Monthly Archives: May, 2014

The Garfield High School Assessment Committee VS the Testocracy: We know how to run the schools better than billionaires

On Thursday of last week I attended a meeting of the Garfield High School Assessment Committee.

A report on one of many after school meetings may seem mundane.  A committee of educators tasked with discussing assessment might appear innocuous.  Yet that gathering of fifteen or so educators sharing their experience, expertise, and asking questions about alternatives to standardized testing was nothing short of sedition against a Testocracy that has attempted to silence teachers as it implements corporate education reform.

This team of dedicated educators forming the Garfield High School Assessment Committee was born out of the MAP test boycott last school year, which resulted in the Seattle School District backing away from its threat of suspending the boycotting teachers and ultimately—a year ago this month—forced the district to make the test optional at the high school level.  From the very beginning of the MAP boycott, teachers at Garfield High School asserted that our strike against the test had nothing to do with shirking accountability to our students’ learning.  We said that assessments are essential to teachers to help us understand where the student is in their zone of proximal development in order to scaffold their learning to advance their understanding of a given concept. And many of us simultaneously asserted that standardized testing, and the MAP test in particular, is a clumsy form of assessment that often hides more than it reveals about student knowledge–particularly the thought process and how a student arrived at particular answer.  Worse, these tests primarily assess students’ ability to eliminate wrong answer choices and are too puny an instrument to measure collaboration, passion, imagination and a myriad of other qualities that are vital to the development of the whole child.

The Assessment Committee began the meeting by asking teachers why they were at the meeting and what types of assessments they were interested in learning about.  As the list grew on the white board, so too did my confidence that collaboration of educators could enhance the education of our students–and that our collective action to assert the power of authentic assessment could serve as a beacon to educators around the country looking to reclaim classrooms from a Testocracy intent on grafting a business model onto education that reduces the intellectual process of teaching and learning a single score. Some of these teachers’ ideas included:

  • Project-based learning coupled with performance-based assessment
  • Interdisciplinary studies along with portfolios
  • Student generated rubrics to assess their own work
  • Students taking group assessments
  • Teachers working collectively to assess student work

As my colleague Rachel Eells told the Times, “The MAP protest was really just the start of a deeper dialogue about how to we assess students in a meaningful way and how we use assessments to meaningfully inform instruction.” Garfield’s Assessment Committee has been meeting regularly all year and recently reported back to the staff at Garfield High School about a partnership our school has formed with a network of schools called the New York Performance Standards Consortium that has a waiver from the New York Regents exams and instead utilizes a sophisticated method of Performance Based Assessment. The Seattle Times recently ran an article about Garfield High School’s partnership with the New York Performance Standards Consortium,”New way to test? Garfield teachers explore New York model.” 

I first became aware of the Consortium schools while attending a conference of the Advancement Project in Washington, D.C. last year.  I had the pleasure of attending a panel with two teachers and a student who explained the power of their approach to performance based assessments that allowed students to do research over time, develop a thesis, and present their findings to a panel comprised of teachers, administrators, parents and community members.  The student spoke movingly to how this approach to evaluation helped rescue the importance of school for him, and the teachers revealed that the Consortium Schools have higher graduation rates as compared with other demographically similar public schools in New York.  After the presentation, I was delighted to meet the student and teachers, and they expressed their support for the MAP test boycott. Avram Barlowe, one of the founding teachers of the Consortium Schools asked me if Garfield teachers would be interested in attending workshops at the New York Performance Standards Consortium.

Avram then put me in touch with Phyllis Tashlik, one of the directors of the program, and over the course of the year our principal and a few of our teachers have made multiple trips to the Consortium Schools and have brought back with them invaluable insights into the learning process and assessment methods. This is what real education reform looks like: educators collaborating to share best practices to retake their profession from billionaires and their flunkies who know little about the craft of teaching.

RESPECT is on the Rise: I lost my bid for SEA union president by 45 votes, but the Social Equality Educators have never been stronger!

Thanks to everyone for your support for the Social Equality Educator’s (SEE) RESPECT campaign in the recent Seattle Education Association (SEA) union election!  Our campaign generated more excitement than ever before–both inside the union and among social justice and education thought leaders who supported my run for president of the union. In the end, I came up just 45 votes short of becoming the next president of the SEA, in the biggest voter turnout in our union’s history. Given that no one I have spoken to can remember an incumbent being unseated in SEA history, and that I received more votes than were cast in the entire last election, it is clear that there is a new upsurge occurring in our union. I gave this interview to KUOW, Seattle’s local NPR affiliate the day after the election summing up the results and laying out SEE’s vision for schools.

While it’s tough to lose by such a close margin, I am thrilled by the many accomplishments of this campaign.

SEE RESPECT candidates swept the high school Executive Board positions in the SEA, split the middle school seats, and won 6 seats overall! Dan Troccoli, the SEE candidate for treasurer, is in a special runoff election, the outcome of which we find out on June 4th. (Please support our efforts by donating to Dan’s campaign!).

Yet our campaign for RESPECT accomplished much more than just getting candidates elected.

SEE set out with a goal of getting over 50% of the members to participate in the election–and we surpassed our goal, with over 53% of members voting! We said from the beginning that the most important element of a strong union is an active membership, regardless of who is running the union.  The SEA is becoming more active than ever and SEE is proud to have helped sparked discussions and debates that have greatly aided in members’ taking a greater interest in how to best organize our union.  While there certainly have been some initiatives that the current SEA leadership have undertaken that have helped engage members (such as one-on-on listening sessions with members), there is no doubt that SEE is playing a vital role in activating the rank-and-file of the union around the key eduction issues of the day such as standardized testing, racial justice and the opportunity gap, and teacher evaluations.

In building after building across Seattle, candidates from the SEE’s RESPECT slate explained our vision to hundreds of SEA members: The contract educators deserve, the schools our children deserve, and the city our families deserve.

We said that the contract we deserve would set caseload caps for our counselors and other Education Support Associates (ESAs)—something the district has repeatedly promised would happen at some future date and something our union has continually backed down on. We said that the contract we deserve would have fair and sustainable teacher evaluations that were not dependent on unreliable, curriculum-narrowing standardized tests. Unfortunately, in contract negotiations SEA allowed Seattle to became the only city in the entire state to allow two measures of student growth in educators’ evaluations, including the use of state standardized tests scores.

The RESPECT campaign argued that the schools our children deserve would replace zero tolerance disciplinary procedures, which have resulted in African American students being suspended at five times the rate of their white peers, with restorative justice models designed to help students solve their problems collectively. We asserted that the schools students deserve would provide a holistic education that supports educators in promoting a multicultural education that is explicitly anti-racist, challenges gender bias, and undermines homophobia.  And we said that our union has partner with parents to make a public campaign during contract negotiations around lowering class size to achieve the individual attention our students deserve.

We were also able to make an argument during this election for the role our schools play in the overall health of our city, and lay out a strategy for our union to play a more proactive role in the issues—such as a $15 minimum wage, affordable transportation, and affordable housing—that impact the families we serve.

Most importantly, in this election the Social Equality Educators helped to popularize a program which asserted that our union is strongest when we partner with parents and community organizations in a common struggle to defend public education from corporate education reformers. This idea was put into practice during last year’s boycott of the MAP test, when we built a broad-based coalition that included the Garfield PTSA, the Seattle/King County NAACP, Parents Across America, the Garfield Student Body Government, hundreds of educators, and many others in the community. The overwhelmingly positive response we received from teachers around the district to this strategy of coalition building shows the great potential for joining public education stakeholders in a common struggle.

The Social Equality Educators have only just begun in our quest for social movement unionism to achieve social justice inside and outside the classroom.

Front Page Seattle Times Article on SEA election: “Politics plays role in teachers union vote for president”

The Seattle Times ran an important front page article today on the current election in the Seattle Education Association (SEA), “Politics plays role in teachers union vote for president”. I am running for President of SEA on the RESPECT ticket, a slate of social justice educators.  YouDeserveRespect

The main criticism of our campaign cited in the article is that we have too many endorsements from outside the union–which only highlights how much support we have in the community and among social justice advocates. It should also be noted that we have scores of endorsements from leading educators in schools across Seattle. The most important part of the article is the end where the difference between our two campaigns is driven home when it is revealed that the incumbent leadership is endorsed by the pro-charter school/pro-standardized testing, Gates Foundation-backed reformer organization, Teachers United.  Of course, Teachers United has a right to express their ideas in a fair and open debate.  However, if the vast majority of the union membership believes that corporate reform policies of privatizing education and reducing teaching and learning to a test scores is harmful to public education–as we have expressed in numerous votes in the SEA–then we need a union that more rigorously opposes these harmful policies.

I would have liked to see more information in the article about our entire slate of candidates on the RESPECT ticket–including the great Marian Wagner, running for Vice President, and Dan Troccoli, running for Treasurer.  I would have also liked to have seen a more substantive discussion of the political points that are being debated in this election. Most notably absent from the article was our criticism of the contract that SEA negotiated with the District that made far too many concessions for educators–such as not getting caseload caps for our counselors and allowing Seattle to become the only city in Washington state to allow two measures of “student growth” (including state test scores) in teacher evaluations.  Finally, I would have liked to have seen some of the points of the SEE RESPECT  platform highlighted, such as our dedication to combating institutional racism by advocating for a restorative justice approach to discipline replacing zero tolerance polices that have resulted in dramatically disproportion discipline used to punishing African American students.

Still, the article raises the important issues of school closures and the over use of standardized testing–and pointed out that these are movements I have been a part of for many years.  Because these are issues that educators in Seattle care deeply about, this article should help to increase voter turnout in the election–a prerequisite to a an engaged and activated membership, one of the primary objectives of ours in the campaign.

Those of us on the SEE RESPECT ticket in the election know that our union needs to become more powerful in its defense  of public education.

You can support our efforts to revive social justice unionism to defend public education by:

1) Sharing our campaign with every educator you know–on Facebook, Twitter, email, and beyond.

3) Remind a Seattle educator to vote before Wednesday, May 7th.

Thanks to everyone for all your support! 

 

 

The New Conscientious Test Objectors at International High School in NYC!

A couple of days ago a New York area code popped up on my cell phone. I didn’t recognize the number—but when a teacher on the other end of line said that she was organizing a testing boycott at her high school, I certainly recognized the situation.

Emily Giles, a teacher at International High School at Prospect Heights, told me about a standardized test that was disrespecting the schools’ English Language Learner (ELL) students’ cultural and linguistic diversity. She told me about ELL students who were brought to tears during the fall pre-test administration of the exam because of the level of English used was far above the level of beginner ELLs—and thus provided very little useful feedback for the teachers. Emily told me about a test that some 50% of the parents were already set to opt out of. And she told me of the dedicated educators who were no longer willing to see their students humiliated or their profession degraded by the abuses of the NYC ELA Performance Assessment Test.

Similar conditions arose in Seattle last year when my colleagues at Garfield High School refused to administer the MAP test—and succeed in making the test optional for high schools. When I spoke to Emily, it was clear that she and her coworkers had already set in motion all the key components to a successful direct action campaign against the tests. We discussed how there are no guarantees about the outcome when you engage in civil disobedience, but that because her colleagues had built such a strong base of support among teachers and parents, if the staff truly felt that they could not administer this test in good conscience, I thought it was worth taking this stand for her students.

I checked in with her last night as she was preparing for the press conference today to see how she was holding up. I remember the fear vividly—the cold sweats and sleepless nights—I had when we prepared to announce that Garfield would refuse to administer the MAP test, and I figured she could use some support. What she told me let me know that these teachers are ready to take a bite out of the Big Apple. She said,

I’m feeling a little nervous, very excited, and completely inspired by the people I work with.  I’m feeling really happy and honored to work with people who are so passionate about what they do, and care so deeply what happens in our classrooms and the lives of the young people we work with.

From Seattle, to Chicago, to New York City, teachers are defending their students and reclaiming their humanity by refusing to be reduced to a test score.

Today is May Day—international workers’ day. There is no better way to celebrate the struggles of workers today than by supporting these courageous educators at the first high school in New York City to boycott a standardized test by signing on to the petition in their defense.

Today is also my late Grandfather’s birthday. Happy Birthday Grandpa Chuck! Chuck was a conscientious objector during WWII. I said to him once near the end of his life, “Weren’t you afraid of how your peers and society would look at you for not going to fight in the war? That must have been a hard decision.” He paused before he spoke and I have never seen my gentle, soft-spoken grandfather look so fierce. To be honest, his look gave me a scare. Then he replied, “No it wasn’t hard at all. What would have been hard would have been to kill someone.”

That same gentle fierceness of spirit burns within the conscientious test objectors at International High School at Prospect Heights.

Don’t give up. And when you reach the end of your life, you will look back in certainty at having made the only choice you could have: Following your convictions in pursuit of justice.

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