“It’s about collective struggle”: Interview with Jesse Hagopian on education & the movement for Black Lives
As the one-year anniversary of a Seattle police officer pepper spraying me on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaches, I sat down with the Seattle Weekly reporter, Casey Jaywork, to discuss ongoing struggles for social justice. Here are my reflections on police brutality, the intersection of race and class, and disrupting the school-to-prison-pipeline.
A conversation with Jesse Hagopian.
By Casey Jaywork Tue., Jan 12 2016 at 06:07PM
Last year, teacher and activist Jesse Hagopian broke the Internet—but not in a good way. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Hagopian was randomly pepper sprayed by a panicked cop. Video of the incident went viral, adding yet another chapter to the Seattle Police Department’s long history of excessive force. Hagopian is currently suing the city.
Teacher and activist Jesse Hagopian. Photo by Jose Trujillo.
But there’s more to this teacher than his receipt of SPD’s favored less-than-lethal weapon. With another MLK Day approaching, Seattle Weekly sat down with Hagopian to talk about race and justice in Seattle.
SW: You’re a teacher and advocate, but you may be best known for getting pepper sprayed during last year’s MLK march.
JH: It’s rough to be known for your worst day of your life. It’s hard that random people come up and say, ‘Oh, you were the guy who got pepper sprayed.’ To be known for such a low moment in my life can be difficult, but I think it’s also important that that moment serve as a lesson to our city: that nobody’s safe when we have unaccountable police.
You still feel like that officer and SPD have not been held accountable.
Absolutely…[Prior to getting pepper sprayed, I gave a speech about how] those who claim to honor [MLK] and degrade the Black Lives Matter movement are fraudulent. The words I spoke that day were about how King would be in the streets with the Black Lives Matter activists demanding justice. Many people today disparage Black Lives Matter activists–sometimes calling them thugs–but yet they like to give hollow remembrance to Martin Luther King.
He’s kind of become a teddy bear.
Right? Like a tame icon. And I wanted to call out that contradiction. I just think that it’s ironic that only a few minutes after I spoke those words, I was preparing to leave the demonstration to go to my son’s two year old birthday party, on the phone with my mother coordinating the ride, and an officer just–clearly without provocation, out of the blue–sprays me in the face and turns what was one of my most proud and joyous days into a deeply painful experience…The physical pain was one matter, but what was truly painful was trying to explain this to my kids at the birthday party.
When a citizen has definitive evidence of police misconduct and wrongdoing, there has to be accountability for that officer. I had every possible advantage to be able to prove my case, advantages that most people will never have–when they take stands for justice, or when they just live their lives and encounter police. I had video documentation. I had many eyewitnesses. I have a lot of supporters in the community. And I had the [Office of Professional Accountability] rule in my favor. What more do I need to lay out a case that there’s a clear misconduct and wrongdoing? And yet the chief of police intervenes in my case and downgrades the discipline to the lowest possible form, overruling the [OPA]. I think that’s a real shame, and something that has to be corrected if there’s going to be justice.
How have you seen the Black Lives Matter movement change over time?
I think that we’ve seen an ebb and flow as different high profile cases go, but I would say that beyond the media representation of the movement, there’s been ongoing organizing of people committed to making black lives matter that might not be as visible but is definitely important organizing that’s deepening people’s understanding of the roots of institutional racism, and is also laying the basis for future, bigger collective struggle for police accountability, and also to broaden the Black Lives Matter movement beyond police accountability–to say that if we really want black lives to matter, then there has to be housing for African Americans. There has to be job programs, there has to be education that empowers our youth to solve real problems like racism in their community, and not just to score high on a test or be ready for a low-wage job in the economy.
In terms of racial justice, what have been the most notable events in Seattle over the past year?
The struggle against the youth jail has united a lot of important activists…I’ve brought that issue to the teachers’ union. That discussion is ongoing…
Garfield began working with some different trainers on [restorative justice programs], and we’re now this year working on peace circles with the staff so they can really gain a strong understanding of the power of being able to solve problems collectively. It is my hope that we can roll out a full pilot of restorative justice in the coming years, and try to move away from zero tolerance. The important thing is that it actually gets support from the school district, and resources and financial backing, because to make restorative justice more than just a box to check…I think it has to actually have full-time coordinators who are trained in restorative practices. There has to be training for students and faculty around those kinds of practices, that can actually help students solve their problems. Rather than just punish them for transgressions, let’s actually empower them to solve the problem.
What would that look like, compared to how things work now?
Seattle public schools suspend African American students at four times the rate of white students for the very same infractions. So we know that there’s dramatically disproportionate discipline, and many schools have zero tolerance policies where you’re immediately suspended for different infractions. And oftentimes, it’s very discretionary for the administrations to perceive student behavior and make a judgement that they should be excluded from school for a period of time. And then the students miss school, they fall behind in their work, they become more bitter because the problem hasn’t been solved, and they often come back more likely to engage in the very same behavior and more likely not to pass their class or graduate. We know that that is part of the school-to-prison pipeline, where students who don’t graduate then turn to survival crimes, sometimes, because they aren’t the most desirable to be employed without a diploma.
We want to sever the school-to-prison pipeline by putting restorative practices, which is bringing together the person that’s been injured and the person who’s been accused and actually make them do something much harder than stay home from school: make them face their problem with mentors and peers. Have them work through the issue, have them set goals, have them collectively figure out what a just resolution would be. That’s a much harder practice, but it demonstrates to our kids that our school actually cares about you. Not just when you’re scoring well on a test, not just when you’re doing well in school, but when you’ve made a mistake, when you’re down, when nobody else cares about you or people are angry at you–we care about you enough to help you solve this problem. That’s how we transform student lives and create better people through education. I’m excited to try to push for those kinds of practices. One of the triumphs of the strike this year was that the union pushed for race and equity teams and we won in the contract having thirty schools have race and equity teams. These teams can form with parents and students and teachers and community members to make recommendations about how to undo institutional racism at their school.
Yeah. I would hope that those recommendations would be taken seriously by the school district and by the administration, and I would hope that many schools look at moving toward restorative practices if those race and equity teams find that their school is part of the disproportionate suspension rate. I think that one of the functions of that equity team could be to begin to organize restorative justice practices in the school.
The strike and the fight for these race and equity teams should be seen through the lens of the Black Lives Matter movement. I think one of the high points of solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement was a letter that many of the leading Seattle Black Lives Matter activists put out in solidarity with the strike, saying, ‘Your fight for public education is our fight, and your struggle for these race and equity teams are a prerequisite for having a culturally competent education.’ I was very proud of the Seattle movement when that letter was released.
The restorative justice model sounds great, but it seems like political will and funding make it a longshot. Can this actually happen?
The exciting thing is that it is being rolled out in innovative school districts around the country. Just a few weeks ago, I had an incredible opportunity to speak at a forum with Fania Davis, who’s Angela Davis’ sister, and the young people that she has been working with in the Oakland public school system. They have had incredible results with the restorative justice movement there–in terms of dramatically reducing suspension rates in the district overall, and at some schools completely eliminating suspensions altogether.
One young man who spoke on the panel described how, in preschool, he had been suspended because he was having anxiety as a four year old when his mom would leave. And his mom left him with a bag of Skittles and said, ‘Every time you’re worried about where I am, pop one of these Skittles and then you’ll know that I’m thinking of you and I love you.’ The teacher caught him eating Skittles in class and confiscated them, and gave them to the principal who put them in [their] desk. He was crushed, but he had an idea: he saw the window open, so he crawled through the principal’s window and got his Skittles back.
He wasn’t just suspended–he was suspended for theft. For taking back his Skittles. And he said from that day on, he didn’t trust school, and he didn’t trust those in authority. He was often suspended, and in and out of school. It wasn’t until he landed in one of the schools that Fania Davis was working at–that had a restorative practice, that welcomed him in from day one, with a circle to find out who he was and what mattered to him–that he realized that school could be a community that’s about supporting you, even if you’re African American, instead of punishing you. That’s what we have to move toward. It’s being done in communities around the country. The fact that we’re not doing it right now [in Seattle] is because there isn’t the will amongst those in power.
You mean the superintendent and school board?
The superintendent, for sure. I’m happy that we have a new school board. We just had an election, and I actually expect that the new school board will take unprecedented action and try to [pursue] a dangerous course that our past school board and officials weren’t brave enough to tackle. We can’t have any more incentive than we’ve had. It’s time.
The students in the Black Student Unions around the city are ready for a move away from zero tolerance and have told many teachers across the city and other students that it’s time we move there. I think that they will definitely raise their voice on that issue and many others, to help the school board move as quickly as possible.
When you say “maintaining institutional racism,” do you think legislators are consciously trying to do that?
All the major, powerful institutions that run our society have replicated racism generation after generation. You can see that slavery was ended, but segregation continued. Not just in the Jim Crow south, but through the practice of redlining. Banks would exclude lending to African Americans outside of prescribed areas like the Central District. [Then] redlining ends, but you have mass incarceration…It doesn’t take Klan members to organize that type of racist practice. It just takes people continuing the status quo, putting the needs of communities of color last, not funding public programs…We have to have a conscious effort to undo institutional racism or it will be maintained.
So if I’m a legislator, I can do racism by just being a cog in the machine without being a racist in a subjective, personal sense?
Absolutely. It doesn’t take having overt racist ideas to continue to vote for a budget that primarily incarcerates African Americans and other people of color. We have to transform the institutions dramatically. That, to me, would look like fully-funding education, diverting the funds in King County toward housing programs and health care rather than toward mass incarceration.
Can white students join Black Student Unions?
Absolutely. And we usually have a mix of backgrounds that come to our weekly meetings. The [BSU] at Garfield has a mission of empowering black students and confronting racism. Anybody who’s interested in that mission is more than welcome to participate. We’ve seen some great collaboration between Muslim students and the Muslim Student Association and the BSU and students of all backgrounds supporting.
Have you seen big changes in the thinking of white students who’ve become involved in a BSU?
There was a really powerful moment when there was a non-indictment of [Officer] Darren Wilson [in 2014, for killing Michael Brown]. Over a thousand students walked out of Garfield, of all different backgrounds and races. And it wasn’t just Garfield that walked out: Roosevelt, which is overwhelmingly white, had a walkout, and several other schools around Seattle. It showed the potential for the Black Lives Matter movement and message to galvanize a wide spectrum of society and of young people. I think that that is a lesson that our movement should look at, and work on organizing all those people that knew that there had to be justice for Mike Brown.
If I’m not a student, what’s a concrete way that I can help dismantle institutional racism?
The campaign against the youth jail. We need our hundreds of millions of dollars set up for tutoring programs and job programs, not more incarceration. So joining with campaigns that are being waged around that would be really important.
Participating in struggles around school funding and looking at restorative justice programs with the school district would be campaigns that I would highly recommend. I think the groups doing those campaigns are continuing to organize, and it’s my hope that those kinds of campaigns become bigger and more visible and begin more outreach to wider sections of Seattle.
How can white people talk about racism? It sometimes seems–at least for me, as a white person–that I face a dilemma where if I say anything, then I’m worried that I’ll say the wrong thing, and if I say nothing then I’m complicit. Any advice?
The key is the work. It’s not so much the exact way that you phrase your opposition or exactly what you say. To me, it’s: What actions are you taking to help us challenge institutions that continue to replicate racism year after year? As a white parent, can you go into the school and help work on forming a race and equity team at your kid’s school? You might not have the expertise, but you can work together with people who have more and help to implement something that could transform the lives of students of color in that school who are able to graduate instead of being pushed out [under] zero tolerance. You can join the campaign against the youth jail. You can do the work. As you do the work, you’ll learn more about theories and history that is important to help guide our struggles. [Don’t] let your uncomfortableness stop you from rolling up your sleeves and getting involved in the work.
I’m inspired by many struggles in our nation’s history, when white people joined in the struggle for racial justice. We need to be reminded of that, and we need to continue to push white people to hold up the best of that legacy of the Freedom Rides, of multiracial dockworker strikes [that occurred] all up and down the West Coast in the Thirties. There’s many important examples of the abolitionist movement: William Lloyd Garrison, a white man starting an abolitionist newspaper and helping to train Frederick Douglass as a journalist, building a multiracial partnership that proved historically important when Abraham Lincoln was waffling on what the Civil War was going to be about. Was it going to just put the South down and reintegrate it into the United States but continue their practice of slavery, or was it going to abolish slavery altogether? I’m thankful that a mass coalition of multiracial people in this country was able to convince him that the war should be about ending slavery. And eventually he came to that position.
I’ve just seen the importance of multiracial mass movements all throughout history. And I think that we’re desperate for another one today, when you look at Tamir Rice’s killer being let off, when you look at Sandra Bland–the officer who intimidated, and in my mind wrongfully arrested, Sandra Bland getting a slap on the wrist. Every day it seems there’s another example of gross injustice and deep racist practice of our country. We’re in desperate need of another mass uprising in this country that is about challenging the institutions of racism and redistributing power and wealth.
What’s the relationship between class and race?
They’re inextricably linked. Originally, the creation of racial categories was about maintaining the power of a wealthy, white elite. We’ve been studying this, actually, in school. Race was actually a modern invention that hasn’t existed very long.
You can actually look at the first racial laws that were written, shortly after Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia. That was multiracial mass uprising of white and black indentured servants and slaves that took over the Virginia colony for eight months. They burned the capital to the ground. And that mass multiracial power was terrifying to slaveowners and plantation owners, and they did what they had to do to maintain their power, which was what Frederick Douglass said: “They divided both to conquer each.” They wrote the first laws separating blacks and whites. They gave the vast majority of poor white people a little bit of wages, a little bit of benefits, so that they would separate themselves from African Americans and no longer work in solidarity. Which maintains the vast majority of both white and black people at the bottom, and a tiny white ruling minority at the top controlling all the wealth.
I look at that, and I look at our society today, and I don’t see a whole lot of difference, when you look at the fact that there are 85 people that have as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion people on our planet, you can see how they have hoarded the resources in the hands of a very few, and then they point to immigrants as being the problem. Racists like Donald Trump say, ‘We’re gonna build a border to keep out Mexicans, or we’re going to stop all Muslim immigrants from coming in, or it’s the black thugs that are the problem and you should worry about their crime and violence.’
All of that is rhetoric to deflect attention away from the fact that they have robbed us all, most blatantly when the banks sabotaged the global economy and then just pillaged taxpayer money to repay themselves. It’s an ongoing process that happens every day. They want us to fight amongst each other. They want us to blame immigrants or Muslims, rather than organizing a collective struggle to take back that wealth and to build a school system, a housing system, a healthcare system that meets the needs of all of us. I think that’s really the struggle that we have to engage in, and I think we’re at the very beginning of [it]. But I see great hope for the coming time as I see more and more young people getting active and raising their voice.
Are we going to see you run for office anytime soon?
[Laughs] No immediate plans on that. My work is so rewarding, to see young people getting active. And really, if there’s going to be a change in our society, it’s not going to be any shining knight coming in and fixing the problems. It’s not going to be any one politician.
Are you thinking of someone specific when you say that?
Not at all. I’m just saying that politicians aren’t going to be the source of fixing the problems in our society. I think what we’ve seen over and over again throughout US history is, when things get better for black people, when things get better for ordinary working people, it’s because they organize and make it happen. It’s because of the mass strikes in 1934 that won us social security and minimum wages and decent working conditions and the right to unionize. It’s because of the mass civil rights movement that brought down Jim Crow. A movement my dad was part of, the Black Student Union in his college, the University of Madison in Wisconsin, fighting for black studies so that we can learn about black history in colleges now.
It’s always about organized, collective struggle. There are important instances when politicians can be part of helping encourage those struggles, but I’m always focused on: How are more people going to be part of organizing to put a better vision forward of what our city or what our society can be?
What are you doing on MLK day?
I’ll be back at the rally…I’m really proud to say that my [BSU] students are going to be emceeing the event. To me, that’s much more important than me speaking…It would be a [victory] for the forces of unaccountability and police brutality if I didn’t show up. So I’ll be there.
This is a longer, but still edited, version of the interview which appeared in the January 13th, 2015 edition of Seattle Weekly.
The infamous MAP test is set to be administered in my son’s school this week. The MAP is a computerized test meant to measure students in math and reading. Seattle Public Schools initially required MAP kindergarten through high school, with multiple testing periods per year. In 2013, Garfield High School launched a boycott of the MAP test and numerous schools joined in refusing to administer the test. By the end of the year the district announced that it would no longer be requiring the MAP test at the high school level. Since then, the increasing pressure of the opt out movement and scrutiny on the role of high stakes testing in our education system have continued to reduce the use of the MAP test in the Seattle Public Schools.
The opt out movement has pointed out that the MAP test consumes too much class time, monopolizes computers and shuts down school libraries, is not linguistically or culturally appropriate for English language learners, and has a questionable validity (consider this research from https://scrapthemap.wordpress.com: PowerPoint: The MAP test).
Most recently, the district reduced the number of times per year that kindergarten through 2nd grades are required to administer MAP from 2-3 times per year to only once a year. However, there continue to be high stakes attached to MAP that can make it difficult for schools to reduce the number of times it is administered.
For example, schools that receive desperately needed extra levy funds from the city can lose funding if their test scores are not high enough. This is an egregious misuse of standardized test scores. Money for vital programs serving children in high poverty schools should never be cut based on a test that was not designed to be used for high stakes decisions.
Given all the specific problems with the MAP test, and the larger issue of misuse of standardized testing in general, my wife and I wrote this letter to our school’s principal opting our son out of the test this week:
Happy New Year! We hope you had a restful break.
We are writing to opt our first grade son out of all MAP testing for this 2015-2016 school year.
We are opting him out of standardized testing because we have seen the way an over-emphasis on scores has distorted what matters most in elementary education–such as creativity, being a good friend, communicating emotions, and problem solving. Ranking students based on test scores in the early grades can damage the self-esteem of late bloomers, and can distort the higher scoring students’ perceptions of themselves in relationship to their peers–these were our experiences growing up and we don’t want these scores to interfere with our son’s development. One of the most exciting aspects of our son’s education is the Spanish immersion program that has cultivated his love for language and laid the foundation for him to communicate with many more people across cultures and around the world – and yet none of this will be measured by the MAP test.
Opting out is a difficult decision this year, because of the way the scores can be used for high-stakes decisions around funding. It deeply saddens us that policy makers would deny funding to a school for any reason, but particularly one so narrow and tangential to real learning. Our son has excellent teachers and we think there is no substitute for their assessment of his progress.
We are deeply committed to our school community and look forward to working with you on these issues in years to come.
2016 has begun with important news: We have endured the last days of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan roaming the halls of government, looking for teachers and students to intimidate. Arne, “the nation’s bully,” no longer runs the schoolyard. Educators and families around the country will remember him by many monikers, none of them sympathetic.
I should admit from the outset that my appraisal of Duncan isn’t informed by a dispassionate tally of his pluses and minuses. My evaluation of Duncan’s performance is the result of my personal interaction with the Secretary and his staff, his attack on the schools in my community, as well as a through review of his policies.
I wrote this essay for The Progressive magazine giving my assessment of Duncan’s tenure–let’s just say he didn’t pass the class.
Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education is set to resign at the close of the 2015, ending his tenure as one of the most destructive forces against public education in history.
“He’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anyone else,” President Obama gushed announcing Duncan’s resignation last October. Obama’s words were meant as praise for the Secretary, but in this one aspect of the assessment of Duncan I have to agree with the President. There can be no doubt that Duncan inflicted policies that caused students and educators to cry out for help.
Duncan’s official title may have been Secretary of Education, but his real role has been the “testocracy tsar.” His signature policies of Race to the Top and Common Core have been singularly focused on promoting high-stakes, standardized test-and-punish policies.
For example, in order for states to compete for grant money under Race to the Top, Duncan required them to increase the use of standardized testing in teacher evaluations. Duncan’s championing of the Common Core State Standards—and the tests that came shrink-wrapped with them—has ushered in developmentally inappropriate standards in the early grades that punish late bloomers, while further entrenching the idea that the intellectual and emotional process of teaching and learning can be reduced to a test score. For many, Duncan will be remembered as an educational alchemist who attempted to turn education into “testucation”—with the average student today subjected to an outlandish 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation. The highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color.
In addition, Duncan has been widely derided as “the national school superintendent” for the way he held waivers to the No Child Left Behind Act over the heads of state officials. NCLB set an unattainable goal of 100% proficiency in math and reading for every school in the country by 2014. As per the plan, not a single state reached the proficiency goals, and schools could only escape sanction by the federal government if they were granted a waiver—which Duncan would only grant to states who would agree to more testing.
This hit home for me last year when my state of Washington refused to mandate standardized tests in teacher evaluations. Arne Duncan then took off his gloves and showed he wasn’t afraid to punish children by revoking the NCLB waiver for the state. With the waiver gone, nearly all of Washington’s schools were labeled failures, resulting in the loss of control of millions of dollars in federal money.
And yet, as harmful as Duncan has been to our nation’s children, it’s important not to credit him with having too much impact. Duncan wasn’t a mastermind or a skilled political operative. He was a corporate yes man who did anything that was asked of him by the richest people the world has ever known. As Anthony Cody and others have detailed, billionaires such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family, set the education agenda, wrote the policy, worked political backchannels, and lined up the corporations who would profit. Once the education reforms were neatly packaged, these billionaires trotted out their flunky, Secretary Duncan, who dutifully worked to sell their agenda to the nation.
One of Duncan’s primary objectives has been the privatization of education through the dramatic expansion of charter schools. But as The Washington Post reported, an audit by the Department of Education’s own inspector general found “that the agency has done a poor job of overseeing federal dollars sent to charter schools.” This lack of oversight laid the foundation for a recent report from the Center for Popular Democracy and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), which found some $200 million in “alleged and confirmed financial fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” committed by charter schools around the country.
Duncan also implemented his policies in a cruel and arrogant manner. He infamously proclaimed Hurricane Katrina as “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” Duncan saw the destruction as a great opportunity because so many people were displaced that it allowed the privatizers to completely end public schooling in New Orleans. Today the district is 100 percent comprised of charter schools. Duncan wasn’t content replacing the arts, physical education, civics, literature, and critical thinking with high-stakes tests. He also sternly chastised parents who chose to opt their children out of standardized tests, dismissing the opt out movement as “coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were…” Duncan insulted white moms while simultaneously erasing the rising leadership of people of color who have long organized against high-stakes testing.
Duncan’s general attack on education got personal for me on July 9th, 2010, when he visited my hometown of Seattle to deliver a speech at an area school. I joined a throng of protesting teachers that day outside the school to picket his appearance and the corporate reform policies he was promoting.
As we rallied outside the high school, his handlers grew nervous that we would disrupt this stage-managed affair. They offered us a meeting with Duncan in exchange for our polite behavior during his address. We agreed, and after the event were escorted to a nearby classroom for the meeting. That half hour with the Secretary was all I needed to know. The following is a transcript from an article I wrote at the time:
Mr. Duncan: To be clear, we [the Department of Education] want curriculum to be driven by the local level, pushing that. We are by law prohibited from directing curriculum. We don’t have a curriculum department.
Mr. Hagopian: I have to interject on that point. Because I think that merit pay…
Mr. Duncan: Let me finish, let me finish…
Mr. Hagopian: …Directly influences curriculum. When you have teachers scrambling and pitted against each other for a small amount of money [based on how their students perform on a test], what it does is narrow the curriculum to what’s on the test, even if you don’t set curriculum specifically. So I think you have to address that.
Mr. Duncan: I will. No one is mandating merit pay.
Mr. Hagopian: But you support it though?
Mr. Duncan: I do, I do…
Mr. Hagopian: So you support narrowing the curriculum.
Mr. Duncan: Can I finish? It’s a voluntary program. Schools and districts and unions are working together on some really innovative things.
Mr. Hagopian: Merit pay isn’t part of Race to the Top?
What my meeting with Secretary Duncan demonstrated, more than anything else, was his refusal to listen to educational professionals about how to improve public education. His dismissal of professional expertise has greatly contributed to the plummeting moral among teachers.
Yet, I have also discovered that the best antidote to despair is collective struggle. The one positive aspect of Duncan’s legacy is that his policies have sparked the largest uprising against high-stakes testing in U.S. history. Increasing numbers of teachers have flat out refused to administer standardized tests, students around the country have lead walkouts against the tests, and during the 2015 testing season, parents opted out some 620,000 public school students around the U.S. from standardized exams. This mass movement forced Duncan in his waning days as Secretary to begrudgingly acknowledge his policies have led to an “overemphasis on testing in some places,” and that “testing and test prep are taking from instruction.”
As thrilled as I am to see Duncan resign, President Obama’s replacement, John King, will likely only serve as a new testocracy tsar. As Long Island opt out leader Jeanette Deutermann said of King when he stepped down as head of the New York State Education Department:
For the past few years we have endured an education commissioner that has repeatedly ignored our pleas for help. He has heard our stories of our children suffering as a result of the Board of Regent’s corporate reform agenda, and replied, “full steam ahead.”
Secretary John King will be tasked with carrying out the new federal education policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which eliminates the “Adequate Yearly Progress” annual test score gain requirement. However, the new law maintains the detrimental mandate to give standardized reading and math tests to children in every grade, from 3-8 and once in high school—empowering states to sanction any school labeled as underperforming.
Federal education policy will continue to follow the whims of the richest people in the world—people who did not attend public schools and would never dream of sending their children to one—until the opt out movement joins with other social justice struggles to fundamentally shift the balance of power away from the executive board room and towards the classroom.
So, join me in a New Year’s toast to Duncan’s dethroning—and then join the struggle to overthrow the testocracy all together.
Jesse Hagopian is a Progressive Education Fellow and the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. Follow him on twitter: @jessedhagopian
Never in U.S. history have more students, parents, and teachers engaged in acts of resistance to standardized tests. During the 2015 testing season, over 620,000 public school students around the U.S. refused to take standardized exams, according to a report by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest).
I wrote this essay for the National Education Association’s “Education Votes” blog to sum up the top five victories against against the “testocracy” and its test-and-punish model of education, accessible here: http://educationvotes.nea.org/2015/12/28/five-2015-victories-that-put-cracks-in-the-testocracy/
Please share the stories of our victories for a meaningful education–and join us in this uprising in 2016!
In 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union waged a successful strike that revived the lessons of social justice unionism and taught educators around the country that it was possible to beat back the corporate education reform agenda. This strike was the opening salvo for much of the recent uprising around the country against the privatization of education, for the resources our schools need, and against the abuses of high-stakes testing.
When I heard that the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) members started a social media campaign to explain why they were voting once again to authorize a strike, I knew I had to find Sarah Chambers’ video.
Sarah is special education teacher for Chicago Public Schools, and serves as the elementary functional VP for CTU executive board. She is an author who published an essay about the testing boycott she helped to lead in the anthology I edited, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. She has been a tireless advocate for social justice education and a relentless defender of her students from the embattled Chicago Mayor, Rahm “The School Yard Bully” Emanuel.
I asked Sarah to explain to me the context of the strike vote and she told me,
Chicago Public Schools are trying to cut teachers pay by 12%, raise class sizes, cut 5,000 teachers, raise health care costs, removal of steps and lanes and cut teacher pensions. CTU is refusing to accept these proposals. CTU is demanding small class sizes, freeze on healthcare costs, reduction in standardized testing, removal of k-2nd testing, maintaining steps and lanes, restorative justice programs, etc. The strike authorization vote is Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. After the authorization is approved with over 75% of our membership voting yes, the CTU house of delegates votes on whether we go out on strike. According to Illinois law, we would probably not be striking until the end of March or April, which is testing season.
With the strike vote set to begin Wednesday, Sarah lays out why the Chicago teachers, once again, must be prepared to strike for the school that Chicago students and teachers deserve:
To Sarah and to all of the Chicago educators: We who believe in social justice stand with you. Solidarity!
José Vilson teaches middle school math in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, NY. His book, This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, stormed the heavily guarded gates of the education reform debate, battered them down, and made people sit up straight and listen to a social justice teacher about what our children and schools need.
Below is José’s important reflection on the book I edited, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing–and his thoughts on the movement that so many of us are building to defend and transform public education.
A Not-Review of More Than A Score [Edu-Activated]
In the spring of 2014, a few books dedicated to the “Education Spring” revolt came out from various publishers, one of which was mine, and the other was More Than A Score, a collection of stories edited by Jesse Hagopian from numerous dissidents from across the nation. [Full disclosure: Haymarket Books came out with both of our books). As I consider many of them colleagues in this work (and some of them friends), I was happy that so many of them got to tell their story.
So why a review from me almost a year later? Simple. As any of the activists in this volume can tell you, these stories are still relevant to the work of moving the profession forward.I read these chapters in the authors’ voices. I was intrigued by Rosie Frascella and Emily Giles’ story of co-leading the charge to have her entire Brooklyn-based school opt out of unnecessary exams, much to the chagrin of NYCDOE and the United Federation of Teachers. I was enthralled by Barbara Madeloni’s vision for a new education system, including racial dynamics as part of her call to activate. I recalled Karen Lewis’ ascension to the leader of Chicago edu-resistance, envisioning how they organized for better schools and not just a better contract for teachers. Stephanie Rivera’s chapter on becoming a future student reads as a precursor to the ways she’s currently managing the school system as a rookie teacher.
John Kuhn’s tale of resistance in perhaps the most reform-friendly state in the nation rang of hope. I laughed aloud at the chapter co-written by Cauldierre McKay, Aaron Regunberg, and Tim Shea of the Providence Student Union, who resisted their state’s education reforms through creativity and art, two ideals that their legislators sought to reduce by overtesting their students. Folks like Helen Gym, Nikhil Goyal, Brian Jones, Malcolm London, Mary Cathryn Ricker, and Jia Lee also turned in chapters worth having in your back pocket.
But my favorite was easily Jesse Hagopian’s, which was the real beginning of the book. He sets the chapter through the framework of a century’s old resistance to eugenics. This framing allows for discussions of WEB Dubois, one of my favorite public intellectuals. Here’s a bit from Jesse himself:
Resistance to these exams surely began the first time a student bubbled in every “A” on the page in defiance of the entire testing process. Yet, beyond these individual forms of protest, an active minority of educators, journalists, labor groups, and parents resisted these early notions of using testing to rank intelligence. Some of the most important early voices in opposition to intelligence testing – especially in service of ranking the races – came from leading African-American scholars such as W. E. B. Dubois, Horace Mann Bond, and Howard Long. Du Bois recalled in 1940, “It was not until I was long out of school and indeed after the [First] World War that there came the hurried use of the new technique of psychological tests, which were quickly adjusted so as to put black folk absolutely beyond the possibility of civilization.”
This read like a call to reframe the notions of “the civil rights issue of our time,” coded language to tap into the imaginations of black folk, and consider we’ve already been here with standardized testing. This is the path towards connecting the education resistance movement to black lives mattering. In Brian Jones’ chapter, he talks to friend and Chicago activist Xian Barrett how he deals with questions of inequity and why some parents have bought into the current education reform structure. His advice: “When parents raise those difficult issues, that’s when you have to deepen the conversation.” The aforementioned chapters do just that.
This is truly what is meant by nuance, and I’m thankful for these folks, not just in their writing, but in their works. Let’s move.
The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, know as FairTest, just released its wonderful report on the immense growth around the country of the movement in opposition to the abuses of standardized testing. The victories included universities getting rid of their SAT/ACT requirement, states dropping the requirement for an exit exam to graduate from high school, and hundreds of thousands of families opting their children out of harmful high-stakes tests. As Fair Test revealed in a press release today,
Around the U.S., well over half a million public school students refused to take standardized exams during the 2015 testing season, according to a preliminary tally released today. The count by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), a leader of the national assessment reform movement, is based on news reports and detailed surveys by local activists.
Among the largest state opt-out figures (with sources):
– 240,000 New York (news reports and New York State Allies for Public Education counts)
– 110,000+ New Jersey (Save Our Schools New Jersey)
– 100,000 Colorado (Chalkbeat Colorado and SEEK for Cherry Creek)
– 50,000+ Washington State (news reports)
– ~20,000 Oregon (news reports)
– ~20,000 Illinois (More Than a Score)
– 10,000 New Mexico (news reports)
– ? ? Other states not yet reporting
“The opt-out movement and other assessment reform initiatives exploded across the country this year as more parents said ‘enough is enough’ to high-stakes testing overkill,” explained FairTest Executive Director Monty Neill. “If anything, the estimate of half a million opt-outs in 2015 is low because many states have denied requests to make test refusal data public. This intense grassroots pressure is beginning to force policymakers to roll back standardized exam misuse and overuse.”
It’s hard to describe the elation I experienced as I read in the FairTest report about one victory after another for communities around the nation in the struggle to demand that education is more than a score.
Over the past several years I have been writing, speaking, organizing, and doing everything I could think of to demand that critical thinking and creativity be allowed back into our schools. Ever since my colleagues at Garfield High School boycotted the MAP test in 2013 and helped to inspire this uprising, much of my life has been given to this great struggle against the testocracy–and it is beyond words for me to see these standardizing despots now on the run as families around the nation stand up to defend their children and public education.
Best of all is the educated prediction that FairTest Public Education Director Bob Schaeffer made today: “In the 2016 testing season, we expect many more families to refuse to take part in unnecessary testing, which undermines educational quality and equity.”
Here now is the summary of the testing reform victories from 2015:
Testing Reform Victories 2015:
Growing Grassroots Movement Rolls Back Testing Overkill
By Lisa Guisbond with Monty Neill and Bob Schaeffer
The growing strength and sophistication of the U.S. testing resistance and reform movement began turning the tide against standardized exam overuse and misuse during the 2014-2015 school year. Assessment reformers scored significant wins in many states, thanks to intense pressure brought by unprecedented waves of opting out and other forms of political action. Even President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan, long advocates of test-and-punish ‘reform’ strategies, now concede that “there is too much testing.”
Across the country, educators, parents and students launched petitions, organized mass rallies and held public forums. High school students refused to take excessive exams and walked out. Teachers struck to demand (and win) testing reforms and better learning conditions. Administrators and elected school boards adopted strong resolutions against high-stakes testing. All this growth built on the successes of test reformers in previous years.
Parents and teachers who launched campaigns against standardized exam overkill in their schools and districts have emerged as effective leaders who continue to build a stronger movement. The mainstream media no longer ignores or marginalizes calls for “less testing, more learning” and “an end to high-stakes testing.” Instead, the assessment reform movement and the reasons behind it are consistently covered in depth by major newspapers, TV and radio outlets from coast to coast.
Public opinion shows a powerful shift against overreliance on test-and-punish policies and in favor of assessment reform based on multiple measures. Education policy makers and legislators have been forced to respond by at least publicly acknowledging the harms of high-stakes testing and the need for a course correction.
Cries of “enough is enough” were loud enough to penetrate the Oval Office, prompting President Obama to acknowledge in October that high-stakes exams are out of control in U.S. public schools. Activists, however, continue to push to ensure that vague rhetoric from the nation’s capital is followed by concrete changes in policy. The Obama administration has refused to end its test-and-punish policies, so Congress must act. Both houses have passed bills to end the mandates for test-based teacher evaluations and school and district sanctions.
Meanwhile, the movement has won concrete victories at the state and local level. These include repeal of exit exams in several states, elimination of many tests, reduction of testing time, a surge of colleges going test-optional, and development of alternative assessment and accountability systems. The past year’s victories include:
- A sharp reversal of the decades-long trend to adopt high school exit exams. Policy-makers repealed the California graduation test, while Texas loosened its requirements, joining six states that repealed or delayed these exams in the 2013-2014 school year. California, Georgia, South Carolina and Arizona also decided to grant diplomas retroactively to thousands of students denied them because of test scores.
- Florida suspended Jeb Bush’s 3rd grade reading test-based promotion policy. Oklahoma, New York, and North Carolina revised their test-based promotion policies, and New Mexico legislators blocked the governor’s effort to impose one.
- States and districts that rolled back mandated testing include Minnesota, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, Maryland, Dallas and Lee County, Florida.
- Opting out surged to new levels in New York, New Jersey and across the country – approaching 500,000 nationally – riveting the attention of the media and pushing governors and legislatures to act.
- A series of opinion polls documented increasing numbers of voters and parents who agree there is too much standardized testing and it should not be used for high-stakes purposes.
- The past year was the best one on record for the test-optional college admissions movement, with three dozen more colleges and universities reducing or eliminating ACT/SAT requirements, driving the total to more than 850.
- In California, New Hampshire, and elsewhere there are promising efforts to develop alternative systems of assessment and accountability, deemphasizing standardized tests while incorporating multiple measures of school performance.
- The movement’s growth and accomplishments are tremendously encouraging. But it’s far too early to declare victory and go home. In the 2015-2016 school year, activists will use lessons learned from their initial battles to further expand and strengthen the resistance movement and ensure political leaders go beyond lip service to implement meaningful assessment reforms.
- The movement’s ultimate goal goes well beyond winning less testing, lower stakes and better assessments. It seeks a democratic transformation of public education from a system driven by a narrow “test-and-punish” agenda to one that meets the broad educational needs and goals of diverse students and families.
The full report is available at:
The “More Than a Score” Anthem: The new song that explains the book and the movement against high-stakes testing!
A few weeks ago, I spoke in New York City at the Progressive Educator Network’s national conference. There I joined a wonderful panel that highlighted resistance to standardized testing.
After the panel I got off of the stage and an educator approached me and introduced himself as Caselli Jordan, a kindergarten teacher and musician from Philadelphia. When I saw the look of excitement in his eyes I knew the middle seat, red-eye flight, from Seattle to New York City was worth the trip. Caselli told me that immediately after my presentation, a song jumped into his head and he had to run out to the hallway to write it down. He hummed a little of the hook and I smiled. I was hyped to hear my words had helped inspire a song. He said he was going to work on it more. I told him I would love to hear it. Then other educators and parents came around to further discuss building the authentic assessment movement and our conversation was cut short.
As I was leaving the conference, I remember thinking what a good idea it would be to have an anthem for our movement against high-stakes testing–but I wasn’t sure if I would really ever hear from Caselli again. Then a few days ago, he and his bandmate Sterling Duns, who make up the group City Love, sent me a link to their new single “More Than a Score.” In the e-mail Caselli wrote,
I wanted to get in touch with you because in the weeks after the PEN conference in Brooklyn my bandmate Sterling Duns and I came up with a song about standardized testing. I actually started hearing the chorus while you were speaking in the panel and had to get up to leave and go record it :) And after I told Sterling your powerful hypothermia analogy, he put that in his verse. Thanks for all the inspiration and we hope the song can be useful to you.
This song is a wonderful gift to me as it explains many of the key themes in the book I edited, More Than a Score: The new uprising against high-stakes testing—including that we must opt out of standardized testing that has become a billion dollar industry, is destroying everything that is good in educating, and has contributed to the school-to-prison-pipeline. And if my first grade son’s reaction to the song is any indication, it’s an instant smash hit that will rouse the youth to action! He has the song on repeat. And that’s high praise because he has been very active in the movement that helped Seattle win more recess for students, so his favorite line in the single is, “Maybe instead of tests we could have a little recess? (I love recess!).”
Share this opt out movement anthem far and wide. Let’s bring down the testocracy with a chart topping song that helps people raise their voices to bring back art class and cancel the tests!
By City Love
This is a song inspired by, and in solidarity with the opt out movements throughout the country. It is inspired by the words of Seattle Map testing boycott organizer Jesse Hagopian at the Progressive Education Network Conference in October of 2015.
Politicians, corporations, Gates foundation love that testing. But they don’t want us passing. But they won’t send their kids there. They went to private school! Why you think that is?!
Closin schools but building prisons payin guards instead of teachers. now how they gonna reach us? prison guards instead of teachers. build a school to prison pipeline. What you think of that?
$33,000 yearly for a single inmate. That’s a private school tuition. But students don’t get half that. What we gonna do?
More than a score, so you know we gotta opt out. (x4)
Im feeling lifted
Why yall trippin
Looking at scores
Wont tell u this brothas gifted
Yall want more
Whats yall barometer
Giving poor kids more test
Is like giving atherometer
While they outside
In the cold,
This things getting old
Yall blue ribbon givings
We need yall folks to prod less
The progress is tied
To the human not, not the project
the testing is just stressing
the guys giving the test then
Chose the schools that let in
And then exempt
From doing the one thing
They want others to do
Now tell me is that cool?
Spendin 1.7 Billion dollars yearly on the testing. That’s a whole lotta dough. That’s a whole lotta dough man. Whatcha think of that?!?
Teachin to the test and takin tests takes a lotta time man. Time away from learning. What we gonna do?
Maybe instead of tests we could have a little recess? Have a little art class? What you think of that?!
More than a score, more than a score. So you know we gotta opt out. (4 times)
In a stunning turn of events, President Obama announced last weekend that “unnecessary testing” is “consuming too much instructional time” and creating “undue stress for educators and students.” Rarely has a president so thoroughly repudiated such a defining aspect of his own public education policy. In a three-minute video announcing this reversal, Obama cracks jokes about how silly it is to over-test students, and recalls that the teachers who had the most influence on his life were not the ones who prepared him best for his standardized tests. Perhaps Obama hopes we will forget it was his own Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, who radically reorganized America’s education system around the almighty test score.
Obama’s statement comes in the wake of yet another study revealing the overwhelming number of standardized tests children are forced to take: The average student today is subjected to 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation. Because it’s what we have rewarded and required, America’s education system has become completely fixated on how well students perform on tests. Further, the highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color.
To be sure, Obama isn’t the only president to menace the education system with high-stakes exams. This thoroughly bi-partisan project was enabled by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. NCLB became law in 2002 with overwhelming support from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Obama, instead of erasing the wrong answer choice of NCLB’s test-and-punish policy, decided to press ahead. Like a student filling in her entire Scantron sheet with answer choice “D,” Duncan’s erroneous Race to the Top initiative was the incorrect solution for students. It did, however, make four corporations rich by assigning their tests as the law of the land. Desperate school districts, ravaged by the Great Recession, eagerly sought Race to the Top points by promulgating more and more tests.
The cry of the parents, students, educators and other stewards of education was loud and sorrowful as Obama moved to reduce the intellectual and emotional process of teaching and learning to a single score—one that would be used to close schools, fire teachers and deny students promotion or graduation. Take, for instance, this essay penned by Diane Ravitch in 2010. She countered Obama’s claim that Race to the Top was his most important accomplishment:
[RttT] will make the current standardized tests of basic skills more important than ever, and even more time and resources will be devoted to raising scores on these tests. The curriculum will be narrowed even more than under George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, because of the link between wages and scores. There will be even less time available for the arts, science, history, civics, foreign language, even physical education. Teachers will teach to the test.
What Ravitch warned us about has come to pass, and Obama has now admitted as much without fully admitting to his direct role in promoting the tests. Duncan and Obama, with funding from the Gates Foundation, coupled Race to the Top with Common Core State Standards and the high-stakes tests that came shrink wrapped with them. Together these policies have orchestrated a radical seizure of power by what I call the “testocracy”—The multibillion dollar testing corporations, the billionaire philanthropists who promote their policies, and the politicians who write their policies into law.
These policies in turn have produced the largest uprising against high-stakes testing in U.S. history. To give you just a few highlights of the size and scope of this unprecedented struggle, students have staged walkouts of the tests in Portland, Chicago, Colorado, New Mexico, and beyond. Teachers from Seattle to Toledo to New York City have refused to administer the tests. And the parent movement to opt children out of tests has exploded into a mass social movement, including some 60,000 families in Washington State and more than 200,000 families in New York State. One of the sparks that helped ignite this uprising occurred at Garfield High School, where I teach, when the entire faculty voted unanimously to refuse to administer the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. The boycott spread to several other schools in Seattle and then the superintendent threatened my colleagues with a ten-day suspension without pay. Because of the unanimous vote of the student government and the PTA in support of the boycott—and the solidarity we received from around the country—the superintendent backed off his threat and canceled the MAP test altogether at the high school level. Can you imagine the vindication that my colleagues feel today—after having risked their jobs to reduce testing—from hearing the president acknowledge there is too much testing in the schools? And it should be clear that this national uprising, this Education Spring, has forced the testocracy to retreat and is the reason that the Obama administration has come to its current understanding on testing in schools.
However, the testocracy, having amassed so much power and wealth, won’t just slink quietly into the night. A Facebook video from Obama isn’t going to convince the Pearson corporation to give up its $9 billion in corporate profits from testing and textbooks. The tangle of tests promulgated by the federal government is now embedded at state and district levels.
More importantly, the President exposed just how halfhearted his change of heart was by declaring he will not reduce the current federal requirement to annually test all students in grades 3 through 8 in math and reading, with high school students still tested at least once. A reauthorization of NCLB is in the works right now, and all versions preserve these harmful testing mandates. As well, Obama’s call to reduce testing to 2% of the school year still requires students to take standardized tests for an outlandish twenty-four hours. And it isn’t even all the time directly spent taking the tests that’s the biggest problem. The real shame, which Obama never addressed, is that as long as there are high-stakes attached to the standardized tests, test prep activities will continue to dominate instructional time. As long as the testocracy continues to demand that students’ graduation and teachers’ evaluation or pay are determined by these tests, test prep will continue to crowed out all the things that educators know are vital to teaching the whole child—critical thinking, imagination, the arts, recess, collaboration, problem based learning, and more.
Obama’s main accomplice in proliferating costly testing, Arne Duncan, said, “It’s important that we’re all honest with ourselves. At the federal, state, and local level, we have all supported policies that have contributed to the problem in implementation.”
Yes, let’s all be honest with ourselves. Honesty would require acknowledgement that standardized test scores primarily demonstrate a student’s family income level, not how well a teacher has coached how to fill in bubbles. Honesty would dictate that we recognize that the biggest obstacle to the success of our students is that politicians are not being held accountable for the fact that nearly half children in the public schools now live in poverty. As Congress debates the new iteration of federal education policy, they should focus on supporting programs to uplift disadvantaged children and leave the assessment policy to local educators. They have proven they don’t understand how to best assess our students and now they have admitted as much. It’s time to listen to those of us who have advocated for an end to the practice endlessly ranking and sorting our youth with high-stakes tests. It’s time Congress repeal the requirement of standardized tests at every grade level. It’s time to end the reign of the testocracy and allow parents, students, and educators to implement authentic assessments designed to help support student learning and nurture the whole child.
Jesse Hagopian is an associate editor for Rethinking Schools magazine and teaches history at Garfield High School. Jesse is the editor of the book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.