates teachers, Chu added.

“It’s actually a disincentive to go to the schools with the highest poverty levels,” she said. “I think teachers are motivated to actually make a difference in the life of a child.”

Unfortunately, many teachers are feeling shackled and discouraged by overly prescriptive regulations and a lack of resources, said Shupe, a former Denver teacher.

“We are failing schools as a society,” she said. “We are not investing in them and giving them what they need to be successful, and then we’re turning around and labeling them.”

Eskelsen promoted reform models where educators are engaged as stakeholders. She cited success stories in Montana and Florida where teachers helped craft more effective evaluation models, and urged bloggers to write about collaboration-driven success stories that are occurring in local schools throughout America.

To share your own story of how collaboration is driving success in your local schools, visit NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign.

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