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2014 NEA Representative Assembly

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NEA-Alaska State Director Tim Parker contributed to this article

Testing, accountability and the Common Core dominated the issues faced by delegates at the 2014 NEA Representative Assembly (RA) in Denver in early July. But the change in the face of the organization is what most members will see first.

Delegates elected former Utah teacher and UEA President Lily Eskelsen García as NEA’s next president by an overwhelming majority. Although she is neither the first woman nor the first minority to head the organization, she will lead a new team of officers that is all-female and all-minority—and that is a first for NEA. In addition to Eskelsen Garcia, the elected officers include vice president Becky Pringle and secretary-treasurer Princess Moss.

The new group enters as NEA ramps up to a more aggressive approach to combat high stakes testing and the negative influences of so-called education reformers who seem more interested in monetizing public education than in improving student learning.

“People who don’t know what they’re talking about are talking about increasing the use of commercial standardized tests in high-stakes decisions about students and about educators…when all the evidence that can be gathered shows that it is corrupting what it means to teach and what it means to learn,” Eskelsen García told the RA.

The former Utah Teacher of the Year challenged the nearly 9,000 delegates from across the country—including 89 from Utah—to be fearless and take back their professions. “We will not be silent when people who for their own profit and political posture subvert words like ‘reform’ or ‘accountability.’” (View Eskelsen Garcia’s full speech.)

Eskelsen García pledged to continue the focus on leading the profession, which was started almost four years ago under former NEA President Dennis Van Roekel’s leadership.

Van Roekel emphasized that NEA is putting its money into innovative ideas to improve public schools thanks to the Great Public Schools fund that was passed at the 2013 RA. Every single member of NEA contributes $2 to the fund, and in its first year, the fund dispersed $6 million in grants to more than 50 locals and state affiliates to improve student learning.

The program provides strong evidence that NEA is willing to step up, said Van Roekel said. “When we put our own money into these projects, (people outside the organization) sit up and take notice.”

Among the many issues discussed by delegates, the growing harmful influence of high-stakes standardized testing, referred to by many at the RA as ‘toxic testing,’ aroused the most passion. The delegates voted overwhelmingly to “launch a national campaign to put the focus of assessments and accountability back on student learning and end the ‘test, blame and punish’ system that has dominated public education in the last decade.”

Van Roekel challenged every single delegate to sign “An Open Letter from the NEA and educators of America” calling for an end to toxic testing and the implementation of real accountability systems that results in equity and improved student learning in every school across the country.

“We need an accountability system that is centered on our students and their needs, not test scores.,” the open letter reads. “As educators who have dedicated our careers and lives to our students and their success, we will not stand silent while commercial standardized testing is used to reduce our public education system to wreckage.”

But Van Roekel was careful to note that NEA is not against all testing, and he challenged teachers to differentiate between “okay and not okay tests.” And if NEA is successful in convincing politicians and education policy makers to roll back the overemphasis on testing, NEA has to be ready to put forward a new accountability system that puts meeting the needs of students front and center, he said.

“What are we going to put on the table?” asked Van Roekel. He pointed to NEA’s Great Public Schools frameworks as a start. The new system has to actually make a difference in the lives of all students, including poor and minority students.

Getting students ready for school is important, as well as having high standards and good curriculum, a high-quality workforce, and an equitable distribution of resources, Van Roekel said. As he leaves the term-limited post after six years, Van Roekel was upbeat. “NEA’s leadership will be the national voice in advocating for what our children need to succeed to be college- and career-ready.”

Some 110 new business items (NBIs) were proposed at the RA, along with amendments to the NEA constitution and bylaws. Delegates approved 56 NBIs at a cost of more than $800,000. The jump in spending was uncommon. Delegates approved less than $400,000 in total over the past three RAs.

2014 NEA Representative Assembly Highlights: