NEA President: Take Public Education Off the Assembly Line and Focus on the Whole Child

LilyDetroitEconomicClubThe “global education reform movement” has failed, National Education President Lily Eskelsen García told the Detroit Economic Club in a speech on December 16, and it’s long past time to follow the evidence and build a system that promotes equity, professional authority and personalized instruction.

Business leaders, García acknowledged, were not her standard audience, but she emphasized that a strong partnership between NEA and the private sector is absolutely critical to take public education where it needs to be in the 21st century.

“You understand what’s at stake in public education,” Eskelsen García said. “You understand the importance of a skilled workforce who are creative problem solvers, who are collaborative, critical thinkers and who empowered to be professionals who are expected to show initiative in constantly improving, in constantly meeting whatever challenges the day brings.”

Getting there requires nothing less than abandoning the misguided “reforms” that have suffocated public schools for more than a decade  and replacing them with a system that serves the whole child.

The pillars of Whole Child Education, Eskelsen García explained, are equity (every child having the tools and resources to succeed), education that inspires (a collaborative effort between school staff to design the most exciting and engaging learning environment imaginable) and a personalized relationship between teacher and student and home and school.

“As educators, we know that Whole Child Education – in humanizing education and expanding education expectations and opportunities beyond what can fit on a standardized bubble test  – will transform lives,” she said. “But I think – at least at the beginning – people who believed in the global education reform movement thought the same thing. They meant well. But they were wrong.”

The business community relies on evidence and reliable data. Bad data should be avoided at all costs because it can destroy a business. But communities across the country have been force-fed privatization plans and “test and punish” regimes that have not produced the desired results and have decimated many schools. And yet, Eskelsen García noted, ideologues are “committed to doubling down on bad ideas, regardless of the evidence.”

Where does the evidence lead us? To Canada, Finland, and Singapore.

“Singapore uses data. They give lots of tests. The big difference between our systems is that teachers in Singapore carefully analyze data to develop personalized instruction, tutoring, class projects. But they never set arbitrary targets for prizes and punishments,” Eskelsen García explained.

In Canada, officials see to it that teachers are given the necessary training and supports they need to reach every student.

And Finland threw practically every standardized test away to focus on time to teach, classroom assessments, and professional collaboration. The foundation of Finland’s system is equity.

“They saw that in inequitable systems, children in poor neighborhoods didn’t have the opportunity to learn the same things children in rich neighborhoods had,” García said. “Since they didn’t have any brains to waste, they needed all children to succeed. They decided that equity in resources and programs would be in every single school building.”

These nations are leading the way in fostering equity, collaboration, and personalized learning. And it’s working. Canada, Finland and Singapore sit at the top of the global rankings.

The U.S. can join them, García said, but “good intentions aren’t good enough. We need to get this right. We need research. We need evidence. And we have it.”

“But we need people – people like you – who care about the whole child and will help us build a new system.”

Watch NEA President Lily Eskelsen García’s address to the Detroit Economic Club

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream