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.
At a Martin Luther King Day protests this year I was assaulted by a Seattle police officer who pepper sprayed me in the face as I was on the phone with my mom, arranging plans for her to pick me up and take me to my son’s two-year-old birthday party. That day was deeply painful, and not only because of the burning in my ears, nostrils, and swollen eyes. What hurt the most was fear that I brought to my two sons who were deeply troubled watching me writhe in pain and pour milk on face to try to sooth the burning.
While I thought the worst of the emotional trauma was behind me, the news I received last week deeply injured me for a second time.
We finally found out that the officer who pepper sprayed me was Sandra Delafuente. An investigation by authorities sustained findings of unauthorized use of force and improper use of pepper spray against me and recommended that the officer be suspended for one day. But what really burned me is that the Chief of the Seattle Police, Kathleen O’Toole, agreed with the misconduct findings, but intervened to down grade the discipline to merely an oral reprimand.
I called a press conference to address this miscarriage of justice and was joined by City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, Councilmember Nick Licata, Black Lives Matter activist Nikkita Oliver, and Social Equality Educators board member Roberta Lindaman. Together we all made the case for real accountability for police — especially since the Seattle police department is under a federal consent decree after an investigation by the Department of Justice found officers routinely used excessive force and evidence of targeting people of color and biased policing.
After the press conference, I had the opportunity to address the Seattle City Council at a meeting they were holding to hear Chief O’Toole’s request for expanding the budget of the police department. I entered the Council Chambers and took a seat in the front row and looked to my right to see the Chief of Police sitting at the end of the row. When my name was called during the public testimony period, I didn’t want to get up. I knew those in power would not like the questions I planned to ask, and I have to admit I was scared. Breaking through the fear, I managed to stand up and walk to the podium. Looking up at the city’s elected officials I asked,
“Why [did] police Chief O’Toole downgrade the discipline for the officer who assaulted me? Why weren’t you all informed about her decision?…The larger question is: If our citizens who have definitive proof of police misconduct on video can’t get justice, then who can?”
When I was done, Chief O’Toole had to answer questions from the City Council about my case. But what stood out to me the most was her presentation asking for more funds for the Seattle Police Department. She began by projecting the mission statement of the Seattle Police Department:
1. Department Mission and Priorities:
It is the mission of the Seattle Police Department to address crime and improve quality of life through the delivery of constitutional and effective police services, and to do so in a way that reflects the values of our diverse neighborhoods.
- Restore Public Trust
- Restore SPD pride and Professionalism
- Address Crime and Quality of life Issues
- Promote Best Business Practices
I’ll let you read the following accounts in the media of what happened to me and Chief O’Toole’s response and decide for yourself if her actions in my case are fulfilling her mission:
TheStranger.com (blog) – Oct 8, 2015“My question for the council today is why police Chief O’Toole downgraded the discipline for the officer who assaulted me,” Hagopian said. “Why weren’t you all informed about her decision? He added: “The larger question is: If our citizens who have …
The Seattle Times – Oct 8, 2015“If somebody as well-known and well-respected as Jesse Hagopian receives this kind of treatment at the hands of police and is still waiting for justice, then I would want us to think about the kind of chilling effect this would have on other community …Seattle Weekly – Oct 8, 2015The pepper spraying occurred on January 19th, as Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian (whose previous involvement with the #BlackLivesMatter movement you can read about here) was returning home after addressing thousands of Martin Luther …KIRO Seattle – Oct 8, 2015The man who was pepper-sprayed is Jesse Hagopian, a prominent teacher and activist. “The searing pain is difficult to get out of my head,” Hagopian said. He had just given a speech during a Martin Luther King Day rally in January, when he says his …KING5.com – Oct 8, 2015Officer Sandra Delafuente was caught on tape pepper spraying Garfield High School teachers Jesse Hagopian at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day demonstration this year. The Office of Professional Accountability recommended a suspension for Delafuente.
Crosscut – Oct 8, 2015
Mere weeks after the Whitlach firing, though, O’Toole is under fire for recommending a lighter punishment for Officer Sandy Delafuente who was filmed pepper spraying Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian at a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
Photos by Sarah Lang
It was May of 2014. I had just picked up my son from his wonderful play-based preschool, and, as we headed home, I turned on the radio. Usually, my son would demand that I “turn off the boring news” and put on his favorite break beats for the ride home—and usually he’d get his way. But this time, a story in a series called “No Time for Play” by public radio education reporter Anne Dornfeld grabbed my son’s attention when he heard her start talking about a study showing recess times in Seattle Public Schools were shrinking.
We learned that when the study began four years earlier, only one Seattle school reported an average recess time of 20 minutes or less per day. During the 2013-2014 school year, some 11 schools offered such paltry recess (and it’s only gotten worse since then). Anne’s story pointed out that the schools with the least amount of recess had high concentrations of students of color and low-income students.
Because my son’s preschool educated me about the incredible value of play in childhood development, this news distressed me in the same way a kid feels when he is held in from recess on a sunny day. Also, with my son entering kindergarten in the Seattle Public Schools the next fall, I knew I had to do something about it.
I began by doing a survey of the research on the benefits of recess for childhood development, and it was definitive. Among many benefits, free play is critical to children developing skills I believe are the most important for young children to develop: cooperating, sharing, and solving problems.
Then I looked at trends in recess time around the country. What I discovered was similar to the experience of watching a kid pull back an Elmo Band-aid to reveal a festering skinned knee from falling on the asphalt. Seattle was following a national trend in reducing recess time in primary grades as school districts bend to federal mandates to raise test scores.
I had been organizing for some time against destructive high-stakes standardized testing and the policies of the No Child Left Behind act, Race to the Top, and the Common Core standards that have been used to promote test-and-punish schooling. But my activism took on new meaning when I discovered that, according to the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play, as many as 40 percent of school districts in the United States have reduced recess since the implementation of No Child Left Behind act.
I used this research to inform a resolution I brought to my union, the Seattle Education Association (SEA), calling on our union to form a joint task force with the Seattle Public Schools to work on expanding recess across the district. The motion passed overwhelmingly. Even though there was never any follow through—the task force never happened—raising the issue in the union helped to raise awareness of the issue.
Next, I wrote an op-ed that was published in the Seattle Times that outlined the disappearance of recess in Seattle, summarized the research on the benefits of free play, and publicized the educators’ vote in support of expanded recess. I concluded with:
“Controlled experiments by researchers Catherine Bohn-Gettler and Anthony Pellegrini show that recess improves children’s attention to academic tasks. Moreover, recess is a critical factor in a student’s social and emotional well-being. Recess facilitates children’s social development by allowing for cooperation and conflict resolution during unstructured free play, critical for helping children develop the necessary qualities for strong friendships….As another school year gets under way, remember the words of Albert Einstein: ‘Play is the highest form of research.’ My 5-year-old is set to begin a grand research endeavor.
Let our kids play.”
What happened in the next few days was as joyous as a spontaneous game of leapfrog on the playground. When Whittier Elementary School announced plans to reduce the combined lunch and recess time from 40 minutes to 30, parents and students there set a new social movement in motion when they voiced their objection. Their protest gained important media attention.
“My younger elementary student was coming home cranky with an uneaten lunch. So I looked into her schedule and it was 15 minutes to eat, followed by 15 minutes recess,” Whittier parent Sarah Lang told me later. “This was shocking for me, a child of the ’70s in Europe. I had always used the term ‘lunch hour’ and presumed that was standard. Parents drop their kids off at school trusting that they will be cared for, that they will have their basic human needs met with time to eat and play, but this was not the case and we were completely unaware.”
Then Jana Robins, a mom at Leshi Elementary School, began a petition for more recess time, which quickly garnered hundreds of signatures from parents across Seattle. Jana wrote about her decision to launch this petition:
“The ‘No Time to Play’ news story highlighted the huge inequity of recess time across the school district, with schools of highest need having the least amount of recess. Jesse Hagopian published an op-ed in the Seattle Times also decrying the recess inadequacies and inequities. Quickly it became clear that this was a district led problem that needed a district led solution. Bolstered by the similar sentiments of other Seattle Public School families, and the clear evidence of child experts touting the benefits of outdoor recess, we decided to give voice to all the students, parents, teachers, and medical professionals by launching the Save Seattle Recess petition calling for a district-wide recess policy.”
Next, Whittier parent Deb Escher hosted a meeting of parents from both ends of the city to launch a new organization, Lunch and Recess Matter. We all discussed how to best organize to make ample time to eat and play a reality in the Seattle Public Schools. With our new organization formed, parents got right to work defending play.
Parents’ research discovered that Seattle Public Schools policy H61.01 states, “Meal periods shall be long enough for students to eat and socialize—a minimum of 20 minutes to eat lunch with additional time as appropriate for standing in line.” This was a vindication of the assertion parents made that students at the end of long lunch lines—the longest in schools with a high percentage of free and reduced lunch—weren’t getting enough time to eat.
Parents also discovered there were no policies protecting recess. Parents demanded meetings with district officials to question why there wasn’t a policy, and it became clear recess was not valued on its own merits—seen as just extra time, perhaps partly to give teachers their required 30 minutes of lunch.
The research team also discovered that the neighboring school district of Tacoma did have a recess policy in place, which gave everyone confidence that it was not impossible to achieve.
Parents began contacting local community organizations and building awareness through social media. The also started a Lunch and Recess Matter Facebook page which quickly garnered thousands of members.
Then, the parent, student, and teacher organizing game climbed to new heights. We planned our first rally for lunch and recess at the November 5, 2014 school board meeting. TV cameras rolled and the press clicked off photos of young kids and their parents in the lobby of the Seattle school district headquarters waving green sings that read, “Let them play!” “Let them eat!” and “Equal lunch.”
One young redheaded boy, whose green poster board had an adorable smile scrawled on it, held up the message, “I don’t have time to chew.” One upper elementary girl had a green heart painted on her check, and the sign in her hand read, “We heart Recess.” The pure elation of these kids protest-playing made for the happiest demonstration I have ever been to.
When the school board meeting was gaveled in, the parent and student testimony was explosive.
One parent reveled that an audit conducted by parents in the Lunch and Recess Matter group over the last couple of weeks found some 50 schools in Seattle did not adhere to their own policy requiring a minimum of 20 min of time to eat. One Parent described how, at one school, students at the back of the lunch line had only five minuets to scarf their food before the bell rang.
I began my remarks to the board by quoting Fred Rogers (or Mr. Rogers, as he was popularly known on his TV show) who said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” And I went on to explain how the reduction of recess is correlated to the pressures of high-stakes testing that have come to dominate education.
A student from a south end elementary school talked about recess, the wiggles, and how much fun it is to play. Another parent delivered over 1,600 signatures that were collected (at the time) on the Save Recess petition.
The most powerful testimony came from a parent who was an African immigrant. He gave a first hand account of what it feels like to be starving and told the school board it was unacceptable that his son didn’t receive enough time to eat and is then asked to throw away his food. He relayed to the board that he told his son that he was not allowed to throw the food away and a teacher would have to do it for him. He demanded that the school district allow his son the time he needed not to waste food.
That winter, the organizing effort continued. Students at one school organized their own petition and got all the kids to sign it. Parents continued to demand answers from district officials, to organize, and to conduct research.
All of that pressure resulted in the Head of Nutrition Services for Seattle public schools to ask a cohort of University of Washington Nutritional Sciences Masters Students to study plate waste and nutritious food consumption as it relates to the amount of time to eat at eight schools with high reduced lunch populations in Seattle.
“Their findings were what you would expect,” Robbins told me. “Schools with the longest amounts of ‘seated’ time to eat had the highest consumption of healthy foods, and the least amount of plate waste.” Schools with recess before lunch also had healthier food consumption and less waste. These observations also supported our claims that students do not get nearly 20 minutes to eat lunch. One of the schools they observed had as little as 7 minutes seated time to eat. The average time across the 8 schools was 13 minutes.
With much more evidence and support, the Lunch and Recess Matter group organized another protest in March of 2015 to keep the pressure on the district. This time that joyous feeling from the first meeting was replaced with the hardened determination of a kid staring down a bully. Parents were now exasperated with a school district that had shown it was willing to disregard its own lunchtime requirement and talked in vague generalities about the “possibility” of adopting a recess policy—in three years or so.
The end of last school year concluded with many of the parents in Lunch and Recess Matter dispirited. Parents had expected that once they showed the school district how they were violating their own policies and proposed solutions, the district would find ways to remedy the situation. Instead parents felt stymied. Intentionally.
Then over the summer, the Seattle Education Association revealed a ground breaking set of demands it was pushing for in contract negotiations with the district that included forming race and equity teams in every school, reducing the use of high-stakes standardized testing, and…a demand of 45 minutes recess in every elementary school.
The school district waited until late August to reply to these proposals and then rejected each without comment. With only a few days before school was supposed to start, a strike looked imminent. The SEA organized a general membership meeting of all the educators in Seattle where they voted unanimously to authorize a strike should the school district not capitulate.
And then it happened.
On Saturday, September 5, the union’s negotiating team announced that the school district had backed down and agreed to a minimum of 30 minutes of recess in every elementary school. It was “sleepless in Seattle” for many of us who celebrated “recess Seattle” that evening.
While the district’s concession wasn’t the 45 minutes the union had demanded, and is short of what students deserve, and not in compliance with state law, it was clearly a victory for the relentless organizing done by parents, students, and teachers during the prior year.
As elementary school teacher and SEA bargaining team member Michael Tamayo told me, “The most important action was for people out in the community to work with our union to craft enforceable contract language and to keep the issue in the public’s eye.”
Because the school district didn’t back down on the rest of SEA’s demands, the union did organize its 5,000 members on a weeklong strike that gained massive community support and won a groundbreaking contract. Thousands of parents joined in solidarity with the teachers, including the celebrated Soup for Teachers group that brought sustenance and solidarity to picket lines at every school in the district. Student marching bands used their pep-band anthems to cheer on striking educators, and local businesses donated to the picket lines.
In the end, the unity of parents and educators won a contract that included race and equity teams in 30 schools, an end to the use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations, a cap on the amount of students for school psychologists and other Education Support Associates—and, of course, the precious 30 minutes of recess.
We are still fighting for a policy to make recess happen before lunch so that there isn’t the pressure to eat too fast to squeeze in a few minutes of recess. We are still fighting for an adequate amount of lunchtime. And we know our kids could use even more recess. A recent follow-up story by reporter Dornfeld found that in the early 1960s, Seattle Public schools offered as much as 95 minutes of lunch and recess time. So, in many ways, our movement has just begun.
To be sure, we achieved a real victory, but not one exclusively found in the sub-clauses of the contract. When the school year finally started after the five-day strike delay, my son began the first grade. Of course I asked him that first day back how recess went. He told me that on the playground he had tried to learn how to walk on top of a giant ball, like some of the older kids on the school acrobatic team. He told me the big kids were helping him, but he wasn’t going to be able to learn how to ball walk this year because, “It’s just too scary.”
Last week when I got home, my son came running to the door yelling, “I walked on top of the ball today Daddy, I wasn’t scared!”
The real victory was in all of us—children and adults alike—learning about the power of collaboration in creating confidence. That kind of collective confidence can lead to breakthroughs on the playground and in education policy.
Jesse Hagopian is Seattle Fellow of the Progressive Education Fellows
Education Secretary Duncan Steps Down!: Raise a toast with me this evening, and let’s drink to downfall of the whole testocracy
Arne Duncan has been one of the most destructive forces to public education in the history of our country.
Duncan was appointed by President Obama as the Secretary of Education, but his real role has been “testocracy tsar”–as his signature policies of Race to the Top and Common Core have been singularly focused on promoting high-stakes, standardized test-and-punish policies in service of the privatization and charterization of the public schools. One of the most cruel aspects of Duncan’s legacy was his pronouncement that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans”–coupled with his celebration of the fact that because of Katrina, 100 percent of the New Orleans schools were converted to charter schools. Duncan’s initiatives have been designed to reduce the intellectual and emotional process of teaching and learning to a single score that can be used to close schools, fire teachers, stop students from graduating, and siphon more and more money out of the public schools towards privatized charter operators.
For that reason, I hope you will raise a toast with me this evening–let’s say at 6pm Pacific time, and make it a collective action–at Duncan’s announcement today that he will step down from his post in December.
To be sure, the proposed replacement for Duncan, John King, will only serve as a new testocracy tsar with a proven track record of supporting corporate education reform. As Long Island opt out leader Jeanette Deutermann said of John 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.”
Still, it’s worth marking the departure of Duncan–someone whose policies have damaged so many children across the country–as we continue planning to do away with the testocracy all together.
During the summer of 2010, several other educators and I obtained an in person meeting with Secretary Duncan–so when I say that I am celebrating his departure, I base that not only on having followed Duncan very closely in the news, but also on how he failed to adequately answer my direct challenge to him about how his policies were designed to favor corporate reformers over children. When Secretary Duncan came to deliver a speech in my home state of Washington, I joined a throng of protesting teachers who picked his appearance and his corporate reform policies. As we rallied outside the high school, the event planners 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. Those thirty or so minuets with the Secretary sealed my understanding of just how hurtful his policies are.
Check out the essay I wrote, “Schooling Arne Duncan,” that details our encounter with the Secretary. Then raise your glass with me.
“Hi, Arne. My name is Jesse Hagopian.”
As I locked eyes and firmly shook hands, I wondered if my years of teaching would be enough to help the freshman Secretary of Education gain the knowledge and skills he would need.
[read the rest of the story on Common Dreams, at: http://www.commondreams.org/views/2010/07/21/schooling-arne-duncan ]