Why Business Leaders Should Be Teachers’ Best Friends

You are not my usual suspects. I talk to teachers and students and parents and administrators and lots and lots of politicians and reporters.

I am a union leader. You are business leaders. And I think the story of the day is that you and I are best friends. At least we should be best friends.

[This is from an address at the Detroit Economic Club] Watch the speech here:

Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

But I don’t think I always say the right things in the right ways when I talk to business friends.

I was on a plane and the nice man in the middle seat was yacking away about his job and where he was going and he asked: And what do you do, darlin’?

And I said: I’m a 6th grade teacher and I work with the National Education Association.

And he stopped smiling. He said: Oh. I’ve heard about you people. I hear you need this and I hear you need that and then you need something else, and to tell you the truth, I’m a little tired of hearing it. So I want you, right now, to bottom line it for me. What’s the one, single thing we need to solve all our problems in public education?

I said: Easy. What we really need are fewer people who think there’s one single thing that would solve all our problems in public education.

I really liked that answer, but I wish I had given him a more respectful answer. Because the dialogue doesn’t have to be shrill. I should have said: Think about a doctor.

You have cancer. Your doctor says you need surgery and radiation and chemo. So you say: Let’s not get complicated. What’s the one single thing I need. Pick one. The doctor knows that picking one single thing means you are going to die, even if he does that one thing really well.

I want our public schools to live and thrive and be that doorway to something better for every child. And I can’t afford to give you a flippant answer. I need you to be on my best friend.

You, more than anyone else, understand the importance of getting the Whole System right. You understand what happens when you measure the wrong things in a little piece of that system and make critical, high-stakes decisions based on bad data. You know the science of unintended consequences that can destroy a business.

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.

You understand what’s at stake in Public Education. It is the future of Everything. No pressure.


There are hundreds and hundreds of students I had as an elementary teacher who are now adults. My first 4th graders are now in their 40s… and I’m still 39. Work with me.

They are your employees. They are your executives. They are the mothers and fathers and taxpayers and voters in your communities. I know that I’m not the only factor in their success or lack of success – but that system, from preschool to graduate school – that I’m a part of was a huge part of what they were able to make of their lives. I take my responsibility for that part of their lives very seriously. It is my reason for getting up in the morning.

And it is why I’m here today. I need you as much as I need parents – I can make a powerful case to a parent about the opportunities they want for the child they love.

But I can make a business case to you about the opportunities you want to develop the most powerful economic driver of any community; any state; any country – the brains, the health and the ethical character of your people.

To do that, I want to tell you where we’ve been. Where we are. And where we hope to go.

So, first, the History Lesson (it will be on the test):

Up to the Civil War, American public schools are a patchwork quilt of private schools; Dame schools with a nice lady in the neighborhood who teaches kids their ABCs and how to read; public schools that are radically different community to community, state to state, and not available everywhere.

Horace Mann, farmer’s son, businessman, member of the Massachusetts State Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, gets appointed to the Massachusetts School Board in 1837. He’s someone who’s never thought much about education, and decides: This is the national game changer. Remember, we’ve been a country at this time for about 60 years. We’re new. Horace thinks: This is how we become a true nation.

He makes universal, non-sectarian, free public education to advance both academics and civic virtue, his cause for the rest of his life.

His radical idea: A Common School Movement”.

Radical Idea #1: Teachers would be career professionals taught in a 2-year teacher college called a Normal School. He suggests communities recruit bright, young, unmarried women because they could be paid less. (Teachers would be like nuns taking vows of chastity, poverty and obedience. This concept, of course, is long gone. Except in Utah. )

Radical Idea #2: Communities would have physical school buildings as the hub of communities so that diverse children would learn together – kids of different religions would go to school together. Kids whose dads were lawyers and kids whose dads were shopkeepers would go to school together. Schools would look like the community.  Lily Eskelsen García, President of the National Education Association addresses the Detroit Economic Club

Radical Idea #3: These schools would be paid for by the public because, although they certainly benefited individual students, the purpose was to benefit society at-large. School funding becomes a local and state responsibility.

He was denounced by Boston schoolmasters. He was denounced by religious leaders. But enough business leaders of the day and enough politicians and enough parents loved his vision, that today, it’s our mental model of what a neighborhood public school should be. For the brand new shiny NEA, which was founded in 1857 – two years before he died – Horace Mann became our patron saint.

By 1930, we were #1 in the world in students attending high school. We were #1 in high school graduation. We were #1 in college enrollment. We were set up to educate millions and millions of students. And we did that using a very common, practical industrial model.

Students were divided by age group – very objective, very orderly, easy to budget. Teachers delivered instruction to large groups of children at the same time – very cost effective.

Principals were like foreman, making sure production went well. It was a very one-size fits-all approach, but it delivered a standard package: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. It was like Henry Ford saying: You can have any color car you want, as long as it’s black.

For public schools, you can have any kind of education you want, as long as it fits in this 50 minute period. With this kid sitting in this chair. In this group of 32 students. Standard package. No options.

But in 1965, Lyndon Johnson decides to do something on the national level, because not all kids are getting even the standard package. If you’re a black child, or a poor child you don’t get the same opportunity to have Honors classes or an athletic program. If you’re a student with disabilities, sometimes you’re turned away from that public school because they don’t serve kids with Downs Syndrome. If you’re a student learning English, you get English Only with no support for the teacher to know how to help you.

So, Congress passes an exciting thing with a boring name: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act – the ESEA. NEA fought for its passage. We fought for special funding for Special Education. We fought for bilingual education where kids could learn to be literate in their native language AND in English. Tell me that’s not something valued by business today. We were all over ESEA. And it passed.15628844769_33b07982e5_z

Every 10 years, this federal law is reauthorized and someone renames it something prettier and prettier. And for years, we could tell you in one word what we wanted as it was being reauthorized: More.

More funding for Special Education. More funding for teacher training. More funding for technology. More funding reading tutors for children who live in poverty. And we had support from parents and advocacy groups. But we always had support from the business community.

You’ve always stood with us when we could convince you that what we were asking for made sense for serious improvements in student achievement. You’ve been there for better education opportunities time and time again. You’ve made a huge difference.

But enough about you. Let’s talk about me. That´s a good place to start talking about where we are today. I began teaching in 1980 (when I was 12). I taught 4th 5th & 6th grade. I taught Gifted & Talented classes in the summer. For a few years, I taught homeless children. I was Utah Teacher of the Year. And I know why I was selected.

I’m really good. Kids wanted to be in my class because I was the fun teacher, but parents wanted their kids in my class because I could make them do their homework. They were going to organize blood drives and perform Shakespeare plays and when we went to Timpanogos Cave, my kids gave the tour to the Park Ranger. They worked their little tails off, and they loved it. And the worst compliment I’ve ever received is: Well, you’re the exception.

What I did with my students was possible because of the team of colleagues I had at Orchard Elementary. We stole from each other openly and often and even though there wasn’t any planned “collaboration” time in our day, we came early and worked over lunch and stayed after school and did whatever it took. You could not have stopped us. Teaching is our calling; it’s our cause.

And I’m telling you all that to tell you why, today, educators like me – teachers, principals, support staff – are so outraged over the GERM.

The Global Education Reform Movement.

The GERM infected us nationally the last reauthorization of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act when they renamed it: No Child Left Untested.

The pillars of the GERM are quite simple:
1. Privatize & Compete with charters and vouchers;
2. De-professionalize with fast-track teacher training & require scripted, paced programs;
3. Above all – use test targets and motivate, reward and punish based on hitting your number.

But let’s look now at where the GERM is working. (crickets)  Moving on.

Privatization doesn’t work. Money Magazine, years ago, did a consumer report comparing public schools and private schools and found that – when adjusted for socio-economic status and looking at SAT and ACT tests, college enrollment, and parent satisfaction – public schools were a better bang for the buck. New research, that includes charter schools, confirms the Money Magazine study.

With years of experiments with charters and vouchers, studies are clear. Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) study showed that only 17% of charters outperformed public schools with similar demographics. Charter schools were supposed to do better than public schools. 83% fail.

Says University of Illinois researcher, Dr. Christopher Lubienski:
“One of the main assumptions is that if you … adopt a private-style method for schools, that it might be more effective and lead to higher academic outcomes…. When you start to look at the data, the evidence doesn’t necessarily bear that out.”


De-professionalization doesn’t work. The most famous fast-track teacher producer is Teach for America which was a small non-profit designed to replace long-term substitutes during a teacher-shortage crisis 25 years ago.

TFA recruits recent college graduates, gives them 5 week training and asks them to stay in the classroom for only 2 years before replacing them with new recruits. Today, they are a multi-million enterprise listed as #49 on the Forbes top 50 biggest charities, and they have contracts in places that have no teacher shortage. They are just replacing certified, career teachers.

A study from the University of Texas as Austin found: “The best evidence shows Teach For America participants as a group are not meaningfully or consistently improving educational outcomes for the children they have taught…TFA teachers appear less effective in both reading and mathematics than fully prepared entrants teaching similar students.”

Test and Punish doesn’t work. Dr. Sharon Nichols and Dr. David Berliner did research on testing and found: “The over-reliance on high-stakes testing has serious negative repercussions that are present at every level of the public school system.”

The testing watchdog, Fair Test found: “High stakes tests punish students for factors beyond their control; increases drop-outs; narrows curriculum; drives out good teachers; misinforms the public. High stakes tests are bad for a good education.” (Fair Test December 17, 2007)

The pillars of GERM model have failed. They have failed on every level. You will find both Republicans and Democrats; conservatives and liberals who believed in this model. Sincerely.

To the point that some have become ideologues committed to doubling down on this model, regardless of the evidence.

I have visited so many schools. I’ve been to West Windsor Public High School in New Jersey in one of the most lovely neighborhoods I’ve ever driven through. They have a state of the art Theater Department, a library full of books and technology, chemistry labs and AP classes and honors classes and the kids are on their way to Princeton.

I’ve been to other schools, driving through neighborhoods that looked like war zones with closed up shops and abandoned houses. And they get test-prep. And prepped for the test prep. The technology they have is for taking tests. They have no AP classes. They have no theater department. They have no recess. The kids are on their way to hating school and dropping out and that is the pipeline to prison.

We must follow the evidence, even if it’s not what we expected it to be.

The theory of success for those GERM reformers was one single thing: Competition. Competition would motivate struggling public schools to find ways to overcome their students’ poverty without additional resources. Competition will allow parents to pick good schools so the bad schools will go out of business. But how will you know the good schools? How will you know which bad schools to close?

The one, simple thing to make it all work: High-stakes standardized tests. A school would face the shame of being labeled a failure.
A kid would face flunking and being held back. A teacher would face being fired – all based on one high-stakes standardized test.

It would all be simple. What could go wrong? Except everything.10593636756_ee17f55a64_o

Except 8,000 Oklahoma 3rd graders actually were told they couldn’t be 4th graders because they didn’t hit some arbitrary cut score on their reading test. Thousands of high school seniors were told they couldn’t graduate because they missed the Math cut score by a few points and nothing else they did all year mattered.

And a Teacher of the Year who teaches 2nd grade in Florida being labeled “ineffective” based on the test scores of kids in another school that she’d never met. That wasn’t a mistake. Florida law requires evaluations by test scores and since they don’t test 2nd graders, the district just assigns tests scores of 3rd graders from another school to the evaluations of random teachers who teach kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade. Don’t get me started.

I can tell you in my sleep why I know the GERM is wrong, but if I don’t tell you what I know is right, then I’ve failed. And for me, failure is not an option.

We must get serious about real education improvements and I have no intention of just asking us to go back to 1980. I was lucky to teach with amazing colleagues who weren’t afraid to take a risk and a principal who loved us doing creative things. Luck is a lousy business plan. We must move intentionally to a new level; we must design a Whole System devoted to serving the needs of the Whole Child.

This is beyond anything Horace Mann ever dreamed of. This is beyond the GERM. This defies One Single Thing. It is Everything.

The pillars of Whole Child Education are:

Equity – where each student has the time and tools to succeed,

Education that Inspires – where the building professionals have the authority to collaborate and design a learning environment that’s challenging and relevant and exciting to students;

And with everything wrapped around a Personal Relationship between teacher & student and home & school that results in truly personalized plans for developing a student’s critical creative thinking skills, their health and their ethical character.

It is about humanizing the education experience.

Let’s see where this is working. Let’s go to Singapore.

They use data. They give a lot of tests – at times it’s standardized, but mostly they are rigorous classroom assessments that guide what a teacher does every day. The big difference between our systems is that teachers in Singapore carefully analyze that data to develop personalized instruction, tutoring, class projects. But they never set arbitrary targets for prizes or punishments.

Says the minister of Education in Singapore: “We never used targets. Focusing on targets leads to shortcuts in teaching practice.
No good for students ever comes from …embarrassing our educators.”
And Singapore is at the top.

(From the source: Short video from Singapore)

Let’s go to Canada where the focus is on giving all teachers the training and supports they need to reach each student.

Dr. Andy Hargreaves from Boston College studied their success and what we would have to do to replicate it. He noted the Equity, but also the Authority. He said: “The pay is acceptable, working conditions are favorable, facilities are good and there are all kinds of opportunities for teachers to improve their practice. Most importantly, perhaps, there is discretion for teachers to make their own judgments.
(Dr. Andy Hargreaves at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.)

And Canada is at the top.

Let’s go to Finland. Thirty years ago, they were in the respectable middle of global education rankings, but they were looking for a game-changer to turn their economy around. In Finland there are no oil reserves. There are no diamond mines. They have trees and lots of snow. And children’s brains. They made the economic decision to invest in their children’s brains.

They wanted a plan based on evidence of what works. They studied other systems. Including ours.

They saw in other systems the results of schools that had much and schools that had little.

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. 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 the foundation.

They looked at standardized testing and decided to throw them all out. They said you get a little piece of information that’s not very helpful in classroom instruction, and it’s expensive. Time to teach and time to learn and classroom assessments were more important than standardized test data.LINWOOD MIDDLE SCHOOL

Channeling Horace Mann, they saw that when families took their kids to a private school, they stopped caring about the neighborhood public school. In Finland they decided all kids would be in the same system so that everyone would have a stake in that system. There are no private schools in Finland. There is no school choice or competition.

And they are appalled at any discussion on basing a teacher’s evaluation or pay based on standardized test scores – the ones they got rid of because they gave such little information.

I met an educator from Finland at an international conference and found her at the coffee break.

I said: In the U.S. we’re debating the best ways to evaluate teacher quality, and whether or not test scores should be used to identify good teachers and bad teachers… In Finland, what’s the dismissal process for an under-performing teacher? How do you fire a bad teacher?

And she stared at me. She said: Are you telling me you have a system that allows you to HIRE a bad teacher?

She said that it is harder to get into their College of Education than to get into their law school. There is no Teach for Finland. You are recruited because of your academic talent; THEN you get a full-ride scholarship to study the science of instructional pedagogy, child development, assessment and analysis, and response to intervention. There’s a one-year residency under a master teacher.

There is time built into the teaching day for professional collaboration. Children who are not succeeding are brought to the attention of building-level teams who investigate and develop a plan of action. By the time they graduate, nearly all Finnish children have gone through at least one of these special education plans, including the most academically gifted students.

There is no shame in having one of these teams take an interest in personalizing something for the student. It’s the expectation that all children will be treated as important individuals.


And Finland is at the top.

I have to tell you why I love Finland. Because it’s how I taught at Orchard Elementary. We didn’t call it anything fancy. We didn’t know we were collaborating. We’d just sit around at lunch, and say: This kids not getting anywhere. Anyone got any ideas? And we’d all start sharing what might help.

In Finland, there’s are national standards, but the decisions on how to teach the standards, what textbooks to use, how the school should assess progress – all that is developed by collaborative teams at the building level.

That’s what we did at Orchard when I taught 4th grade. The district had picked this basal reading series that just bored the kids out of their skulls. Chloroform in print. Now, I don’t remember asking anyone’s permission, but I do remembering all of us deciding to stick all the basal books on some shelf and saying: You take Charlotte’s Web and I’ll take Old Yeller and you take Henry Huggins and we build chapter guides and vocabulary lists for each book and shared them and bought the classroom sets of books out of our own pockets and our Weekly Reader Troll Book Bonus Points.Larchmont Elem. Sch

And kids loved reading. They wouldn’t put the books down. I was in that school for 16 years, and when I left we had written study guides and vocabulary lists for over 200 titles.

If any principal had told me I had to do that I would have called the police to file charges for involuntary servitude. But for my colleagues, you couldn’t stop us.

And you couldn’t stop my kids either. One day Concetta came in with a current event about a little boy named Mathew who was the poster child for the Red Cross blood drive. And they used his story about almost dying, and blood donors saved his life. And Concetta said: Mrs. Eskelsen, can we have a blood drive here at Orchard?

And I said: Well, I’m not sure that’s a good idea. You’re all too young to donate so you’d have to convince the grownups to donate. And all the kids said: Please! Please! You cannot imagine the motivation of young children that they might get to see their teachers bleed. Learning that inspires.

We broke up into marketing teams. Each team had a grade level to market to and convince all the kindergarteners or the 4th graders to take a blood pledge card home to get their parents to donate. We studied persuasive speaking. We studied how different blood parts were used. We wrote jingles and sang them over the school intercom. We wrote press releases in our best cursive handwriting.

On blood drive day we dressed up like vampires – we incorporated the arts. We had a press conference – and the press showed up. We had a day care center for children of donors in my classroom, and my kids read to the little ones and put on puppet shows for them.
The school secretary, Marge, let us use her phone to do reminder calls. We helped people fill out forms and passed out refreshments.

Our numerical goal was to get at least 40 people to come. By 7pm that evening when they made us close the doors, we had had over 100 victims… donors come through.

And while we were cleaning up my room – the day care center – one of my students came over and said something to me that changed my life.

He had this smile on his face I had never seen. Howie was a student who was totally unremarkable, really quite average, certainly nothing special, and he said to me: Mrs. Eskelsen, how many lives do you think we saved today?

And I started to get emotional. I said: I forgot something. I’ll be right back. And stepped out in the hall. I thought I was going to cry.

Because I had never seen that smile on his face before. And it occurred to me that maybe it was because I had always thought of this boy as totally unremarkable. Really quite average. Certainly nothing special. Based on his bad handwriting. Never turned his homework in on time. Terrible test scores.

But somehow, in spite of me, he had learned his worth as a human being. He was someone who saved lives. And I promised him and I promised myself I would never shortchange my students again.

LINWOOD MIDDLE SCHOOLI see everyone of them as Remarkable, Above Average and Incredibly Special Human Beings.

My heart has been broken by the Global Education Reform Movement and I have spent decades fighting it.

What has changed is that we – the National Education Association – are now focused on what we are fighting for.

As educators, we know, in our broken hearts, 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. But I think – at least at the beginning – people who believed in the GERM they thought the same thing. They meant well. But they were wrong.

Good intentions aren’t good enough. We need to get this right. We need research. We need evidence. And we have it.

The National Education Association will continue to move forward with a focus on a Whole System built on equity in resources – that all students have the tools and time to learn, regardless of zip code.

We will build a Whole System that gives educators the time to build relationships with their students and families and gives them the authority to design a learning environment that inspires students to love learning.

We’ll build a Whole System that makes it impossible to hire a bad teacher. A system that guarantees that all students have a caring, competent teacher and the support staff to serve the Whole Blessed Child – Critical, creative mind, healthy body and ethical, compassionate character.

Now, the one single thing we need is an army of people – like you – who believe in that Whole Child and who will stand with us.

5 Responses to “Why Business Leaders Should Be Teachers’ Best Friends”

  1. Alvyce Ane Moore

    As a general music educator of 40 + years, I always felt it was truly a calling to teach. The hugs and remembrances I get upon meeting my former students only validate this feeling. It was generally true that I was hired to teach the general population music (not just to love music, but to enjoy performing or listening as a life-long consumer). It was definitely helpful that many administrators knew nothing about music, and allowed me to “work my magic” on the children. Since music was not part of the “dreaded test”, lessons for multi-cultural understanding were often a key element. Upon reflection, I feel that to use a professional to perform daily duties in the hall, cafeteria, playground, etc. was definitely a waste of time that a professional could use to further influence children’s progress.

  2. Laurel

    Your essay has brought tears to my eyes. YES. This is what we are striving for, this is what our students – our country – needs. As a public school mom, and a public school teacher, this is the message that needs to get out there, as loud and as often as possible. This is not politics or sensationalism. This is the direction we need, no party lines required.

  3. Anita Johnson

    Bravo! I am excited to hear that NEA is focused on advocating for Whole Child Education and for the defeat of Global Education Reform Movement. We need to work together to raise the public consciousness about what a really good education looks like, feels like, and sounds like. We need to push back against the Billionaire Class that is using GERM to warp our public education system so that some of them can make even more money and all of them can hear fewer objections from a less education underclass that is so worried about survival that they can’t questions the system that impoverishes them.

  4. Jeanne Chadwick

    As a lifetime NEA/WEA retired educator, thank you for re-energizing me to get your message out across this nation. I will be forwarding it to our state and local educators, legislators, family and friends. I encourage everyone to do the same thing. We can turn this testing mania around if we all stand together and let the public know who and what is really behind the attack on public education–big money. Lily has done that in a professional and respectful manner. We should follow her example to be sure our message is heard loud and clear. Students and families are more important than profits.

  5. Richard Palzer

    While I applaud your remarks as the idealization of what education should be–and as the caring, professionalism, and advocacy that an educator should represent–two important areas of concern need more specific addressing: diversity and accountability. Holding up Canada, but especially Singapore and Finland, as examples to emulate overlooks that those countries’ educators do not contend with the diversity of students teachers in our country face, so you’re comparing proverbial apples and oranges. Accountability includes assessment of student progress–and while your arguments against standardized test scores are strong, how “classroom assessments” instead of such testing function as better measures of student progress and teacher excellence are unclear. What is measured how? Although I understand the opposition to standardized testing as overused, I’ve not been against the decried “teaching-to-the-test” complaint, as long as the constructed test is designed to evaluate what has been taught. “Classroom assessments” need to be as able to determiine student achievement and teacher accountability as the standardized tests they’re advocated to replace.


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