John I. Wilson has been executive director of the National Education Association (NEA) since November 2000. The NEA, with 2.5 million members, is the country's largest teachers union. As executive director, Wilson is responsible for implementing NEA policies, coordinating actions with NEA state affiliates, and setting strategic objectives. A native of North Carolina, Wilson is a former middle school special education teacher.
Education World: How does your background as a special education teacher influence your work?
John I. Wilson: Tremendously. I probably wouldn't be here had I not started there. As a teacher of special needs students, I have always been a child advocate. The NEA allows me a nice vehicle to be a child advocate because you can't advocate for public school employees without advocating for children. They are too closely tied together in what we are trying to achieve.
EW: I read about a new partnership between the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Why was the climate right for an agreement with that union?
Wilson: The partnership was actually the result of a lesson learned when we tried to move too quickly on a merger -- and realized we had some major organizational differences. We also found that some deep relationships -- sometimes hostile relationships -- existed in some of our large state affiliates. It didn't make sense to try to push a merger down those state affiliates' throats without building good relationships first. I think this partnership is really about building relationships and about making sure that two very strong organizations utilize their resources and their influence in the same direction.
EW: What kind of programs do you anticipate between the two organizations?
Wilson: I think a lot of the things we want to work on together will focus on priority schools; schools where students aren't achieving at grade level. Many of those schools are located in urban areas, and the AFT represents a significant number of urban locals. The fact is, when some schools aren't achieving, it reflects on all of America's schools. So, although we know that most schools are doing great, the few that aren't capture the attention of the public. Those of us who know how to fix them cannot stand on the sidelines and expect others to do it. The unions have to take a greater responsibility in this. We could say that, technically, it's not our job, but it really is our job. This is our profession and they're our kids, and we should make sure that no child goes to a school that can't provide him or her with a sound education.
EW: At this year's NEA convention, the NEA made its opposition to high-stakes testing very clear. What's the next step in addressing this issue?
Wilson: The next step is to try to get some "saneness" into the testing movement. We tend to go to extremes in this country. The truth of the matter is that testing is important, but it is not the end-all for how we educate students. Testing should be a tool for instruction. What's happening now is that testing is driving instruction, and unfortunately, the testing is very limited. Often it's nothing more than filling in bubble sheets on a multiple-choice test. Life is not a multiple choice, and, quite frankly, testing is becoming an instructional straitjacket. We haven't even worked out the flaws of high-stakes testing in states that have tried it -- and now we have this national movement to require it in all states!
I think parents are also beginning to realize that high-stakes testing is not the answer. What we learned in North Carolina is that parents are tired of their children spending 30 days preparing for tests and being tested when they already know that they are doing well in school. It's really the most amazing thing -- it's a testing mania out there. The attitude seems to be, "Show me a test, and I'll buy it and use it and hope the test is the cure." That's not the answer.
EW: Is there a concern that high-stakes testing is driving some teachers from the public schools?
Wilson: The interesting thing is that when you ask parents what they want schools to do for their children, often the first thing that comes to their minds is, "I want my child to be happy going to school." What teachers see is that high-stakes testing is putting so much stress on students -- for no good reason -- that it is making not only children unhappy but teachers too. Any time an employee is unhappy coming to work, there's a risk of driving that employee out.
It should make us think about different options. Most people get into teaching because they love children. They love the high they get from teaching children to read or solve a math problem. That's the real high of teaching. What high-stakes testing does is diminish the art of teaching. Because testing is so prevalent, a lot of teachers believe they are not able to do the type of creative lessons they have done in the past. So a lot of things we remember as fun to do in school are being eliminated. At faculty meetings, administrators talk about what they can't do because they have to spend the time practicing for tests and getting children ready to take tests. Testing has just overwhelmed how we teach. I think teachers are disillusioned; that's why the union has to step up to the plate and say, "Let's bring some sanity to this process."
I'll tell you something else. If you are a young teacher, you might not be assigned to teach in the grade you prepared to teach in, if it's a high-stakes testing grade. The fear is that new teachers aren't ready to handle preparing kids for high-stakes testing. So all of a sudden, you've prepared to teach in one grade and no one will assign you to teach there.
EW: What dies the NEA recommend, instead of high-stakes testing, to measure student progress and show more accountability?
Wilson: We're saying testing plus. Standardized testing has its place, but there is no way a single test, on a single day, should be used to make life decisions for children, and that's what's happening in too many states. Criterion-referenced standardized tests can be very useful to teachers because they can use the testing data to help drive interventions children might need. A teacher can look at data from a criterion-referenced test and see, for example, that most of the class did not get a particular reading skill. He or she can then go back and re-teach that reading skill -- or perhaps even get help in learning how to teach that reading skill. Criterion-referenced tests can drive professional development for teachers as well -- and that can be useful. But to use only those tests to decide whether or not a child is going to be promoted, or to use it to decide whether or not to give a teacher a bonus, is ridiculous. The NEA is not opposed to tests; we're opposed to the way in which they're being used.
Another thing that bothers teachers about high-stakes testing is that it seems to ignore the value of teacher judgment. Who knows better how students are succeeding than the teacher who is with them every day, who is assessing them every day? I can remember several examples of students who were doing very well in school, but -- either because of testing phobia or some other reason -- could not pass a test. You will also find children who are not doing well in the classroom but can ace a test, because that test plays to their learning style. High-stakes tests do not allow for differences in learning styles; they go with the cheapest route and the cheapest route is bubble sheets and multiple-choice questions.
This e-interview with John I. Wilson is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.