Jesse Hagopian and Pedro Noguera Take on the Testocracy in Nationally Televised Debate: “Is public education in the U.S. broken beyond repair?”
Last Thursday I flew to New York City to take on Peter Cunningham, the former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education (under Secretary Arne Duncan, during President Obama’s first term), in a debate hosted by Al Jazeera America’s program The Third Rail. We debated the question, “Is public education in the U.S. broken beyond repair?”
I have to say, those 45 minutes in the green room before we went on to do the show seemed like they would never pass. First I had to settle my nerves. I knew my years of experience teaching and seeing the misery of high-stakes testing was causing in our schools was going to be hard to dispute. But this was the former Assistant Secretary of Education and surely he would have slick responses and cherry picked data to try to mask the truth? But it wasn’t the coming debate that was troubling me most. Try to imagine just how awkward a situation it was. Mr. Cunningham now runs a website devoted to shutting down the “education spring” uprising against corporate education reform; I’m a teacher trying my best to help that movement bloom. I am used to challenging the rich and powerful, but here I was sharing coffee and chitchat with one of the primary spokespeople for the privatization of our schools and the reduction of education to merely a “testucation.”
When we finally entered the TV studio, I was relieved for the conversation to turn from the weather to the mighty storm of resistance that parents, students, and teachers are building in opposition to the “testocracy.” We tussled over many major questions relating to the corporate model of education reform. Mr. Cunningham argued in favor of charter schools. I pointed out that of course he supported charters because he received $12 million from Billionaires Eli Broad and the Walton’s (the Wal-Mart family) who support the privatization of education. I went on to explain, “My problem with charter schools is that they’re anti-democratic. They’re not under the control of a democratically elected school board…[and the charter system] siphons off public funds to private schools…[Creating] a profit model from public education.”
Mr. Cunningham argued in favor of the use of high-stakes testing in education. I argued, “High-stakes testing has pushed out everything that matters in education.” I cited how recess and the arts are vanishing in schools as they become test-prep centers, rather than incubators of creativity. And I noted that while they push these standards and tests on our children, “It’s amazing that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, the President himself, send their kids to schools that don’t use the common core.”
At one point Mr. Cunningham inexplicably defended Arne Duncan’s comments that the opt out movement is just white suburban moms—a comment that Duncan himself had to apologize for. I explained the reality that every family has the right to protect their child from being reduced to a test score and that this opt out movement is actually growing rapidly in communities of color—including the many hundreds of Latino students who walked out of the PARCC test in New Mexico last year, the Black students in Baltimore who occupied the school board meeting in opposition to the labeling of their schools failing so as to close them down, and the Seattle NAACP chapter calling for opt out as part of the Black Lives Matter struggle.
One of the overriding themes that I tired to express (in the limited format of a few minuet debate program) was the idea that the superrich have horded the wealth at the expense of our children. Today, over half of the students who attend public school live in poverty. Then these billionaires—such as Mr. Cunningham’s sponsors—claim that the reason why youngsters don’t have a better quality of life is due to unaccountable teachers.
The best part of this The Third Rail debate was when they brought in the great Pedro Noguera, Professor of education at New York University, who powerfully and succinctly and expressed the primary issue with education reform today:
The problem I see is the we’ve developed an accountability system that holds those with the most power the least accountable.
We all cordially shook hands at the conclusion of the debate and conversed on the finer points that we hadn’t had time to cover while on stage. The lingering education disputes soon turned back to small talk, but this time I no longer felt awkward because I had a great image in my mind: The Walton’s huddled around the TV scowling as they decided whether to cancel Mr. Cunningham’s funding for his inability to defeat the logic and experience of lowly educators.
Watch these clips from the debate and decide for yourself: Do we need more testocrats or more educators helping to transform the schools?
JAMES BIBLE LAW GROUP FILES FEDERAL LAWSUIT AGAINST SEATTLE POLICE DEPARTMENT ON BEHALF OF JESSE HAGOPIAN: “I was the victim of this pepper spray attack”
On January 19th of this year–Martin Luther King, Jr. Day–I was pepper sprayed in the face by an officer of the Seattle Police department. Now, we are filing a lawsuit in a federal court to seek justice.
At this year’s Martin Luther King Day celebration, I was deeply honored to be asked to deliver the final address to the largest assembly of the year of social justice seekers. Little did I know that my rally cry at the microphone for police accountability would have such an immediate application, as it was only a short time later that a Seattle Police officer released a hot blast of mace directly into my ear and eyes, scalding my face.
As you can clearly see in the video footage that was captured by an onlooker, I was on the sidewalk at the time I was the victim of this pepper spray attack. I was also on the phone with my mom because she was coming to pick me up to take me to my son’s 2-year-old birthday party. As I wrote for The Nation magazine soon after the event,
My mom soon arrived and took me back to the house. I tried to be calm when I entered so as not to scare my children, but the sight of me with a rag over my swollen eyes upset the party. I spent much of the occasion at the bathtub, with my sister pouring milk on my eyes, ears, nose and face to quell the burning. My heart began to pound, and I could feel a rising panic when my older son asked me what happened and why I was pouring milk on myself. I didn’t want him to have to learn, at the age of 6, to be afraid of the police on our own city’s streets. I still don’t know how to talk to my kids about what happened.
Here now is the press release from my attorney James Bible, the past president of the Seattle/King County NAACP:
JAMES BIBLE LAW GROUP
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Monday, June 29, 2015
JAMES BIBLE LAW GROUP FILES FEDERAL LAWSUIT AGAINST SEATTLE POLICE DEPARTMENT ON BEHALF OF JESSE HAGOPIAN
On January 19, 2015, Jesse Hagopian was a participant in Seattle’s annual MLK Jr. Day March. Mr. Hagopian, a local human rights advocate and teacher, was a featured speaker at the event. After giving his speech he began to head home. While heading home he was on the phone with his mother. They were attempting to coordinate where she would pick him up and take him to his two-year-old child’s birthday. Mr. Hagopian was pepper sprayed by a Seattle Police officer while he was walking on the sidewalk and talking to his mom. There is video documentation of Mr. Hagopian being pepper sprayed by a Seattle Police Officer. Mr. Hagopian spent the rest of the day treating his injuries.
As a direct result of being pepper sprayed, Mr. Hagopians eyes were burning and he had difficulty breathing. His eyes were red, watery and swollen. Mr. Hagopian’s injuries had a severe impact on his ability to participate in and enjoy his son’s birthday party. The injuries that Mr. Hagopian received as a result of this incident have had a significant impact on his physical and emotional health.
We are concerned that the Seattle Police Department continues to maintain a pattern and practice of using unwarranted and excessive force against law-abiding people. This has to stop.
During the last days of the school year I wrote an essay for my website, I Am An Educator.com, about my kindergarten son opting out of the MAP test. I received an overwhelming number of positive responses to that piece, but none more powerful than from a mother from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Kelly Pylkas-Bock expressed her appreciation for the story of my son opting out, and sent me a truly moving description of her son–and why he cannot be reduced to a score–that she intends to deliver to his councilor when he starts middle school next year. I asked if I could publish her letter to the councilor and she replied,
Thank you for your encouraging response, Jesse. I have already shared my letter with [my son] Zachary because, as early as kindergarten standardized tests impacted his school experience. Zachary, Joshua (his dad), and I have had many honest conversations about how he has gifts that could never be measured by a test. When I told him the story about your son and about your request to re-post my letter, I was excited. I was also very cautious because I wanted to give him the option to protect his tender, 11-year-old identity. I should not have been surprised when he stated, emphatically, that he wanted his name included in the re-post. He was proud, as am I, to be included in your opt-out movement. We would proudly support the re-posting of Zachary’s important letter to his future middle school counselor and hope it might empower parents and students to be as brave as Zachary has been.
In appreciation and humility,
Kelly and Zachary
I hope the letter below will inspire other parents to reflect on what makes their own children more than a score–and to write that description down to share with your school and with this website. Here then is Kelly’s correspondence with me, followed by most wonderful description of her son Zachary.
Your post resonated with me in many ways. The opt out movement has always been personal to me as a teacher of young children, but in 2010 when my oldest son, Zachary, became a first grader, I, like you, was faced with this decision. As a Humanist, I believe in the infinite potential of all children. This became (and will continue to be) a spiritual matter. Standardized testing contradicted my beliefs in many ways. I have been opting Zachary out of all standardized testing since 2009, including the MAP test. It is a decision that my husband and I have to wrestle with each year as Zachary gets older. We know the time may come when Zachary wants or needs to take a standardized test. He has always been included in the decision-making process. My profession as a second grade public school teacher places me in a contradictory position three times each year when I am mandated to proctor the MAP test for my young students. I see the destructive nature of standardized tests such as the MAP test. In my experience the MAP promotes a skewed and inflated view of development for parents and children. As you know, Jesse, it is difficult to be a teacher with the current educational atmosphere of standardization but, as you also know, it has been especially challenging to be a parent. I believed that instructional methods pursued by school districts as a result of standardized tests like the MAP could be harmful to Zachary. I, like you, could not let Zachary be a participant in the process.
I soulfully know this struggle.
I want to share a letter I wrote to Zachary’s future middle school counselor in hope that it might provide other parents with the words or ideas to continue this fight for their children.
Dear Middle School Counselor,
I am writing about Zachary, an incoming 6th grader. He has many talents that are not traditionally honored in school. Up to this point we have worked hard to be partners to his teachers. Zachary has had many outstanding teachers who worked hard to make his daily classroom experience match his gifts. Along with his teachers, we have tried to provide a supportive classroom environment where he has some opportunities to shine at school. This has helped maintain his emotional and intellectual investment throughout elementary school.
Zachary is a fantastic performer. He loves to be viewed as knowledgeable and capable. He has had these opportunities in elementary school during physical education, the school play and anytime he is asked to present information he is interested in. He feels great about himself and his learning when he is able to have these types of experiences.
Zachary is a fantastic language learner. When Zachary was in third grade my husband, Joshua and I (both elementary teachers), took teaching positions at an American School in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Zachary attended this school for nine months while we were teaching. He very quickly learned Portuguese through interactions with children. He has not had much opportunity to practice. I believe, with an excellent Spanish teacher, he will see his ability to learn languages as a gift he possesses. He also enjoys children who have experienced other cultures or who speak other languages. He would like to return to Brazil some day.
Zachary is highly motivated to learn about social justice issues that are occurring currently or have occurred in history. He loves learning about the Civil Rights Movement but also enjoys discussing current events. He is quick to recognize social injustices that can occur in school and makes attempts (sometimes misguided but always pure of heart) to correct them. When he is misguided, he is generally principled and takes responsibility for fixing his mistake. He really wants to understand the social issues going on around him.
Zachary is a hard worker. He will work hard to learn what is required of him. He will work the hardest in math, but he will need support. He does not have a positive self-image of himself as a mathematical thinker. Joshua and I are working on praising the effort he puts into learning. He regularly asked his 5th grade teacher to stay after school for help. In our family we teach that education is a human right, and if you don’t understand something, you have a right to attain that knowledge. However, it can only be yours if you seek it out. A teacher who doesn’t know that you are confused cannot help you. Zachary will not ask for help from an intimidating teacher.
Zachary is a deep processor. He needs time to think about things and his understanding of new concepts tends to develop over time. He needs many repetitions of new concepts before he can apply them independently. This is especially common in math. A common experience we have had with teachers who do not understand Zachary is that he will bring homework home from school that he does not understand because the concept was newly taught during class. This causes him a great deal of frustration and stress. In elementary school he has been very sensitive to how quickly other children understand a concept while he is still processing. We try to stress the importance and value of the hard work he puts into understanding things and not the speed. Our fear in sharing this is that it will be misunderstood as a deficit or delay in Zachary’s development. This is not the case. Zachary is well within the normal limits of child development. He always has been.
Zachary is the victim of an over-standardized and over-academicized curriculum that has pressured him to achieve academic concepts that are not appropriate using methods that are not often suitable for his learning style. Zachary had the misfortune of beginning his school career as the national and state educational agendas held a standardized approach to assessment in high-esteem, often relegating Zachary to tracking, or grouping, techniques that would easily deflate his developing self-image and motivation. For this reason, we have opted Zachary out of all standardized testing because we believe Zachary’s potential is limitless and cannot be condensed to a math and reading score. Any learning environment that stresses speed or quantity over quality will be a negative experience for Zachary.
Zachary lives a full life. He is busy after school with sports, friends and playing outside. Homework can be extremely stressful or overwhelming to him. I fear this could become a reason for Zachary to dis-invest in school. He does not view homework as contributing towards his learning. We, as his parents, agree that homework has not helped Zachary to learn responsibility or study habits. It has caused significant tension in our family. Zachary needs teachers who understand that children his age need balance between home and school.
Zachary is extremely imaginative and, consequently, a fantastic writer. He is a contextual learner, so writing provides him with a rich opportunity to understand a topic and analyze it from whole to part. Since first grade he has become an expert in many topics because he wrote about them. Zachary loves to write and read comics. Freedom to choose topics is motivating for him. The same is true for any reading he is asked to do. A teacher who is overly fixated on handwriting, spelling ability or punctuation will not help him grow as a writer or a reader. A teacher with a broad definition of reading and writing who provides meaningful choices will positively impact his growth as a reader and a writer.
Zachary deserves time to learn and mature at the pace his mind and body determine. Despite the impatient efforts of some adults to speed Zachary’s development, he has always learned at his own pace. He will be 12 in January. He will take time to mature and develop cognitively, but he always does. He can learn and there is nothing that impedes his learning except for his self-belief and his perceptions of the beliefs of those around him. He needs teachers who understand the development of children his age and have realistic expectations of them. He will get there in his own time. He just needs adults who convey their belief in him on a regular basis and especially when he is struggling to understand new concepts.
Thank you for taking the time to read about Zachary. We realize that educators are human beings and that there is no such thing as a perfect educational experience. We also know that Zachary, like all children, will struggle some, but hopefully, with our support, will also find reasons to shine at school.
Kelly is a mother to Zachary (11), Jackson (9) and Porter (1). She is married to Joshua Bock, a fellow second grade teacher. Kelly has been teaching elementary school since 1998. She has authored one book, Reading Superheroes, and just finished her doctorate in education this spring.
Her websites are:
Given my intense relationship with this specific standardized test–an exam that has forever altered the course of my life–this was a particularly unsettling moment for me. As an authentic assessment activist, I had helped organize a boycott of this test at Seattle’s Garfield High School, I edited the book More Than a Score to tell the story of this movement against the MAP and the subsequent uprising against high-stakes testing, and I speak regularly around the country to share the lessons of the movement to “Scrap the MAP.”
I had long been committed to a fight for public education, but now it just got personal. Now they were trying confine my own boundlessly vibrant son into a test score bubble.
I had felt a great sense of accomplishment in our 2013 MAP test boycott, which resulted in a decisive victory when the superintendent ended the school year by announcing an end to the MAP test requirement for the high schools. Now, however, the announcement that it was MAP test week for my son felt a cruel irony. It was hard to have to face the fact that, despite how powerful our movement had become, we hadn’t defeated the test altogether and elementary school students were still being subjected to it.
The idea that our school system implements standardized testing in the early grades to make students “career and college ready” (in the language of the Common Core standards) is an utter absurdity–especially when you consider that one of the most popular career choices for a 5-year-old is being Spider Man. And yet high-stakes are attached to the the MAP test–already in kindergarten!–using it as an arbitrator of who will be placed on the advanced track. In schools around the nation, there is an astonishing proliferation of the use of standardized testing in the early grades, which is having a frightening impact our our children. Children are increasingly experiencing severe stress from these tests, to the point where administrators now have a protocol for what to do when a child throws up on a test booklet–something that comedian John Oliver highlighted on his program Last Week Tonight when he said, “Something is wrong with our system when we just assume a certain number of students will vomit.” As a recent report from Defending the Early Years points out kindergarten literacy standard will simply crush the spirits of the late bloomers, linking school with “feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and confusion.”
The new Common Core standards, and the tests meant to measure student’s progress toward them of them, are dramatically developmentally inappropriate and punish the students for developing in different ways and at different rates. As Nancy Carlsson-Paige, professor emeritus of early-childhood education at Lesley University and a senior adviser for Defending the Early Years, wrote in the book, More Than a Score,
When the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) came out, many of us in early childhood were alarmed. There had not been one K-3 classroom teacher or early childhood professional on the committees that wrote and reviewed the CCSS. We could see that the standards conflicted with the research in cognitive science, neuroscience and child development that tell us what and how young children learn and how best to teach them. The pressure on young children to learn specific facts or skills increased, even though these expectations are unrealistic, inappropriate, and not based in research or principles of child development.
Moreover, young kids often struggle with the basic mechanics of answering questions on the new computer administered tests. As one Seattle elementary teacher wrote about Common Core testing this year,
Our school does not have a technology teacher and not all students have computer access at home, so many students have not learned computer or keyboarding skills. I watched more than one student hitting the space bar over and over because they did not know how to go down to the next line to start a new paragraph.
These tests have led to drastic cuts in recess, arts, music, physical education, and other critical components to a robust education of the whole child–and this is especially true in schools the serve predominantly low income and students of color, as our education system has become singularly obsessed with “raising achievement.” Again, Professor Carlsson-Paige:
Young children learn actively through hands-on experiences in the real world. They need to engage in active, playful learning, to explore and question and solve real problems. As children do this, they build concepts that create the foundation for later academic success. And perhaps even more importantly, through active, play-based, experiential learning, children develop a whole range of capabilities that will contribute to success in school and life: problem solving skills, thinking for themselves, using imagination, inventing new ideas, learning social, emotional, and self regulation skills. None of these capabilities can be tested but they are life-shaping attributes that are ready to develop in the early years.
And as the Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner pointed out in a Boston Globe Globe article titled, “Is the Common Core Killing Kindergarten”, “Overuse of didactic instruction and testing cuts off children’s initiative, curiosity, and imagination, limiting their engagement in school.”
For these reasons, and due to the bitter struggle we waged during the 2013 boycott, the MAP test is practically a cuss word in my household. So when I asked my son if he wanted to take the MAP, it should be no surprise that he told me he was against taking it. He had obviously been paying close attention to this mass uprising against standardized testing, because he replied, “I take the tests my teachers makes, but not one that someone who doesn’t know me makes.”
With that, we wrote him an opt out letter, and my son joined the movement. Several other families opted their kids out of the test as well, and the parents took turns helping to provide alternative activities for the kids during the the test.
My son was especially thrilled to go to school the day he was going to help teach a lesson to his fellow five and six-year-old dissidents during the opt out period. His idea for the lesson was for a parent to read a book to the students about Satchel Paige, the legendary Negro League pitcher, and then they would make baseball cards of their own, complete with the stats on the back. Miles brought the sports page in, as well, to help them with the stats and to show them how to read a box score. My son opened the lesson by telling everyone about the Negro Leagues, a league started by Black people when the Major Leagues wouldn’t let them play, and then the parent read the book. However, before they could get to the baseball card activity, the rest of the class returned from MAP testing early, unable to actually take the test because of a glitch in the computer program. His class had lost the morning of instruction.
On the day the test was rescheduled, the students who opted out helped to make hats for the end of the year promotion ceremony to mark their passage to first grade. I asked my son what he thought of his experience opting out of the test. He said, “It was fun. I got to teach my friends about something, and we got to make our graduation hats…I didn’t have to worry if I was going to fail.”
I can tell you kindergarteners never looked better in mortarboard caps then when they wore them at their joyous promotion ceremony this week. Maybe next time they will decorate them with the slogan, “Scrap the MAP!”?
“Stop Blaming Teachers, Start Funding Schools”: 30,000 Teachers Walk Out in Protest of Big Class Sizes in Washington State
…the state’s top 1% contributes 2.4 percent of family income in state and local taxes while the poorest 20 percent contribute 16.8 percent, making Washington the “highest-tax state in the country for poor people.”
Meanwhile, the state’s largest corporations have received eye-popping tax breaks in recent years: In 2014, Boeing was awarded the single largest tax break a state has ever given a company: an $8.7 billion cut. Microsoft reportedly avoided $528 million in state taxes between 1997 and 2008 due to lax legislative oversight concerning the company reporting its revenue through its licensing office in Nevada, despite basing its software production in Washington….WEA members say that if legislators don’t resolve funding issues by the end of the second special legislative session, rolling strike waves will begin again when school begins in September.
Let the Washington State Legislature know that they must come up with the money for our schools by emailing them here. As a popular sign carried by striking Washington educators reads, “On strike against legislature – stop blaming teachers – start funding schools.”
Today was an incredible step forward in the struggle to fully fund education in Washington state: our union, the Seattle Education Association (SEA), went on a one day strike, joining over 50 local educators’ unions in a rolling strike wave to demand that the State Legislature spend billions of more dollars on the schools.
I have been part of a rank-and-file organization in Seattle called the Social Equality Educators (SEE) who have argued for years that if we want to achieve the schools our students deserve, we will have to take collective action to force those in power to back down. We have helped organize collective action in the victorious MAP test boycott, the successful Garfield High School walkout against the proposed displacement of one of our teachers, and to support the mass boycotts of the SBAC testing this year. However, we have said that if the union as a whole were to take up these struggles, the power of our thousands of educators across the city would be strong enough to reverse the attack by the corporate education reformers.
Today, the SEA learned from these previous experiences of collective action by the rank-and-file, as well as other smaller locals around the state that began this one day rolling strike wave. The day began with educators, students, and parents rallying at designated high schools. Educators at these spirited morning rallies took up chants beyond the funding issues to also address abuses of high-stakes testing and Black Student Lives Matter. Then everyone boarded buses and headed for the Space Needle where we gathered to begin our march. As nurses, counselors, librarians, instructional assistants, family support workers, office staff, teachers, other educators, students, and parents stepped out into the street to begin the rally, I began to realize how many thousands of people were ready to take direct action to defend our schools–likely some 5,000 people joined the rally.
Why were so many educators, students and parents motivated to join the rally?
Washington State ranks 40th in the nation in per-pupil funding, a fact that has caused increasing hardships to Seattle Public Schools students. The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled the State Legislature is in contempt of court for failing to comply with the court’s McCleary decision—the school funding order designed to uphold the Washington State Constitution, which reads in part,
Preamble, Article IX, Washington Constitution: It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.
Failure to fully fund education has had disastrous results for the students in the Seattle Public Schools. The elementary schools in Seattle have lost funding for their counselors, leaving hundreds of our most vulnerable young students without the social and emotional supports they so desperately need. Transportation services have been dramatically cut, leaving families scrambling every morning to find a way to get their children to school. Elective courses, art, music, drama, and other enrichment programs have been eliminated. Educators have seen their pay lag the increasing cost of living in Seattle. Class sizes have ballooned and students are being denied the individual attention they deserve. Moreover, all of these problems have disproportionately impacted lower income students and students of color—contributing to an opportunity gap between socio-economic classes and between students of color and their white peers.
In the current legislative session, the Washington State Legislature has not done enough to address these severe funding problems.
Both the Senate and the House propose to ignore the recently ratified I-1351, the class size reduction initiative, flouting the democratic will of the voters. For the last six years, the state Legislature has suspended voter-approved cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for school employees. Now, the current proposal is to raise educator pay by only 1.8%–while the Legislature has proposed raising their own pay by 11%. In a region as wealthy as ours, it simply isn’t fair that average teacher pay in Washington State ranks 42nd in the nation.
Some members of the state Legislature have said that they will only support additional funding to the schools if teachers agree to use standardized test scores in their evaluations. This stipulation that funding be tied to increased use of standardized testing is not part of the Washington State Supreme Court’s McCleary decision on fully funding schools. Moreover, the use of value added modeling (VAM) to use standardized tests scores to judge teacher performance has been thoroughly debunked by leading educators and statisticians. The American Statistical Association, the oldest and largest statistical association in the world, recently slammed the high-stakes value-added method of evaluating teachers, saying, “VAMs are generally based on standardized test scores and do not directly measure potential teacher contributions toward other student outcomes…VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation: Effects – positive or negative – attributed to a teacher may actually be caused by other factors that are not captured in the model.”
It is true we need accountability in education, but this should start with politicians being accountable for fully funding education and ending the opportunity gap.
Today’s strike by Seattle’s educators, and the mass outpouring of supporters, is just the beginning in the struggle for the schools our children deserve.
Jesse Hagopian teaches history at Garfield High School and is the editor of the book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.
Seattle Educators Set To Strike For The Schools Our Children Deserve: Video interview with Jesse Hagopian on the rolling strike wave in Washington State
Educators are walking out of the public schools in Seattle on Tuesday, May 18th, joining a one day rolling strike wave of educators unions around the state, with a powerful message for the State Legislature: Fully fund education. These educators will be joined by many parents and students who are asking that the Washington State Legislature do what is not only right, but what is lawful. The Washington State Supreme Court has ruled the that State Legislature is in violation of state law and has mandated that they add billions of extra dollars to fund eduction.
Moreover, Washington State voters have approved I-1351 which would reduce class size around the state, yet the legislature is preparing to ignore that law. To make matters worse, the Washington State Legislature is getting ready to take an 11% raise, even while educators have had their voter approved cost of living adjustment revoked for the past six years, and now only offer educators a 1.8% increase.
DHARNA NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor joining you from Baltimore.Thousands of public school teachers went on strikes across nine Washington State school districts on Wednesday. These single-day strikes are part of a protest against the new state budget proposal. The teachers, who are members of a union called the Washington Education Association, are demanding smaller class sizes, better compensation, and less testing. Teachers of other districts are set to strike this Friday.Joining us from Seattle to discuss these strikes is Jesse Hagopian. Jesse teaches history and is also the black student union advisor at Garfield High School, where teachers just voted to join the strike. Jesse is an associate editor of the acclaimed magazine Rethinking Schools. He’s also a founding member of Social Equality Educators. He blogs at I’mAnEducator.com and is the editor of More than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.
Resistance to High Stakes Tests Serves the Cause of Equity in Education: A Reply to “We Oppose Anti-Testing Efforts”
Twelve national civil rights organizations released a statement today in opposition to parents and students who opt out of high-stakes standardized testing–what has now become a truly mass direct action campaign against the multi-billion dollar testing industry. I believe that their statement titled, “We Oppose Anti-Testing Efforts,” misses the key role that standardized testing has played throughout American history in reproducing institutional racism and inequality. I wrote the below statement, with the aid of the board of the Network for Public Education, to outline the racist history of standardized testing and to highlight leadership from people of color in the movement against high-stakes testing. I sincerely hope for a response from the civil rights organizations who authored the statement and I hope that this dialogue leads to deeper discussion about how to make Black Lives Matter in our school system and how to remake American public education on foundation of social justice.
Today several important civil rights organizations released a statement that is critical of the decision by many parents and students to opt out of high stakes standardized tests. Though we understand the concerns expressed in this statement, we believe high stakes tests are doing more harm than good to the interests of students of color, and for that reason, we respectfully disagree.
The United States is currently experiencing the largest uprising against high-stakes standardized testing in the nation’s history. Never before have more parents, students, and educators participated in acts of defiance against these tests than they are today. In New York State some 200,000 families have decided to opt their children out of the state test. The largest walkout against standardized tests in U.S. history occurred in Colorado earlier this school year when thousands refused to take the end of course exams. In cities from Seattle, to Chicago, to Toledo, to New York City, teachers have organized boycotts of the exam and have refused to administer particularly flawed and punitive exams.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attempted to dismiss this uprising by saying that opposition to the Common Core tests has come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” Secretary Duncan’s comment is offensive for many reasons. To begin, suburban white moms have a right not to have their child over tested and the curriculum narrowed to what’s on the test without being ridiculed. But the truth is his comment serves to hide the fact that increasing numbers of people from communities of color are leading this movement around the nation, including:
Members of the Baltimore Algebra Project organized a die-in of recent Black graduates who took over a Baltimore school board meeting in protest of the school closures that had been facilitated in part by labeling them failing with test scores. Heritage High School graduate Antwain Jordan said of the plan to close his alma mater, “The education system, there is no value on black life in this country. That’s nothing new, it’s not a secret. It’s the status quo, which is why these things are allowed to happen.”
- During the first week in March, several New Mexico schools with Latino/a student populations of over 90% organized mass walkouts against the Common Core PARCC tests in Albuquerque and across New Mexico, with the message, “We are not a test score.”
- On Feb. 17th the Newark Student Union, an organization led primarily by students of color, occupied the Newark school district headquarters in part because of their opposition to the implementation of the new Common Core tests.
- On April 7th Gerald Hankerson, the President of the Seattle/King County NAACP chapter launched a press conference against the new Common Core, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), tests, by saying, “…the Opt Out movement is a vital component of the Black Lives Matter movement and other struggles for social justice in our region. Using standardized tests to label Black people and immigrants ‘lesser,’ while systematically under-funding their schools, has a long and ugly history in this country.”
You would expect the multi-billion dollar testing industry not to celebrate this resistance. Conglomerates such as Pearson, the over 9 billion dollar per year corporation that produces the PARCC test, could stand to lose market share and profits if the protests continue to intensify. But it is unfortunate that more civil rights groups have not come to the aid of communities resisting the test-and-punish model of education. In a recent statement issued by the national leadership of some of the nation’s most prominent civil rights organizations, they wrote:
Data obtained through some standardized tests are particularly important to the civil rights community because they are the only available, consistent, and objective source of data about disparities in educational outcomes even while vigilance is always required to ensure tests are not misused.
We agree that it is vital to understand the disparities that exist in education and to detail the opportunity gap that exists between students of color and white students, between lower income students and students from more affluent families. There is a long and troubling history of schools serving children of color not receiving equitable access to resources and not providing these students with culturally competent empowering curriculum. Moreover, the schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1960s—a fact that must be particular troubling to the NAACP that fought and won the Brown vs Board of Education desegregation decision. For these reasons, we understand why national civil rights organizations are committed to exposing the neglect of students of color.
Yet we know that high-stakes standardized tests, rather than reducing the opportunity gap, have been used to rank, sort, label, and punish students of color. This fact has been amply demonstrated through the experience of the past thirteen years of NCLB’s mandate of national testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school. The outcomes of the NCLB policy shows that test score achievement gaps between African American and white students have only increased, not decreased. If the point of the testing is to highlight inequality and fix it, so far it has only increased inequality. Further, the focus on test score data has allowed policy makers to rationalize the demonization of schools and educators, while simultaneously avoiding the more critically necessary structural changes that need to be made in our education system and the broader society.
We also know that standardized testing is not the only, or the most important, method to know that students of color are being underserved; student graduation rates, college attendance rates, studies showing that wealthier and predominantly white schools receiving a disproportionate amount of funding are all important measures of the opportunity gap that don’t require the use of high-stakes standardized tests.
The civil rights organizations go on to write in their recent statement on assessment,
That’s why we’re troubled by the rhetoric that some opponents of testing have appropriated from our movement. The anti-testing effort has called assessments anti-Black and compared them to the discriminatory tests used to suppress African-American voters during Jim Crow segregation. They’ve raised the specter of White supremacists who employed biased tests to ‘prove’ that people of color were inferior to Whites.
There are some legitimate concerns about testing in schools that must be addressed. But instead of stimulating worthy discussions about over-testing, cultural bias in tests, and the misuse of test data, these activists would rather claim a false mantle of civil rights activism.
To begin, we agree with these civil rights organizations when they write that over-testing, cultural bias in tests, and misuse of test data are “legitimate concerns about testing in schools that must be addressed”—and in fact we hope to hear more from these civil rights organizations about these very real and destructive aspects of high-stakes standardized testing. Moreover, we believe that when these civil rights organizations fully confront just how pervasive over-testing, cultural bias and misuse of data is in the public education system, these facts alone will be enough to convince them join the mass civil rights opt out uprising that is happening around the nation. Let us take each one of these points in turn.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT, the second largest teacher’s union in the nation) conducted a 2013 study based on a analysis of two mid-size urban school districts that found the time students spent taking tests claimed up to 50 hours per year. In addition, the study found that students spent from between 60 to more than 110 hours per year directly engaged in test preparation activities. The immense amount of time devoted to testing has resulted in students in a constant state of preparation for the next high-stakes exam rather than learning the many skills that aren’t measured by standardized tests such as critical thinking, collaboration, civic courage, creativity, empathy, and leadership. The new Common Core tests are only in math and language arts and thus have served to skew the curriculum away from the arts, physical education, civics, social studies, science, music, and a myriad of other subjects that students of color are too often denied access to.
Standardized tests have repeatedly been found to contain cultural biases. The process by which test questions are “normed” tends to eliminate questions that non-white students answer correctly in higher numbers. In New York, the number of Black students rated “below standard” jumped from 15.5% to 50% with the introduction of new Common Core tests. English learners did even worse – 84% tested “below standard” on the new tests. This sort of failure has devastating effects on students, and does not reflect their true abilities.
Violations of student privacy
Common Core tests are associated with the collection of unprecedented levels of data from individual students, with few safeguards for student privacy. These systems allow for-profit testing companies, and third party companies, access to information that could be used against the interests of students in the future.
However, if those problems weren’t enough there are a myriad of other ways that these high-stakes standardized tests are being used to perpetuate institutional racism. Perhaps the most curious omission from their letter is the fact that they assert that, “The anti-testing effort has called assessments anti-Black and compared them to the discriminatory tests used to suppress African-American voters during Jim Crow segregation,” yet they offer no rebuttal of the assertion that the standardized tests today share many of the characteristics of the discriminatory exams of the past. As a recent editorial by the social justice periodical Rethinking Schools asserted:
The United States has a long history of using intelligence tests to support white supremacy and class stratification. Standardized tests first entered the public schools in the 1920s, pushed by eugenicists whose pseudoscience promoted the “natural superiority” of wealthy, white, U.S.-born males. High-stakes standardized tests have disguised class and race privilege as merit ever since. The consistent use of test scores to demonstrate first a “mental ability” gap and now an “achievement” gap exposes the intrinsic nature of these tests: They are built to maintain inequality, not to serve as an antidote to educational disparities.
This is why some of the most prominent early voices of opposition to standardized testing in schools came from leading African American scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Horace Mann Bond, and Howard Long. Du Bois, one of the most important Black intellectuals in the history of the United States and a founding member of the NAACP, 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.”
The great educator and historian Horace Mann Bond, in his work “Intelligence Tests and Propaganda,” wrote this statement that so clearly reveals one of the primary flaws of standardized testing that persist to this day:
But so long as any group of men attempts to use these tests as funds of information for the approximation of crude and inaccurate generalizations, so long must we continue to cry, “Hold!” To compare the crowded millions of New York’s East Side with the children of Morningside Heights [an upper-class neighborhood at the time] indeed involves a great contradiction; and to claim that the results of the tests given to such diverse groups, drawn from such varying strata of the social complex, are in any wise accurate, is to expose a fatuous sense of unfairness and lack of appreciation of the great environmental factors of modern urban life.
Bond was expressing then what is today know as the “Zip Code Effect,”—the fact that what standardized tests really measure is a student’s proximity to wealth and the dominant culture, resulting in wealthier, and predominately whiter, districts scoring better on tests. Their scores do not reflect the intelligence of wealthier, mostly white students when compared to those of lower-income students and students of color, but do reflect the advantages that wealthier children have—books in the home, parents with more time to read with them, private tutoring, access to test-prep agencies, high-quality health care, and access to good food, to name a few. This is why attaching high-stakes to these exams only serves to exacerbate racial and class inequality.
This point was recently driven home by Boston University economics professors Olesya Baker and Kevin Lang’s 2013 study, “The School to Prison Pipeline Exposed.” In this peer-reviewed study they reveal that the increases in the use of high-stakes standardized high school exit exams are linked to higher incarceration rates. This landmark study should be a clarion call to everyone interested in ending mass incarceration to end the practice of high-stakes exit exams in high school and work towards authentic assessments.
A July, 2010 statement authored by many of the same civil rights organizations that penned the aforementioned letter titled, “Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn through Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” stated:
The practice of tracking students by perceived ability is a major civil rights obstacle…Ideally, we must provide opportunities for all students to prepare for college and careers without creating systems that lead to racially and regionally identifiable tracks, which offer unequal access to high-quality.
We agree with this statement and thank these civil rights organizations for raising concerns about the terrible effects of tracking on the public schools and the detriment that tracking has been to Black students, other students of color, and low-income students. We only want to emphasize that the standardized exams they are now defending are one of the most significant contributing factors to the tracking and racial segregation of students into separate and unequal programs and schools.
In that same “Framework” document the civil rights groups write:
Because public schools are critical community institutions especially in urban and rural areas, they should be closed only as a measure of last resort. And where a school district deems school closure necessary solely for budgetary or population reasons, the burdens cannot be allowed to fall disproportionately on our most vulnerable communities.
Again, we agree, but we want to point out that it is the use of test scores in labeling schools as “failing” that have contributed to clear cutting of schools that serve students of color in cities around the nation—most notably the closing of 50 schools in Chicago last year all in Black and Brown neighborhoods.
We call on the civil rights community to support the work of educators around the nation who are working to develop authentic forms of assessment that can be used to help support students to develop critical thinking. Innovative programs like New York City Consortium Schools have a wavier from state standardized tests and instead use performance based assessments that have produced dramatically better outcomes for all students, even though they have more special needs students than the general population—and have demonstrated higher graduation rates, better college attendance rates, and smaller racial divides in achievement than the rest of New York’s public schools.
Finally, we ask that you consider the rousing call to action against the new Common Core tests that was recently issued by the Seattle/King County NAACP chapter in the following statement:
It is the position of the Seattle King County Branch of the NAACP to come out against the Smarter Balanced Assessment tests, commonly referred to as SBAC. Seattle and Washington State public schools are not supplied with proper resources and a lack of equity within our schools continue to exist.
The State of Washington cannot hold teachers responsible for the outcome of students test results; when these very students are attending schools in a State that ranks 47th out of 50 States in the Nation when it comes to funding education. Furthermore, Washington State cannot expect the majority of students to perform well on increased targeted performance assessments while the State continues to underfund education in direct violation of a Washington State Supreme Court Order. We also know that our students of color are disproportionately underfunded and will disproportionately be labeled failing by the new SBAC test.
For this reason, we view the opt out movement as a vital component of the Black Lives Matter movement and other struggles for social justice. Using standardized tests to label Black people and immigrants as lesser—while systematically underfunding their schools—has a long and ugly history.
It is true we need accountability measures, but that should start with politicians be accountable to fully funding education and ending the opportunity gap. The costs tied to the test this year will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. If the State really wants students to achieve academic performance at higher levels these dollars should be put in our classrooms and used for our children’s academic achievement, instead of putting dollars in the pockets of test developers.
We urge families to opt out of the SBAC test and to contact their local and state officials to advise them to abide by the State Supreme Court McCleary decision to fully fund education.
–Rita Green, MBA; Seattle King County NAACP Education Chair
We join the Seattle NAACP in calling for true accountability for educational opportunities. For too long, our nation has labored under the illusion that “shining a light” on inequities is an adequate remedy. Inequitable opportunities are manifestly evident to anyone who cares to look. The use of tests for this purpose has become part of the problem, rather than a solution. We reiterate our support for parents and students who make the difficult choice to opt out of high stakes tests, and call on our nation’s leaders to shift policies away from these tests.
“Exceptional” –Publishers Weekly
“Arguments to win over even the most skeptical school reformer.” –Kirkus
As the opt out movement explodes nationwide, the tour for the new book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing has been generating inspiration, excitement, strategy, and tactics in the struggle against unfair testing across the county. Now there is a new video trailer, featuring several of the contributors, to help share the lessons of this book inspire resistance to the reduction of teaching and learning to a data point–please share it far and wide.
For too long the “testocracy,” mostly billionaires, politicians, and others with little or no background in teaching, have gotten away with using standardized testing to punish our nation’s youth and educators. Now students are walking out, parents are opting their children out, and teachers are refusing to administer these detrimental exams. In fact, the “reformers” today find themselves facing the largest revolt in US history against high-stakes, standardized testing.
More Than a Score is a collection of essays, poems, speeches, and interviews—accounts of personal courage and trenchant insights—from frontline fighters who are defying the corporate education reformers, often at great personal and professional risk, and fueling a national movement to reclaim and transform public education.
More Than a Score features the voices of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and grassroots education activists, including: Wayne Au, Carol Burris, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Sarah Chambers, Mallory Clarke, Jeanette Deutermann, Alma Flor Ada, Rosie Frascella, Alexia Garcia, Emily Giles, Helen Gym, Nikhil Goyal, Jesse Hagopian, Brian Jones, Alfie Kohn, Amber Kudla, John Kuhn, Jia Lee, Karen Lewis, Malcolm London, Barbara Madeloni, Cauldierre McKay, Mark Naison, Monty Neill, Diane Ravitch, Aaron Regunberg, Mary Cathryn D. Ricker, Stephanie Rivera, Kirstin Roberts, Peggy Robertson, Falmata Seid, Tim Shea, Phyllis Tashlik, Dao X. Tran
And see the video of the powerful discussion that followed the presentation: