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Q&A: National Education Association President On Obama, Duncan

NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia
Scott Iskowitz/RA Today
Courtesy of NEA Public Relations
NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia

A former elementary school teacher from Utah took the reins of the nation's largest teachers union this week.

As president of the National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen Garcia represents nearly 3 million teachers. Her No. 1 one priority? As she puts it: "Roll back standardized testing before it does more damage than good."

The NEA has been critical of the Obama administration, especially its support of using test scores to evaluate teachers.

Garcia spoke with the president over the weekend. And this week, NPR Ed talked with the new NEA president about that meeting and her broader concerns about education issues.

What did the president say about your concerns about testing?

The president made it very clear. He said, "I agree with you and Secretary Arne Duncan agrees with you. There's too much testing." And I said, "That's not the point." It's not the amount of testing. It's the high-stakes toxic punishment that's being applied to these standardized tests that were never meant to measure whether a child gets to graduate from high school.

The NEA this summer passed a resolution calling for Secretary Duncan's resignation. Did you discuss that with the p resident?

No. We didn't talk about that. Why would I? We have a lot of things in common with the administration, like Head Start, preschool, affordable college, immigration reform that keeps families together and protects children and their right to an education. [But] if [they] don't end this obsession with high-stakes punishments hooked to a standardized test score, none of that will matter.

Do you still think Duncan should resign?

We have a huge disconnect with ... Duncan on the use of testing. We believe testing should be used to guide our instruction and he will agree with that but has not yet told us that [he] has made a big mistake hooking big-stake consequences to those tests.

But last month , Duncan proposed that states delay using standardized test results to evaluate teachers. He said the E ducation D epartment would soon come up with new guidelines because he , too , was concerned about "overtesting."

It is an absolute step in the right direction and I was all smiles when I heard the secretary of education. In the presidential limo, I heard the president say, "There's too much testing."

You've been quoted as saying that this election season you will support GOP candidates in instances in which they stand with the NEA on this issue.

I would have never said that. It's not an accurate quote. I look at the whole politician as I look at the whole child. I don't care what their party is. What we're looking for is people who will listen to what needs to happen with equity and measuring what matters and using the data well.

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Former elementary and middle school teacher Claudio Sanchez is the education correspondent for NPR. He focuses on the "three p's" of education reform: politics, policy and pedagogy. Sanchez's reports air regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Sanchez joined NPR in 1989, after serving for a year as executive producer for the El Paso, Texas, based Latin American News Service, a daily national radio news service covering Latin America and the U.S.- Mexico border.