Lily Eskelsen Garcia talks to Al Jazeera

Eskelsen Garcia is the president-elect of the National Education Association, a union of 3 million educators

Ray Suarez: Recently in Vergara v. California the teachers' unions defending the notion of tenure were handed a big defeat in a California court. What's more interesting is who was lined up on the side of Vergara, a young California schoolgirl who was the petitioner: Arne Duncan, the secretary of education. If you believe what you read, the Democrats are in lockstep with the NEA, but here's the secretary of education saying, "No, no, taking down teacher tenure in California, the largest single state-administered system in the country — that's a good thing."

Lily Eskelsen Garcia: Tenure is making sure that a good teacher cannot be fired. Tenure is due process. Most states like mine, in Utah, we don't even use the word "tenure." After a probationary period, after you've met your performance expectations and you've had good evaluations, when you get to that level that says now you have tenure, it simply means if you are going to be fired, you get two things. You get to know why you're being fired, and if you believe you're being fired unfairly, you get a chance to defend yourself in front of a hearing officer.

Every state has different timelines of exactly how those two things play out. Every state should always be looking at are those timelines fair? Are you protecting someone who's incompetent while you're trying to protect the people who are doing their job well and being treated unfairly? So you always have to weigh that.

It's interesting that you say that the system that they had in California was there to protect good teachers from losing their jobs because the way the public often sees it is that these systems protect bad teachers by making it really hard to fire.

In Utah it doesn't take years. It takes months. If you have someone who truly is not doing their job or can't do their job, there are steps that you take. There are very clear steps. And they lead to a conclusion very quickly. That should always be the case. But there should always be due process. There's always going to be someone who's unhappy with a kid's grade, you didn't make the team, the way a child might've been disciplined. Most teachers are not going get in trouble. They just want what they need to do their jobs. 

One of the hottest ideas in American education right now is that if a teacher is effective, I should be able to test his or her children, and their effectiveness as a teacher will show because the kids know math, science, English. Does the NEA support performance-based compensation that's judged by testing children?

No, absolutely not. I mean, it makes no sense whatsoever, not just on a practical level but on any study it shows wild fluctuations of things like test scores. That's what it usually comes down to when someone says performance or merit pay, when you go, "And how would you judge Ray against Lily, these two teachers? Oh, well, we would just look at their kids' standardized tests because …"

‘If you’ve ever been in a room with actual human-type children, whether you’re the parent or the teacher or the grandmother or grandfather, you understand that kids learn in very different ways.’

Lily Eskelsen Garcia

If you don't know how to do division after three months of learning division, wouldn't I know that teacher A is better than teacher B if the kids know division?

Let's take that. Because that's exactly what it's based on. If this child needs to know their times tables and she needs to know her times tables and you practiced your times tables and here's a class of again 39 kids and if this many kids learned it and these kids didn't, then we should be able to say you're this good a teacher or you're this bad a teacher based on a standardized test score because that's the only way we can know how kids are doing? No. If you've ever been in a room with actual human type children, whether you're the parent or the teacher or the grandmother or grandfather, you understand that kids learn in very different ways. But what we're seeing now is absurd. What it is, is looking at this whole human child and saying, "All I have to know about this kid is a reading and a math cut score. Did you hit the cut score or didn't you?" And then I can judge whether or not this third grader goes to fourth grade, whether or not this high school senior gets to graduate, whether or not your teacher should be fired, whether or not your teacher should be given a great big bonus. It has been a corrupting influence in what it means to teach and what it means to learn, to judge that whole child by a cut score on two standardized tests that you give in the spring.

But if cumulatively a class of 30 children, which is very common, is in one place in September and a different place in June, doesn't that tell me anything about relative skill as a teacher?

It tells you very little if all you're looking at is the cut score in a standardized test on two subject areas. And I will tell you the studies show that it is wildly unreliable. Unreliable meaning that I can give the very same teacher, the very same teacher with this class this year, this class next year, this class two years ago and this class two years from now, and depending on the students — not the teacher, depending on the students in that class — the test scores will fluctuate wildly.

Sometimes it's been because there's something very dramatic going on in that school. Sometimes it's because you had an influx of English language learners, kids that are not going to do well on an English test, obviously. There are times in my experience, where you had the class from heaven and you had the class that wasn't from heaven, the class where you had Brandon and Chris, two kids that were not a good combination in that class.

Sometimes you have the district that picks a different test to give and comparing ones — one test score one year with a different test score on a different test. It's insane. 

If we go to this testing-based performance assessment, will you choose Wilmette instead of Chicago, Alamo Heights instead of San Antonio, Scarsdale instead of the South Bronx — just by, almost by a rigid law of averages, better-off kids are going to do better, you're going to look better, you'll get your raise, and you'll go on and be able to put together a career as a teacher instead of taking on some of the heaviest lifting in American education?

Let me tell you why I got into teaching. I get excited about seeing kids get excited about learning. It's just this wonderful virtuous circle for me. The more they do, the more I want to do for them. And I taught in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, not a wealthy district — working-class neighborhood — with moms and dads that worked for very modest paychecks. I enjoyed that. But I wanted something different after a while. I wanted a different challenge after I had been teacher of the year. And I asked to have the assignment at the homeless shelter school in Salt Lake City. I wanted to work with those kids.

But would every teacher make that request if their future job security and pay were based on whether or not they pulled those kids up?

That was pre–No Child Left Behind for me. I didn't have to face what you just described. For me it was, where am I needed? Where do I want to really make a difference? And that was all I looked at when I asked to go to the shelter school kids. Today it's a very different situation. It is more what you just described. People are being asked to make these incredibly tough choices about where they want to put their talents.

And when you start saying we may actually be threatening your very livelihood if you choose to teach the most challenging kids, I know that a lot of folks who believe there's a simple — a good teacher, kids always have good test scores, bad teacher, the kids will have bad test scores, and they really believe that it's wrong, but they really believe it in their hearts — they're going to say, "Well, if you're a good-enough teacher, move from that AP chemistry class over here" with the hover parents where no kid has ever gone hungry at night, where they've got technology and they have very educated families that help guide them through, here's what you should be doing and taking, how do to your homework, because they had someone guide them through.

And they're saying if we just took all of those teachers and put them in the schools with the least-prepared kids, with the kids who have the greatest challenge, they'll be able to do the very same. Will they? Will they be able to do the very same? 

‘I look at these families who came here, usually for very desperate reasons. And I never judge them. It’s still my job as an educator to welcome, to accept that child and accept that family as my partner in learning and teaching.’

Lily Eskelsen Garcia

You've got millions of kids whose parents don't speak English as their primary language, hundreds of thousands of kids who are out of status with the immigration service, lots of kids who've been in four schools by the time they're in fifth grade because of the unsettled nature of their home life, their parents' economic problems postrecession. All this must make the job of a teacher not just a little more complicated but a lot more complicated.

How can I say this? Yes but no. Yes, it's complicated in having to deal with situations where kids come to us with greater and greater and greater needs. But no in what they need from us. Really they need someone to care about them. They need someone to care about that whole happy child. And folks that want to make this simple — let's just bottom line it, let's make it like a cooperation, make it like a factory — they really don't understand what we do.

People now know that you're the new head of the largest teachers' union in the country. But they may not know that this is not an abstraction to you, what's going on in American immigration. Your husband can't live in the United States, can he?

No. I just got married. And we've been waiting 14 months now for Alberto's paperwork to come through. He's got all the visas that he needs to travel, but to have residency, you have lawyers, and you put down money for that, and they fill out the most complicated forms you've ever seen.

It makes me understand now when people say quite casually about folks that came here in desperate situations, "You know, they need to go back and just do it right, get in line with all of those." Well, I'm in line, and we're waiting. And we've waited 14 months under the best of circumstances. This has been very frustrating.

I now understand going back home and getting in line. It's almost like saying, "'Cause then it'll never happen."

So I look at these families who came here, usually for very desperate reasons. And I never judge them. It's still my job as an educator to welcome, to accept that child and accept that family as my partner in learning and teaching. Those schools have to be a haven.

Does the NEA have a position on immigration reform?

I was actually a surrogate speaker for the Obama administration on the Dream Act, on what immigrant children need, no matter what their status in terms of their documents. I'm not an expert on comprehensive immigration reform, but I know that we need three things. I know that we have to make sure families aren't separated. We need to make sure kids aren't hurt. And we need to make sure that whatever — immigration reform — whatever form that takes, it has to lead to citizenship. It has to lead to something that says finally there's a road that ends that says this country really is yours. It will do none of us any good to have an underclass of people who can never be citizens living amongst us. We have to have someplace where these fine people, these families who want something better for their children, where they can finally call this place that they love their home.

My two sons were involved in problems in high school and continuing on to all kinds of interesting things in their lives, both of them doing very well today. But they were in trouble in high school.

I was very lucky to have some very caring teachers and a school system that said, "Let's help get your kids some, you know, what they need and counseling," and help for me as a parent.

But I look now at what's happened in schools, and the support staff is diminishing — counselors, social workers, school psychologists, people who were there to help that classroom teacher when they noticed a child, there's something going on here, something beyond just "You don't want to do your homework," where you could reach out to some of your colleagues, sometimes a school nurse. It might be a mental health issue. Those are the kinds of things where we've laid people off in a bad economy. We haven't called those folks back. And what they've done again is turned to the teacher and said, "Yeah, you take care of that all by yourself."

We've also instituted zero tolerance so kids who get in trouble are expelled or suspended. And that in a lot of cases ends their education at a time when it's pretty critical to keep them school involved if they're ever going to finish a credential.

There are some dangerous situations, and you can't just let that continue. But whatever happens, if you just tell that child goodbye at the door, you're expelled, and you don't have someplace for them to go, some help for them to get, then what have you done to the rest of that community? You haven't solved any problems. Again, all of those simple answers, well, you just get rid of those children. They don't disappear. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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