Author Archive: I AM AN EDUCATOR

“The reforms are introduced with blood”–A Oaxaca teacher on the life and death struggle against the testocracy

The teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico have been setting the international standard for social movement unionism and the defense of public education for many years.

In her 2005 release of Granito de Arena, my friend, award-winning Seattle filmmaker Jill Freidberg, captured the story of hundreds of thousands of public schoolteachers in Oaxaca who have built a powerful grassroots movement, endured brutal repression over some 25-years of struggle for social and economic justice in Mexico’s public schools.

In 2013, when teachers at my school refused to administer the MAP test as an act of defiance to the corporate education reform test-and-punish agenda, I was worried about the consequences that such an action could have. I also remember talking with other teachers about the fact that if the teachers in Oaxaca could build barricades in the streets to defend their schools from corporate takeover, we could manage to organize the MAP boycott. And, in fact, teachers from Oaxaca came to our aid, writing the Seattle boycotting teachers a letter of solidarity.

Today, the struggle to stop the abuses of standardized testing of teachers and other corporate reforms in Oaxaca has literally become a life and death struggle with police officers brutally gunning downing at least eight protesters, including community members and teachers (for information about sending letters of protest, please visit the NPE site).

My good friend Shane Dillingham recently moved to Oaxaca, Mexico where he is working on a book about the history of indigenous struggle in the region.   Shane conducted this remarkable interview for Jacobin magazine with René González Pizarro, a Oaxacan teacher and union member, to discuss the impact of corporate education reform, union democracy and this history of his local 22 in the struggle for social justice.

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"The reforms are introduced with blood," mural in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2016. A. S. Dillingham

“The reforms are introduced with blood,” mural in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2016. A. S. Dillingham

Ten years ago, as a group of striking teachers slept in their encampment during the early hours of June 14 in the state capital of Oaxaca, Mexico, government forces launched an attack to remove them from the zócalo, or town square. Riot police cleared the plaza while helicopters dropped tear gas from above.

The striking teachers were beaten, arrested, and pushed out of the city center. But not for long; the teachers and their supporters quickly regrouped, fighting back, block by block, and took the plaza back by midday.

The violent repression of striking teachers in 2006, ordered by the state governor, launched a social movement — called the “Oaxaca Commune” by supporters — that grew to encompass much more than the local teachers’ union.

The movement mobilized large swathes of Oaxacan society against the repressive governor. Aggressive federal intervention hobbled the movement, but failed to wipe it out. Today the dissident teachers’ movement is in the streets again, this time in opposition to the federal government’s “education reform” program.

The teacher’s movement is also more widespread than in 2006. Militarized attacks on striking teachers have occurred in Mexico City and throughout the country’s southern states. In the last month, the state of Chiapas has seen pitched battles between teachers and police forces, and the Zapatistas have spoken out in favor of the striking teachers.

Last week the Mexican attorney general’s office arrested two of the leaders of the Oaxacan section of the teachers’ union, Local 22, on corruption charges. Then on June 19, federal and state police attacked protesters in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, a town on the highway between the state capital and Mexico City, resulting in the death of at least eight protesters.

The blatant attack on outspoken government opponents unleashed a wave of protests in the state capital in response.

2006–2016. Street graffiti in Oaxaca City, commemorating the ongoing teachers’ struggle. Shane Dillingham / Jacobin

It’s become somewhat of a cliché to describe the situation in Mexico as a “crisis.” Indeed, la crisis is frequently satirized in Mexican film and popular culture, with Mexicans unsure when the last crisis ended and the next began.

Yet it’s true that in Mexico has experienced a wave of tragedies since 2006. Over one hundred thousand thousand people have died, over twenty-five thousand have been disappeared, and more than one hundred journalists have been killed in the decade since former president Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels.

Some of the crisis’s numbers are unforgettable. The forty-nine children burned to death in a government-outsourced daycare center without safety protections in the northern state of Sonora in 2009; the seventy-two migrants found in a collective grave in the state of Tamaulipas in 2010; and most recently the 2014 disappearance of forty-three Ayotzinapa Normal School students in the southern state of Guerrero. Tragedy’s numbers are a defining part of daily life and conversation in Mexico.

Enrique Peña Nieto’s election in 2012, coming after years of drug-war-related violence, was seen by many as a possible reprieve, a return to the nostalgic days of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rule when governance was at least stable, if not democratic or transparent.

Yet President Peña Nieto’s sexenio (six-year term) has been marked by continued mass violence, corruption, and impunity at seemingly all levels of government. From shady government contracts in Mexico City, to his wife’s extravagant home paid for by dubious means, to the flagrant and repeated government lies over the forty-three missing students, Peña Nieto’s popularity has plummeted.

Recent state-level elections saw the PRI lose power in a number of its former strongholds. Mayors in Mexico are targeted by cartels, in a way that suggests they are siphoning funds directly from the state, in addition to drug and human trafficking.

The multiple captures and escapes of “El Chapo” Guzman, the infamous drug trafficker, lent credence to the popular belief among many Mexicans that the line between the traffickers and the state is blurry, at best.

Peña Nieto’s 2013 education reform plan — the piece of legislation under contention today — is just one component of a broader set of structural reforms pushed through by the president and the PRI.

While other reforms — such as the partial privatization of the state-run oil company, PEMEX, and corporate tax reform — have been relatively successful (on their own terms), the education initiative has proven the most difficult to implement, sparking opposition by not only the dissident section of the teachers’ union, the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), but also broader sectors of the national teachers’ union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE).

This opposition and the militarized approach of the government employed to implement the reforms, with thousands of federal police securing teacher testing sites, has led the international press, much of which until recently was supportive of Peña Nieto, to declare him a failure.

The education reform is better understood as an attack on labor. Much like the discourse of recent education reform movements in the United States, the Mexican reformers invoke notions of “accountability” and “quality” instruction.

But the reform itself contains numerous measures aimed at undermining the power of teachers’ unions including measures that weaken the union’s control of the hiring process at normal schools (which they historically controlled), eliminate teachers’ ability to pass down a position to their children, make it easier to fire teachers who miss work, and limit the number of union positions paid by the state.

These measures are all directly aimed at undermining the union’s power, but the central point of contention has been the evaluation of teachers through state-administered standardized tests.

At the end of last year, teachers across Mexico sat down for new nationwide teacher evaluations. In Oaxaca, the scene outside the testing site resembled a military exercise.

Ten thousand federal police were deployed to facilitate the administration of the evaluations, reflecting both the federal government’s desire to see their reform implemented as well as the widespread opposition to the new law.

Oaxaca is home to one of the most outspoken union locals in Mexico, Local 22, a member of the dissident CNTE movement — a movement that emerged in the late 1970s in opposition to the authoritarian, PRI-aligned SNTE.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the CNTE struggled against entrenched PRI control of union locals, with newly minted indigenous teachers playing a key role in southern states such as Oaxaca and Chiapas. The CNTE has remained a powerful force and controls, in addition to Local 22, sections of union locals in Michoacán, Guerrero, Chiapas, and the Federal District (Mexico City).

Given Local 22’s historic militancy, the state’s response was not surprising. Yet similar scenes of police coercion played out across the country, alongside a massive media campaign denouncing the dissident teachers’ union as self-interested and corrupt.

Historian A. S. Dillingham sat down with René González Pizarro, a Oaxacan teacher and member of Local 22, as well as a former delegate to its assembly, to discuss the nature of the reforms, the government’s strategy, and the history and culture of Local 22.


Can you first tell us a little about your own experience as a teacher? Why did you choose the teaching profession?

My professional training was originally in graphic design, but I’ve been immersed in the education world ever since I can remember. Actually, as a baby I was part of the teachers’ demonstrations of the 1980s and I remember that as a six- or seven-year-old I’d chant along with the slogans of the teachers.

After eight years teaching in private schools, I entered Local 22 thanks to my father. One of the benefits of the union members (eliminated by the recent reform) was the ability to inherit the position of one’s parents upon their retirement, as long as one had initiated their teacher training.

My father was in the indigenous education system, so I started there, with lowest category of promotor bilingüe or bilingual promoter. These positions were created in the 1970s and it is the category I continue to hold.

I started work in an indigenous boarding school in Coixtlahuaca, a rural, mountainous region in the western half of the state.

Let’s begin with the June 19 attacks on the teachers’ blockade in Nochixtán.

The federal and state police’s recent violence merely demonstrates the total obstinacy and refusal to negotiate on the government’s part. The teachers’ movement and much of the public generally have spoken out against the structural reforms, not just the against the education program.

On Sunday, the federal police first denied their use of live ammunition against demonstrators. Then later, after the confirmation of the first two dead, the secretary of government claimed it wasn’t police who fired, and said the photographs of police firing assault rifles were from another date and time.

But the media reaction was quick and the Associated Press confirmed the photographs of police firing on crowds were indeed from that Sunday and not manipulated.

Finally, at a press conference late that afternoon, the police admitted to their use of live ammunition.

Protesters carry a banner featuring "The Virgin of the Barricades" on June 14, 2016 to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the Oaxacan social movement. Shane Dillingham / Jacobin

The key from the government’s point of view has been the implementation of last year’s teacher evaluations. More than ten thousand federal police arrived in Oaxaca to facilitate the new evaluations.

The state government and Ministry of Education claimed it was a success. How do you view what took place with the evaluations?

The new state education ministry (IEEPO), which was legally reconstituted during the summer of 2015 to weaken the union’s control, has been trying to legitimize itself since its restructuring last July.

They’ve begun a series of actions, particularly on social media, to try to show that the Oaxacan teachers wanted to get rid of the “yoke” of the union.

On social media they have bombarded Oaxacans with messages like, “The new IEEPO is better, nothing remains in the union’s hands, now union coercion is no longer needed to access labor rights, the evaluation isn’t meant to take peoples’ jobs, now children will have all their classes.”

But the message is funny, if not ironic, in the face of the deployment of federal forces, not just in Oaxaca but in other states where the CNTE hasn’t had much presence.

Two or three years ago, before the reforms began in earnest, many non-CNTE teachers in the rest of the country viewed the evaluations as a good thing. (Actually some Oaxacan teachers did, as well.)

But with the full implementation of the reform there has been an upturn in the scale of opposition to it. Even in places where one hasn’t seen teacher protests before, one sees them now; the state of Jalisco and the state of Mexico are clear examples of this.

You mentioned the “new IEEPO” and what took place last July when the state government legally abolished — with the support of the federal police — the previous education ministry, in order to facilitate President Peña Nieto’s reforms.

How do you view that action? Does this constitute a death blow to Local 22’s power?

The government’s actions last July were a major blow to Local 22. But they weren’t a death blow. It wasn’t enough to merely freeze the union’s bank accounts, prosecute them financially, invent connections to organized crime, or try to do something from the financial side.

Nor has it been sufficient to detain the leaders. Actually, the detainment of four leaders and recently three members of Local 22’s executive committee sparked more desire to resist within the union.

Now the new state education ministry, supported by the reforms and federal education authorities, says that there will be no more marches and no missed class days. Three absences will mean the loss of one’s job, one absence will mean your pay would be docked.

The same happened with the federal ministry, after the first three days of the strike that began on May 15, 2016 the federal education ministry announced the firing of over four thousand teachers in Oaxaca, Michoacán, Guerrero, and Chiapas.

Do the authorities have the power to do that? To fire the teachers? That seems to be something new, given the union’s previous control over hiring.

According to the new reforms, yes they do have the power. The IEEPO asked the teachers to either go to class or have a day of pay deducted, because that is what the new law stipulates. Many teachers took to the streets. Some, out of fear or because they didn’t want their pay to be docked, stayed in the classrooms. Yet the threat of firing hasn’t stopped collective action. In fact, since May 15, the start of the strike, the movement has only grown.

The reform has allowed the state authorities to change how the IEEPO functions, right?

The new IEEPO is a mess. Within the actual office building, they have no idea what they are doing and they dismantled the apparatus, which, even if it was overly bureaucratic, knew how to function.

That is why they have turned to their massive publicity and social media campaigns, to improve the image of the new IEEPO.

In your opinion, what is the worst part of the education reforms?

That it’s not about education. That is the part that bothers me the most. From reading Peña Nieto’s reforms, the laws, and the auxiliary laws, it isn’t at all clear — and I’m not the only one that says this — that it’s about education reform.

It’s about yet another neoliberal government attack on trade unions that demonstrate any type of opposition. When one looks at the structural reforms in this country (and globally) one notices these reforms are directed at eliminating trade unions.

The strong unions have either been co-opted or eliminated. This happened in Mexico first with the railway workers, then the telecommunications workers’ union, the Luz y Fuerza union, the Federal Electricity Commission, and PEMEX. All that’s left are the teachers and public health workers.

With each reform, there is a direct attack on trade unions or civil society organizations.

You mentioned that you attended teachers’ marches as a baby with your parents. Not just in Oaxaca, but also in many other states, the democratic teachers’ movement emerged around that time. Local 22 and the CNTE nationally have their origins in that period. Is that history important for those in the movement today?

Yes. That generation from the 1980s just retired a few years ago (my father is one of them) and now there is a whole new generation of teachers. I know the history of that struggle because I lived through it but I’m not sure other comrades do because even those whose parents were also teachers in the 1980s don’t always seem very interested today.

There are two factors that might explain this dynamic. One is the distance that has developed recently between the union leadership and its bases, and the other is social pressure, particularly in the media, that casts the union in a negative light.

So the new comrades are often not interested in, nor committed to, the idea of struggle, either because they don’t feel represented by their leadership — because of corruption or poor management of the union — or because the media accuse the movement of being lazy and something bad for the country.

Yes, and many teachers say the relationship between the union leadership and the rank-and-file has changed dramatically since the 1980s.

Among the comrades that do participate, one major difference between today and the 1980s is the mandatory participation in union activities.

Today (although the state education ministry says the restructuring has taken this power away from the union), los puntos sindicales, the union point system, determines whether teachers can change their job category, school, or school zone, move between levels, and it also determines benefits, such as union-sponsored personal loans.

How do you see the Oaxacan struggle relating to the national context in Mexico? After Ayotzinapa, and the struggle for the missing forty-three students, have things changed in Oaxaca?

Unfortunately, Local 22 didn’t immediately join the movement for the missing forty-three students. The lack of solidarity among resistance and left movements in Oaxaca and Mexico generally is symptomatic.

After 2006, it has been virtually impossible to organize and unite the Left in Oaxaca. Many of us teachers have watched and followed the Ayotzinapa issue, and we are part of that movement, but not formally as Local 22.

It was only during the one-year anniversary of the disappearances that Local 22 made official statements of solidarity. I remember the first national teachers’ action in Mexico City after the disappearances; there was nothing in the official accords or assembly demands about Ayotzinapa.

The march was full of signs and banners addressing what had happened but it wasn’t even discussed, let alone made an official demand, by the organized union movement.

And why do you think the union leaders haven’t focused on supporting Ayotizinapa?

I’m not sure. Since I joined the union I’ve noticed a lack of interest in other movements and a basic lack of solidarity.

And that dynamic, of not taking up demands of other movements, contributes to the notion that the union is only concerned about its own interests. You can’t ask for support if you’re not supporting other struggles.

Exactly.

This brings me to a longstanding frustration with the reporting on teachers’ struggles in Mexico that leaves out important conflicts and problems within the union. As Benjamin Smith points out, there are problems within the dissident union movement itself, like the ability of teachers to pass their job on to their children, corrupt internal arbitration practices, and pay scales that benefit the union hierarchy.

What we shouldn’t lose sight of is that, even with the problems within the CNTE leadership, we cannot blame teachers themselves entirely for the education situation in Oaxaca or Mexico.

And there are real fights within Local 22 for internal union reform and alternative education reform. For example, Local 22 has developed a counter-proposal to the government’s so-called reform over the last few years.

Our counter-proposal is an effort from the union and the base-level membership, organized around two important points. First, it proposes a curriculum based in the local culture and context of Oaxaca, which is diverse, indigenous, and multicultural. Secondly, it is based in the theories of critical pedagogy.

Of the most important changes it proposes, in my view, regards the system of teacher evaluation. The union’s proposal eliminates standardized testing (there will be exams but the use of standardized exams will be abolished) to evaluate either students or teachers. It focuses entirely on the qualitative aspect of education.

I served as advisor for a process in which indigenous teachers from all over the state of Oaxaca discussed and debated methods of evaluation that fit indigenous education and what we aim to accomplish as indigenous teachers.

“No to the Education Reform! Only Books will Bring this country out of Barbarism.” Street graffiti stenciled on offices of Banamex, a Mexican bank. “No to the Education Reform! Only Books will Bring this country out of Barbarism.” Street graffiti stenciled on offices of Banamex, a Mexican bank. Shane Dillingham / Jacobin

With the imposition of the new law, our proposal has lost steam. Now there is no openness on the part of the government or education authorities to even listen to our proposals.

In terms of the crisis of participation and distancing between the base and the leadership within Local 22, that is something far too complex to be solved with one or two actions but I would venture two reforms that, to me, would be fundamental in shifting toward a more democratic and militant unionism.

Within the union, one important change would be to eliminate the mechanisms of coerced participation. The teachers’ movement of the 1980s had a genuine interest from the bases in fighting against union corruption and in favor of the people and their right to a public and quality education.

Teachers participated with conviction. They slept on sidewalks waiting for the results of the state union assembly and valued the actions decided there.

Over time, that same leadership promoted a system of coerced participation, in which, through the point system, gave benefits or transfers, even salary raises, to those with the highest points.

This has meant that in the last few years union activities continued to have large levels of participation but not necessarily due to political conviction.

The other important change would be for us teachers to regain the parents and general public as allies in our struggle. In many communities the teachers left to participate in union actions without explaining to the parents why they did so or convincing them of the importance of their activities.

In the recent struggles it’s encouraging that more parents seem to be upset about how the reform will affect public education and are joining us in the streets.

It’s important that the school becomes once again part of the community and that the community itself becomes part of the education system.

For example, since June 19 of this year many NGOS, be it local, national, or international, have shown their solidarity with the movement and rejected the government’s use of police repression.

As I mentioned, the support of the communities and parents’ groups is decisive to reinvigorating the movement and one has begun to see that in the recent highway blockades, maintained for many days by parents and community members.

That popular participation is what held back the federal police across the state. The state violence over the weekend has only released a bigger wave of support from local communities.

What you raised at the beginning, that one cannot isolate the teachers from the broader social context in Mexico, seems crucial. Even the OECD, whose statistics are trotted out frequently to describe the poor quality of education in Mexico, notes the statistical correlation between poverty and education outcomes in southern Mexico.

The notion that poorly administered teacher evaluations will solve this problem is laughable and that teachers are primarily to blame for poor education conditions in their communities absurd.

Precisely. One has to keep in mind the structural poverty in this country.

The education reform doesn’t address the physical conditions of public schools, classroom technology, continuous teacher training, nor the distinct pedagogies that might fit particular regional contexts throughout the country. For me poverty is the principle problem affecting the education system.

Teacher Uses Settlement Proceeds To Fund Activists, Organizations

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History teacher Jesse Hagopian talks about his $100,000 settlement with the City of Seattle after being pepper-sprayed by a police officer last year. Hagopian is using the proceeds from the settlement to fund youth activists and community-based organizations. Staff Photo/Chris B. Bennett.

By Chris B. Bennett
The Seattle Medium

Jesse Hagopian, a community activist and history teacher at Garfield High School, recently reached a $100,000 settlement with the City of Seattle for an incident in which he was pepper-sprayed, without provocation, by a Seattle Police officer after he gave a speech at a community rally on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2015.

At the time of the incident, Hagopian was on the phone with his mother– arranging plans for a ride to his two-year-old son’s birthday party — when Seattle police officer Sandra Delafuente assaulted him with pepper-spray.

“That day was deeply painful, and not only because of the burning in my ears, nostrils, and swollen eyes,” said Hagopian. “What hurt the most was the 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.”

The pepper-spray assault was caught on video and garnered millions of views online and was the subject of national and international news stories. As a result of the video, Hagopian was able to show that the incident was unwarranted.

“It is deeply disappointing that we are in this place again that we see how protestors and peaceful marchers are treated by the Seattle Police Department,” said Attorney James Bible, whose law firm represented Hogapin in his claim against the City. “I think the question that should be posed by many is what would happen if there, in fact, was no video in this particular case. We’d be stuck with nothing but the narrative of law enforcement and what we know now is that the narrative of the law enforcement rarely, if ever, matches the video that we’re able to capture and gather on occasion.”

Hagopian, to his credit, has turned the incident into an opportunity to support people who are making a difference in the Seattle area, as he is providing money from the settlement to support the work of groups and individuals to improve the plight of people of color.

At a press conference held Monday at the NAACP office, Hagopian announced the establishment of his Black Education Matters Scholarship for student activist. Hagopian presented three high school students – Marcelas Owens, Ifrah abshir and Ahlaam Ibraahim – with $1,000 to use in order to continue their work in the community.

Marcelas Owens has been on the recognized for her work both locally and nationally on healthcare and transgender issues.

Ahlaam Ibraahim hosts an annual Islamophobic event to educate people who may be afraid of Muslim people due to media bias. In addition, she also uses social media to address bad things that are happening in schools and has been instrumental in getting building improvements at some schools through her use of social media.

Ifrah Abshir helped lead the Transportation Justice Movement for Orca Cards in Seattle Public Schools. This started off as a quest to secure Orca Cards for Rainier Beach students that lived more than a mile from school and were getting to school late or missing school because they did not have the financial means to pay for bus transportation. The two-year battle culminated in the City of Seattle providing Orca Cards to low-income high school students in Seattle.

“I’m really excited to say that the real heroes in our community are the young people who are making big change and getting ready to make even bigger change,” said Hagopian. “We are going to turn all this pain into positive movement forward and into action.”

“Already you’ve transformed Seattle Schools,” he said of the recipients. “I can’t wait to see what you guys do moving forward.”

In addition, Hagopian also announced funding for the Africatown Center for Education and Innovation, and Families of Color Seattle – two community-based organizations that are also helping to make a difference in the community.

Africatown Center for Education and Innovation is an organization that has developed a concerted effort to change the trajectory of African American students by providing a culturally responsive learning community that fosters hope, resilience, and academic achievement.

Families of Color Seattle is a local organization that provides parenting support and cultural programming for families of color.

“It’s meant so much to me to see the work that you’ve done with families of color across Seattle to empower them and this is exactly the type of work that I want to continue to support in Seatttle,” said Hagopian about his donation to the organization.

Hagopian says that the awards are not one time gestures and that he plans to establish a fund so he can give out funds to deserving people each year.

“We’re going to put thousands of dollars into this fund, so people can get it,” he said.

As it relates to the pepper-spray incident, the outcome is bittersweet for both Hagopian and the NAACP.

“This is a victory in that it has received an outcome,” said Sheley Secrest, Vice President of the Seattle King County NAACP. “But this is a lesson that Seattle has already had the opportunity to learn. SPD should be ashamed because they know that they have a problem when it comes to policing these types of protests.”

“We’ve told them over and over again and the fact this it has cost them over $100,000 for their failure to learn from their mistakes is a lesson that as taxpayers we cannot afford,” Secrest concluded.

With the settlement the City of Seattle did not admit to any wrongdoing. The Office of Professional Accountability recommended that officer Delafuente be suspended for one-day without pay for her actions. However, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, reportedly, choose to give Delafuente an oral reprimand instead of suspending her.

 

Off the Deep End: The Swim Test vs. The Standardized Test

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By Jesse Hagopian, originally published at The Progressive Magazine

As we enter the high-stakes testing season, a great uprising to opt out of these punitive and reductive exams is sweeping the country. So it’s no surprise that corporate education reformers–attempting to defend the multibillion dollar testing industry–have been launching aggressive attacks on the movement.

One such attack targeted one of the main rallying cries of our movement and the title of the book I edited, More Than a Score.

In “More than Score. Yes. Duh?” Erika Sanzi argues that it is obvious that students are more than a test score, “but that doesn’t mean that their scores on tests aren’t valuable to them, their parents, or their schools.” She goes on to ridicule people who believe that the overuse of high-stakes testing is distorting education, saying: “It is baffling that highly intelligent and otherwise rational people have chosen to latch onto this bumper sticker sounding slogan.”

Sanzi goes on to defend high-stakes testing, writing:

Our kids take swimming tests. They don’t lose the essence of who they are because they fail to float on their back for 30 seconds or tread water for a minute. They just try again next time. It’s probably safe to say we all know people who have failed their first driver’s license road test. They’ve all lived to tell about it, most even laugh about it, and it certainly doesn’t define who they are. It was a brief failure. Life is full of them.

Magnificent! Here you have the total confusion of the education “testocracy” distilled. Because the entire point of the opt out movement is to reduce the amount of multiple choice standardized tests and move to assessments like the driving road tests and swimming tests.  However, imagine for a moment if we treated the swimming test like the standardized tests in school that Sanzi advocates. Imagine if we sat kids down in rows of desks and said:

This exam will test your ability to swim. Mark the bubble that corresponds to the best answer choice.  Consider this sample question:

The fastest swimming stroke is the:

  1. butterfly
  2. crawl stroke
  3. fish kick
  4. backstroke
  5. None of the above

When you have completed this exam the results will be scored.  If you score well, we will throw you into the deep end.  If you score poorly, even if you are a great swimmer, you will remain in the shallow end.  In addition, if too many of your classmates score poorly on this exam, we are going to close down your pool altogether.  

As silly as this scenario seems, it is what corporate education reformers (including the Walton family, which helps funds the website Sanzi writes for) are imposing on our public schools. Worse, the attitude that if a child fails a test she should take comfort that it is only a “brief failure” is completely out of touch with the severely punitive nature of high-stakes testing these days, in which a low test score can mean a student does not graduate, teachers are fired, and whole schools are shut down.

The mass movement against standardized testing—including over 600,000 families opting out of standardized tests last year—objects to the fact that the average student in the public school system today will take an outlandish 112 standardized tests between pre-K and high school. However, this is not a rebellion against assessment. Our movement simply demands authentic forms of assessment.

In the wake of the Seattle MAP test boycott, leading educators from around the city formed an assessment task force and produced a document defining authentic assessments as:

Those that reflect actual student knowledge and learning, not just test taking skills; are educational in and of themselves; are free of gender, class and racial bias; are differentiated to meet students’ needs; allow opportunities to go back and improve; and undergo regular evaluation and revision by educators.

One important alternative to standardized testing is performance based assessment, which promotes inquiry, problem solving, and critical thinking. My colleagues and I at Garfield High School have began collaborating with the New York Consortium for Performance Based Assessment (The partnership is portrayed in one section of the new documentary, Beyond Measure).  As Gail Robinson writes of the Consortium:

While most New York students must pass state exams in five subjects to graduate, the consortium’s 38 schools have a state waiver allowing their students to earn a diploma by passing just one exam: comprehensive English. (An additional nine schools have a partial waiver.) Instead, in all subjects including English, the students must demonstrate skill mastery in practical terms. They design experiments, make presentations, write reports and defend their work to outside experts.

The performance based assessment model is very similar to the process a PhD candidate undergoes in preparing a dissertation and defending it to a panel of experts.  Multiple choice standardized tests are good at demonstrating students’ ability to spot what are called “distractor questions,” and students with the resources purchase test prep classes that are able to train students to eliminate wrong answer choices better than their peers. However, the ability to eliminate wrong answer choices is not authentic to most real life situations students will face.  In the world outside of corporate education reform, students will need to be able to research issues, work collaboratively in groups, develop arguments, solve real life problems, and more.  Performance based assessments at the Consortium schools allow students to engage in those real life skills–much the same as a swimming test.

The superiority of authentic assessment over multiple choice, standardized testing can be seen in part by the outcomes of the Consortium schools. A recent study shows that 77 percent of students who started high school at a Consortium school in the fall of 2010 graduated in four years, compared to 68 percent for all New York City students. Last year, 71 percent of students learning English at Consortium schools graduated on time, compared to only 37 percent of English learners around the city. Eighty-six percent of black students and 90 percent of Latino students at the Consortium schools are accepted into college, compared with the national numbers 37 percent and 42 percent respectively.  Moreover, longitudinal studies show that Consortium school students complete college at higher rates–likely due to the emphasis on the very inquiry and critical thinking skills that are valued in college.

Parents and teachers across the country have united to demand an education system that recognizes children’s needs aren’t satisfied by filling in bubbles on an exam.  So, before we throw our schools into the deep end, let’s demand authentic assessment now!

Jesse is the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.  You can view his TEDx talk “More Than a Score” or follow him on twitter: @JessedHagopian

 

 

“More Than a Score” TEDx Talk: Jesse Hagopian on the uprising against high-stakes testing and for a meaningful education

I recently gave this talk titled, “More Than a Score,” for the TEDx  Rainer event at Seattle’s McCaw Hall theater.  In this talk I advocate for the great uprising against reducing our children to a test score and I make an argument to opt in to authentic assessments–not only because it will better engage students, but also because the future of our society and planet depend on it.

JesseOpenArmsJesse Hagopian is a high school history teacher and associate editor for Rethinking Schools magazine.  Jesse is the editor of, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.  Follow him on his blog, IAmAnEducator.com or on twitter, @jessedhagopian

Six Reasons Why the Opt Out Movement is Good for Students and Parents of Color

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By Jesse Hagopian, first published in The Progressive magazine

Corporate education reformers who seek to reduce teaching and learning to a single score are beginning to realize they are losing the public relations battle. Hundreds of thousands of families across the country are opting out in what has become largest revolt against high-stakes testing in U.S. history.

Because most of their arguments are increasingly discredited because of this uprising, they are desperately attempting to cling to one last defense of the need to subject our students to a multibillion-dollar testing industry.

Charles F. Coleman, Jr. supported this last ditch effort for the “testocracy” when he took up former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s argument that opposition to standardized testing was only from out of touch “white suburban moms.” Coleman has in the past written pieces in support of making black lives matter, but in this careless piece he dismissed the opt out movement as a privileged white effort:

Boycotting standardized tests may seem like a good idea, but hurts black learners most….White parents from well-funded and highly performing areas are participating in petulant, poorly conceived protests that are ultimately affecting inner-city blacks at schools that need the funding and measures of accountability to ensure any hope of progress in performance.

Here are six reasons why Coleman’s belief that opting out hurts students of color is fundamentally flawed and why his belief that accountability and academic success require high-stakes standardized testing is just plain old wrong.

1. Extreme over-testing disproportionately harms students of color.

Coleman admits in his essay, “there should be concerns raised over excessive testing and devoting too much classroom instruction to test prep.” But he doesn’t acknowledge how destructive excessive testing has become (especially for children of color) or credit the opt out movement for revealing the outsized role that testing is playing in education. No one—certainly not the media—would even be talking about the excessive testing in schools if it wasn’t for the opt out movement. And the amount of testing in the public schools today isn’t just excessive—it’s extreme. The average student today is subjected to 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation!

But the crux of the issue is that the highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color. Schools that serve more black and brown students have become test-prep factories rather than incubators of creativity and critical thinking. The corporate education reformers behind high stakes testing, like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family want their own kids to have the time and support to explore the arts, music, drama, athletics, debate and engage in a rich curriculum of problem solving and critical thinking. Rote memorization for the next standardized tests is good enough for the rest of us.

2. Communities of color are increasingly joining and leading the opt out movement.

While it’s true that currently the students opting out are disproportionately white, to portray opting out as a white people thing is to make invisible the important leadership role that people of color have played around the country. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, a black women, is one of the most important leaders in the country against corporate education reform, and she led the union in the “Let Us Teach!” campaign against high-stakes testing. The Black opt out rate reached 10 percent in Chicago last year. PTA co-chairs Đào X. Trần and Elexis Loubriel-Pujols at New York City’s Castlebridge Elementary School (comprising 72 percent students of color) led the opt out movement there. They gained national prominence and helped to ignite the opt out movement across the country in 2013 when more than 80 percent of families refused to allow their kids to take a standardized test. The school had to cancel the test altogether.

One of the largest student protests against high-stakes testing in U.S. history occurred last spring when many hundreds of students in New Mexico—at schools that served 90% Latino students—walked out of school and refused to take the new Common Core exams. In Ohio, a recent study shows that communities of color and low-income communities opt out at nearly the same rates as whiter and wealthier ones.

In my hometown, the Seattle/King County NAACP hosted a press conference last spring to encourage parents to opt out of the Common Core tests. As Seattle NAACP president Gerald Hankerson put it, “…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.”

Or check out the brilliant podcast, “These Tests Will Go,” The Opt-Out Movement in Urban Philadelphia, which documents the uprising of African American parents determined to make their kids more than a test score and fighting for the programs their kids deserve.

3. The federal government hasn’t punished schools for opting out.

Coleman argues that if the number of students taking the required standardized tests drops below 95 percent, the government can cut funding to schools, and that will be most damaging to students of color. However, the federal government has never—not even once—cut funds to a school district for its high opt out numbers. While No Child Left Behind initially had a provision for penalties against large opt out numbers, which carried over to the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the “testocracy” seems to be too afraid to use this clause.

Moreover, the opt out movement holds the potential to actually increase the amount of school funding. The many millions of dollars wasted on ranking and sorting our children with standardized tests every year could be spent on tutoring programs, counseling services, art teachers, nurses, librarians, music programs, ethnic studies classes, and many services our children deserve.

4.Test-and-Punish policies are cruel and inequitable.

High-stakes tests are being used around the country to label children and schools as failing, to prevent kids from graduating, to fire teachers, and to close schools. Chicago Board of Education voted in 2013 to close some 49 of the city’s public schools—schools that served approximately 87 percent black students. 71 percent of the schools had a majority African-Americans teachers and staff. The standardized tests the students take register racial and class bias, measure the lack of resources available to schools, and then provide cover for shutting them down.

A review by the National Research Council concluded high school graduation tests have done nothing to lift student achievement, but they have raised the dropout rate. African American, Latino, American Indian and low-income students are far more likely to be denied a diploma for not passing a test. High stakes tests often inaccurately assess English language learners—measuring their understating of English and the dominant culture rather than the subject they are being tested in. Boston University economics professor Kevin Lang’s 2013 study, “The School to Prison Pipeline Exposed,” links increases in the use of high-stakes standardized high school exit exams to increased incarceration rates.

5) Standardized testing was invented by white supremacists and maintains institutional racism today.

Once you know the history of standardized tests in public schools, you can never fall for Coleman’s absurd assertion that, “boycotting standardized tests may seem like a good idea, but hurts black learners most.” Standardized tests first entered American public schools in the 1920s, at the urging of eugenicists whose pseudoscience proclaimed that white males were naturally smarter. As Rethinking Schools editorialized, “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.”

One of these early eugenicists was Carl Brigham, a professor at Princeton University and author of the white supremacist manifesto, A Study of American Intelligence. Brigham developed the Scholastic Aptitude Test, known as the SAT. Some of the most important early voices in opposition to intelligence testing—especially in service of ranking the races—came from leading African American intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Howard Long. Horace Mann Bond, in his work “Intelligence Tests and Propaganda,” noted in 1924 what today we call the “Zip Code Effect”—what standardized tests really measure is a student’s proximity to wealth and the dominant culture.

6. There are better ways than high stakes testing to improve education for children of color.

Coleman asserts that, “Standardized testing, albeit imperfect, remains one of the best ways to ensure that teachers, schools, and school districts are held accountable for making sure children are succeeding.” A huge body of evidence contradicts this statement, and points to the power of an inquiry based pedagogy, coupled with authentic forms of assessment. Take, for example, the New York Consortium Schools for Performance Based Assessment. These fully public schools have a waiver from state tests and instead use performance-based assessments. Students work with a faculty mentor to develop an idea, conduct research, and then defend a body of work to a panel of experts—including school administration, other teachers, and outside experts and practitioners in the field of study.

If the testocracy is right—if it’s true that high-stakes standardized testing is the key to improving accountability and performance—then these New York consortium schools that don’t give the state standardized test should be the very worst schools in New York City. However, comprehensives studies show Consortium Schools have higher graduation rates, better college attendance rates, and smaller gaps in outcomes between students of color and their white peers than the rest of New York’s public schools.

Conclusion: Hold the system accountable

Coleman’s arguments lamenting students of color score worse on the tests than their white peers—without acknowledging the ways in which systematic underfunding of schools, poverty, and institutional racism have disfigured our school system—end up pathologizing communities of color rather than supporting them. The U.S. school system is more segregated today than at any time since 1968. The majority of students attending public school in the U.S. today live in poverty. The school-to-prison-pipeline (including disproportionate suspension rates and the use of high-stakes testing) has contributed to the fact that there are now more black people behind bars, on probation, or on parole than were slaves on plantations in 1850. As education professor Pedro Noguera has said, “We’ve developed an accountability system that holds those with the most power the least accountable.”

Our task must be to build multiracial alliances in the opt out movement that can produce the kind of solidarity it will take to defeat a testing juggernaut that is particularly destructive to communities of color—while causing great damage to all of our schools. And while must begin by standing up to the multibillion dollar testing industry by opting out, we must also create a vision for an uprising that opts in to antiracist curriculum, ethnic studies programs, wrap around services to support the academic and social and emotional development of students, programs to recruit teachers of color, restorative justice programs that eliminate zero tolerance discipline practices, and beyond.

Now, back to writing that opt out letter for my son.

Jesse Hagopian is the Progressive Education Seattle Fellow. Jesse teaches history and is the co-adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School–the site of the historic boycott of the MAP test in 2013. Jesse is the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. You can follow Jesse on his blog, IAmAnEducator.com, or on Twitter: @jessedhagopian

Gentrifying Black History

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Originally published at The Progressive magazine
By Gerald Lenoir and Jesse Hagopian

Thanks to a long history of redlining, formerly black neighborhoods in cities around the country are continuously disappearing under the rapacious churn of financial real estate interests. But city blocks in prime locations aren’t the only things being lost. Gentrification is also happening in our classrooms and books, pushing out the past, erasing the lives and struggles of African Americans from our collective memory.

Take A Birthday Cake for George Washington, for example, a children’s book by Ramin Ganeshram published by Scholastic. In it, smiling, happy slaves wrap their arms around their master, the first U.S. president. In a Texas high school geography textbook published by McGraw-Hill, enslaved Africans are described as “workers,” rather than slaves, and placed in a section titled “Patterns of Immigration”—as if they came here looking for a better life.  In Jefferson County, Colorado, the School Board adopted a proposal to avoid the use of materials in its advanced placement high school history curriculum that “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard for the law”—banning, of course, any discussion of the lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, and other actions causing “social strife” and which are foundational for the Civil Rights Movement.

The Bill of Rights Institute (BRI), which offers whitewashed classroom lesson plans for teachers across the country, is funded by the infamous Koch brothers, Charles and David, who together have more wealth than Bill Gates.  Educator Bill Bigelow describes how the Bill of Rights Institute “cherry-picks” events to hammer home a libertarian message about the sacredness of private property, and also how it offers “quiet cover” for Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman:

 One section on the website is “Teaching with Current Events,” and includes a lesson, “Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine Laws…” Here’s the lesson’s first discussion question: “Florida’s ‘Stand-Your-Ground’ law states ‘A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.

While black history has long been redlined and ghettoized, the corporate wrecking ball is swinging with a renewed velocity, aiming at cornerstones of black history as part of a broader resurgence of racism in the United States. This gentrification of the contributions of black people to our society is sanitizing white supremacy.

These latest developments are preceded by the icon-ification of many historical black leaders. History books portray the “I Have a Dream” version of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., never mentioning his radical critique of U.S. society.  You will never see this quote from Dr. King appear in any mainstream history book:

 Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.

In 1999, the establishment’s absorption of the image of Malcolm X was marked by the U.S. Postal Service issuing a Malcolm X stamp honoring his contributions to human rights.  Never mind that the FBI surveilled and harassed him and were complicit in his assassination. Meanwhile, civil rights leaders like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer are left out of history completely—no stamps for them.

This paving over of black history, and failure to tell the true stories of black heroines and heroes paves the way for developers who destroy black neighborhoods and push out black people out of their homes.

The historic process of neighborhood gentrification began in the 1960s and has accelerated in the new millennium, as the gap between white and black wealth has become the greatest since 1989.  Today, millions of African Americans are being displaced by so-called “free market forces” and are forced to relocate to suburbs without adequate services or job opportunities.

This transition in Washington, D.C., once known as the “Chocolate City,” is marked by the condominiums built on its historic U Street (one featuring a tanning salon on the ground level).  In Seattle, there is a construction crane on every corner, while the rate of black homeownership has dropped by nearly half since 2000.  The occupation of black neighborhoods around the country by police ready to use deadly force helps fuel the displacement and reassures the returning white gentry that they will be kept safe.

However, the engineers of the movement for Black lives are constructing one of the most powerful resistance movements in more than a generation, which is giving confidence to communities across the country to stand up and fight back.

In response to black community pressure, Scholastic pulled the children’s book from retail shelves and issued an apology.  In the case of the Texas textbook, Roni Dean-Burren and her freshman son launched a successful Facebook and Twitter campaign forcing McGraw-Hill to acknowledge that Africans’ enslavement was not the same as white wage-labor, and to alter their online textbook.  In response to the Jefferson County School Board proposal to effectively erase the Civil Rights Movement from history, hundreds of high school students from 17 schools staged a mass walkout.  And in 2015, three conservative school board members were ousted in a recall.

And while the Koch brothers fund the creation of materials glossing over injustice and trauma inflicted on the black community by the killing of people like Trayvon Martin, social justice educators are occupying the curriculum with powerful lessons that connect his death to long legacy of state sanctioned murder.

Black Lives Matter activists have been demonstrating across the country, demanding an end to police brutality and murder.  As we hit the streets, though, we also must hit the books. The struggle to de-gentrify textbooks is inextricably linked to black people reclaiming their past, present and future.  Online, in neighborhoods, in classrooms, and in the streets, organized resistors are building a new black history on a foundation of equity and justice.

—-

Gerald Lenoir is the former executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the San Francisco Black Coalition on AIDS (now Rafiki Services).  He a member of the Black Lives Matter group in Berkeley, California and is a veteran of the 1969 black student strikes at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which led to the establishment of the Afro-American Studies Department.

JesseHeadshotKickoffJesse Hagopian teaches history and is the adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School in Seattle, the site of the historic boycott of the MAP test in 2013. He is an associate editor for the acclaimed Rethinking Schools magazine and the editor of, and contributing author to the 2014 book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.  He is also the son of Gerald Lenoir. Follow Jesse on his blog, IAmAnEducator.com, on Facebook or Twitter.

“It’s about collective struggle”: Interview with Jesse Hagopian on education & the movement for Black Lives

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Teacher and activist Jesse Hagopian. Photo by Jose Trujillo.

As the one-year anniversary of a Seattle police officer pepper spraying me on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaches, I sat down with the Seattle Weekly reporter, Casey Jaywork, to discuss ongoing struggles for social justice. Here are my reflections on police brutality, the intersection of race and class, and disrupting the school-to-prison-pipeline.

Teacher and activist Jesse Hagopian. Photo by Jose Trujillo.

You Don’t Have to Be a Klan Member to Be Racist

A conversation with Jesse Hagopian.

By Casey Jaywork Tue., Jan 12 2016 at 06:07PM

Last year, teacher and activist Jesse Hagopian broke the Internet—but not in a good way. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Hagopian was randomly pepper sprayed by a panicked cop. Video of the incident went viral, adding yet another chapter to the Seattle Police Department’s long history of excessive force. Hagopian is currently suing the city.

Teacher and activist Jesse Hagopian. Photo by Jose Trujillo.

But there’s more to this teacher than his receipt of SPD’s favored less-than-lethal weapon. With another MLK Day approaching, Seattle Weekly sat down with Hagopian to talk about race and justice in Seattle.

SW: You’re a teacher and advocate, but you may be best known for getting pepper sprayed during last year’s MLK march.

JH: It’s rough to be known for your worst day of your life. It’s hard that random people come up and say, ‘Oh, you were the guy who got pepper sprayed.’ To be known for such a low moment in my life can be difficult, but I think it’s also important that that moment serve as a lesson to our city: that nobody’s safe when we have unaccountable police.

You still feel like that officer and SPD have not been held accountable.

Absolutely…[Prior to getting pepper sprayed, I gave a speech about how] those who claim to honor [MLK] and degrade the Black Lives Matter movement are fraudulent. The words I spoke that day were about how King would be in the streets with the Black Lives Matter activists demanding justice. Many people today disparage Black Lives Matter activists–sometimes calling them thugs–but yet they like to give hollow remembrance to Martin Luther King.

He’s kind of become a teddy bear.

Right? Like a tame icon. And I wanted to call out that contradiction. I just think that it’s ironic that only a few minutes after I spoke those words, I was preparing to leave the demonstration to go to my son’s two year old birthday party, on the phone with my mother coordinating the ride, and an officer just–clearly without provocation, out of the blue–sprays me in the face and turns what was one of my most proud and joyous days into a deeply painful experience…The physical pain was one matter, but what was truly painful was trying to explain this to my kids at the birthday party.

When a citizen has definitive evidence of police misconduct and wrongdoing, there has to be accountability for that officer. I had every possible advantage to be able to prove my case, advantages that most people will never have–when they take stands for justice, or when they just live their lives and encounter police. I had video documentation. I had many eyewitnesses. I have a lot of supporters in the community. And I had the [Office of Professional Accountability] rule in my favor. What more do I need to lay out a case that there’s a clear misconduct and wrongdoing? And yet the chief of police intervenes in my case and downgrades the discipline to the lowest possible form, overruling the [OPA]. I think that’s a real shame, and something that has to be corrected if there’s going to be justice.

How have you seen the Black Lives Matter movement change over time?

I think that we’ve seen an ebb and flow as different high profile cases go, but I would say that beyond the media representation of the movement, there’s been ongoing organizing of people committed to making black lives matter that might not be as visible but is definitely important organizing that’s deepening people’s understanding of the roots of institutional racism, and is also laying the basis for future, bigger collective struggle for police accountability, and also to broaden the Black Lives Matter movement beyond police accountability–to say that if we really want black lives to matter, then there has to be housing for African Americans. There has to be job programs, there has to be education that empowers our youth to solve real problems like racism in their community, and not just to score high on a test or be ready for a low-wage job in the economy.

In terms of racial justice, what have been the most notable events in Seattle over the past year?

The struggle against the youth jail has united a lot of important activists…I’ve brought that issue to the teachers’ union. That discussion is ongoing…

Garfield began working with some different trainers on [restorative justice programs], and we’re now this year working on peace circles with the staff so they can really gain a strong understanding of the power of being able to solve problems collectively. It is my hope that we can roll out a full pilot of restorative justice in the coming years, and try to move away from zero tolerance. The important thing is that it actually gets support from the school district, and resources and financial backing, because to make restorative justice more than just a box to check…I think it has to actually have full-time coordinators who are trained in restorative practices. There has to be training for students and faculty around those kinds of practices, that can actually help students solve their problems. Rather than just punish them for transgressions, let’s actually empower them to solve the problem.

What would that look like, compared to how things work now?

Seattle public schools suspend African American students at four times the rate of white students for the very same infractions. So we know that there’s dramatically disproportionate discipline, and many schools have zero tolerance policies where you’re immediately suspended for different infractions. And oftentimes, it’s very discretionary for the administrations to perceive student behavior and make a judgement that they should be excluded from school for a period of time. And then the students miss school, they fall behind in their work, they become more bitter because the problem hasn’t been solved, and they often come back more likely to engage in the very same behavior and more likely not to pass their class or graduate. We know that that is part of the school-to-prison pipeline, where students who don’t graduate then turn to survival crimes, sometimes, because they aren’t the most desirable to be employed without a diploma.

We want to sever the school-to-prison pipeline by putting restorative practices, which is bringing together the person that’s been injured and the person who’s been accused and actually make them do something much harder than stay home from school: make them face their problem with mentors and peers. Have them work through the issue, have them set goals, have them collectively figure out what a just resolution would be. That’s a much harder practice, but it demonstrates to our kids that our school actually cares about you. Not just when you’re scoring well on a test, not just when you’re doing well in school, but when you’ve made a mistake, when you’re down, when nobody else cares about you or people are angry at you–we care about you enough to help you solve this problem. That’s how we transform student lives and create better people through education. I’m excited to try to push for those kinds of practices. One of the triumphs of the strike this year was that the union pushed for race and equity teams and we won in the contract having thirty schools have race and equity teams. These teams can form with parents and students and teachers and community members to make recommendations about how to undo institutional racism at their school.

Just recommendations?

Yeah. I would hope that those recommendations would be taken seriously by the school district and by the administration, and I would hope that many schools look at moving toward restorative practices if those race and equity teams find that their school is part of the disproportionate suspension rate. I think that one of the functions of that equity team could be to begin to organize restorative justice practices in the school.

The strike and the fight for these race and equity teams should be seen through the lens of the Black Lives Matter movement. I think one of the high points of solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement was a letter that many of the leading Seattle Black Lives Matter activists put out in solidarity with the strike, saying, ‘Your fight for public education is our fight, and your struggle for these race and equity teams are a prerequisite for having a culturally competent education.’ I was very proud of the Seattle movement when that letter was released.

The restorative justice model sounds great, but it seems like political will and funding make it a longshot. Can this actually happen?

The exciting thing is that it is being rolled out in innovative school districts around the country. Just a few weeks ago, I had an incredible opportunity to speak at a forum with Fania Davis, who’s Angela Davis’ sister, and the young people that she has been working with in the Oakland public school system. They have had incredible results with the restorative justice movement there–in terms of dramatically reducing suspension rates in the district overall, and at some schools completely eliminating suspensions altogether.

One young man who spoke on the panel described how, in preschool, he had been suspended because he was having anxiety as a four year old when his mom would leave. And his mom left him with a bag of Skittles and said, ‘Every time you’re worried about where I am, pop one of these Skittles and then you’ll know that I’m thinking of you and I love you.’ The teacher caught him eating Skittles in class and confiscated them, and gave them to the principal who put them in [their] desk. He was crushed, but he had an idea: he saw the window open, so he crawled through the principal’s window and got his Skittles back.

He wasn’t just suspended–he was suspended for theft. For taking back his Skittles. And he said from that day on, he didn’t trust school, and he didn’t trust those in authority. He was often suspended, and in and out of school. It wasn’t until he landed in one of the schools that Fania Davis was working at–that had a restorative practice, that welcomed him in from day one, with a circle to find out who he was and what mattered to him–that he realized that school could be a community that’s about supporting you, even if you’re African American, instead of punishing you. That’s what we have to move toward. It’s being done in communities around the country. The fact that we’re not doing it right now [in Seattle] is because there isn’t the will amongst those in power.

You mean the superintendent and school board?

The superintendent, for sure. I’m happy that we have a new school board. We just had an election, and I actually expect that the new school board will take unprecedented action and try to [pursue] a dangerous course that our past school board and officials weren’t brave enough to tackle. We can’t have any more incentive than we’ve had. It’s time.

The students in the Black Student Unions around the city are ready for a move away from zero tolerance and have told many teachers across the city and other students that it’s time we move there. I think that they will definitely raise their voice on that issue and many others, to help the school board move as quickly as possible.

When you say “maintaining institutional racism,” do you think legislators are consciously trying to do that?

All the major, powerful institutions that run our society have replicated racism generation after generation. You can see that slavery was ended, but segregation continued. Not just in the Jim Crow south, but through the practice of redlining. Banks would exclude lending to African Americans outside of prescribed areas like the Central District. [Then] redlining ends, but you have mass incarceration…It doesn’t take Klan members to organize that type of racist practice. It just takes people continuing the status quo, putting the needs of communities of color last, not funding public programs…We have to have a conscious effort to undo institutional racism or it will be maintained.

So if I’m a legislator, I can do racism by just being a cog in the machine without being a racist in a subjective, personal sense?

Absolutely. It doesn’t take having overt racist ideas to continue to vote for a budget that primarily incarcerates African Americans and other people of color. We have to transform the institutions dramatically. That, to me, would look like fully-funding education, diverting the funds in King County toward housing programs and health care rather than toward mass incarceration.

Can white students join Black Student Unions?

Absolutely. And we usually have a mix of backgrounds that come to our weekly meetings. The [BSU] at Garfield has a mission of empowering black students and confronting racism. Anybody who’s interested in that mission is more than welcome to participate. We’ve seen some great collaboration between Muslim students and the Muslim Student Association and the BSU and students of all backgrounds supporting.

Have you seen big changes in the thinking of white students who’ve become involved in a BSU?

There was a really powerful moment when there was a non-indictment of [Officer] Darren Wilson [in 2014, for killing Michael Brown]. Over a thousand students walked out of Garfield, of all different backgrounds and races. And it wasn’t just Garfield that walked out: Roosevelt, which is overwhelmingly white, had a walkout, and several other schools around Seattle. It showed the potential for the Black Lives Matter movement and message to galvanize a wide spectrum of society and of young people. I think that that is a lesson that our movement should look at, and work on organizing all those people that knew that there had to be justice for Mike Brown.

If I’m not a student, what’s a concrete way that I can help dismantle institutional racism?

The campaign against the youth jail. We need our hundreds of millions of dollars set up for tutoring programs and job programs, not more incarceration. So joining with campaigns that are being waged around that would be really important.

Participating in struggles around school funding and looking at restorative justice programs with the school district would be campaigns that I would highly recommend. I think the groups doing those campaigns are continuing to organize, and it’s my hope that those kinds of campaigns become bigger and more visible and begin more outreach to wider sections of Seattle.

How can white people talk about racism? It sometimes seems–at least for me, as a white person–that I face a dilemma where if I say anything, then I’m worried that I’ll say the wrong thing, and if I say nothing then I’m complicit. Any advice?

The key is the work. It’s not so much the exact way that you phrase your opposition or exactly what you say. To me, it’s: What actions are you taking to help us challenge institutions that continue to replicate racism year after year? As a white parent, can you go into the school and help work on forming a race and equity team at your kid’s school? You might not have the expertise, but you can work together with people who have more and help to implement something that could transform the lives of students of color in that school who are able to graduate instead of being pushed out [under] zero tolerance. You can join the campaign against the youth jail. You can do the work. As you do the work, you’ll learn more about theories and history that is important to help guide our struggles. [Don’t] let your uncomfortableness stop you from rolling up your sleeves and getting involved in the work.

I’m inspired by many struggles in our nation’s history, when white people joined in the struggle for racial justice. We need to be reminded of that, and we need to continue to push white people to hold up the best of that legacy of the Freedom Rides, of multiracial dockworker strikes [that occurred] all up and down the West Coast in the Thirties. There’s many important examples of the abolitionist movement: William Lloyd Garrison, a white man starting an abolitionist newspaper and helping to train Frederick Douglass as a journalist, building a multiracial partnership that proved historically important when Abraham Lincoln was waffling on what the Civil War was going to be about. Was it going to just put the South down and reintegrate it into the United States but continue their practice of slavery, or was it going to abolish slavery altogether? I’m thankful that a mass coalition of multiracial people in this country was able to convince him that the war should be about ending slavery. And eventually he came to that position.

I’ve just seen the importance of multiracial mass movements all throughout history. And I think that we’re desperate for another one today, when you look at Tamir Rice’s killer being let off, when you look at Sandra Bland–the officer who intimidated, and in my mind wrongfully arrested, Sandra Bland getting a slap on the wrist. Every day it seems there’s another example of gross injustice and deep racist practice of our country. We’re in desperate need of another mass uprising in this country that is about challenging the institutions of racism and redistributing power and wealth.

What’s the relationship between class and race?

They’re inextricably linked. Originally, the creation of racial categories was about maintaining the power of a wealthy, white elite. We’ve been studying this, actually, in school. Race was actually a modern invention that hasn’t existed very long.

You can actually look at the first racial laws that were written, shortly after Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia. That was multiracial mass uprising of white and black indentured servants and slaves that took over the Virginia colony for eight months. They burned the capital to the ground. And that mass multiracial power was terrifying to slaveowners and plantation owners, and they did what they had to do to maintain their power, which was what Frederick Douglass said: “They divided both to conquer each.” They wrote the first laws separating blacks and whites. They gave the vast majority of poor white people a little bit of wages, a little bit of benefits, so that they would separate themselves from African Americans and no longer work in solidarity. Which maintains the vast majority of both white and black people at the bottom, and a tiny white ruling minority at the top controlling all the wealth.

I look at that, and I look at our society today, and I don’t see a whole lot of difference, when you look at the fact that there are 85 people that have as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion people on our planet, you can see how they have hoarded the resources in the hands of a very few, and then they point to immigrants as being the problem. Racists like Donald Trump say, ‘We’re gonna build a border to keep out Mexicans, or we’re going to stop all Muslim immigrants from coming in, or it’s the black thugs that are the problem and you should worry about their crime and violence.’

All of that is rhetoric to deflect attention away from the fact that they have robbed us all, most blatantly when the banks sabotaged the global economy and then just pillaged taxpayer money to repay themselves. It’s an ongoing process that happens every day. They want us to fight amongst each other. They want us to blame immigrants or Muslims, rather than organizing a collective struggle to take back that wealth and to build a school system, a housing system, a healthcare system that meets the needs of all of us. I think that’s really the struggle that we have to engage in, and I think we’re at the very beginning of [it]. But I see great hope for the coming time as I see more and more young people getting active and raising their voice.

Are we going to see you run for office anytime soon?

[Laughs] No immediate plans on that. My work is so rewarding, to see young people getting active. And really, if there’s going to be a change in our society, it’s not going to be any shining knight coming in and fixing the problems. It’s not going to be any one politician.

Are you thinking of someone specific when you say that?

Not at all. I’m just saying that politicians aren’t going to be the source of fixing the problems in our society. I think what we’ve seen over and over again throughout US history is, when things get better for black people, when things get better for ordinary working people, it’s because they organize and make it happen. It’s because of the mass strikes in 1934 that won us social security and minimum wages and decent working conditions and the right to unionize. It’s because of the mass civil rights movement that brought down Jim Crow. A movement my dad was part of, the Black Student Union in his college, the University of Madison in Wisconsin, fighting for black studies so that we can learn about black history in colleges now.

It’s always about organized, collective struggle. There are important instances when politicians can be part of helping encourage those struggles, but I’m always focused on: How are more people going to be part of organizing to put a better vision forward of what our city or what our society can be?

What are you doing on MLK day?

I’ll be back at the rally…I’m really proud to say that my [BSU] students are going to be emceeing the event. To me, that’s much more important than me speaking…It would be a [victory] for the forces of unaccountability and police brutality if I didn’t show up. So I’ll be there.

cjaywork@seattleweekly.com

This is a longer, but still edited, version of the interview which appeared in the January 13th, 2015 edition of Seattle Weekly.

 

We are opting our first grade son out of the MAP test—here’s our letter explaining why

MyTeacherIsMyCompass

The infamous MAP test is set to be administered in my son’s school this week. The MAP is a computerized test meant to measure students in math and reading. Seattle Public Schools initially required MAP kindergarten through high school, with multiple testing periods per year. In 2013, Garfield High School launched a boycott of the MAP test and numerous schools joined in refusing to administer the test. By the end of the year the district announced that it would  no longer be requiring the MAP test at the high school level. Since then, the increasing pressure of the opt out movement and scrutiny on the role of high stakes testing in our education system have continued to reduce the use of the MAP test in the Seattle Public Schools.

mapTest_LibraryThe opt out movement has pointed out that the MAP test consumes too much class time, monopolizes computers and shuts down school libraries, is not linguistically or culturally appropriate for English language learners, and has a questionable validity (consider this research from https://scrapthemap.wordpress.com: PowerPoint: The MAP test).

Most recently, the district reduced the number of times per year that kindergarten through 2nd grades are required to administer MAP from 2-3 times per year to only once a year. However, there continue to be high stakes attached to MAP that can make it difficult for schools to reduce the number of times it is administered.

For example, schools that receive desperately needed extra levy funds from the city can lose funding if their test scores are not high enough. This is an egregious misuse of standardized test scores. Money for vital programs serving children in high poverty schools should never be cut based on a test that was not designed to be used for high stakes decisions.

Given all the specific problems with the MAP test, and the larger issue of misuse of standardized testing in general, my wife and I wrote this letter to our school’s principal opting our son out of the test this week:

Dear Principal,

Happy New Year! We hope you had a restful break.

We are writing to opt our first grade son out of all MAP testing for this 2015-2016 school year.

We are opting him out of standardized testing because we have seen the way an over-emphasis on scores has distorted what matters most in elementary education–such as creativity, being a good friend, communicating emotions, and problem solving. Ranking students based on test scores in the early grades can damage the self-esteem of late bloomers, and can distort the higher scoring students’ perceptions of themselves in relationship to their peers–these were our experiences growing up and we don’t want these scores to interfere with our son’s development. One of the most exciting aspects of our son’s education is the Spanish immersion program that has cultivated his love for language and laid the foundation for him to communicate with many more people across cultures and around the world – and yet none of this will be measured by the MAP test.

Opting out is a difficult decision this year, because of the way the scores can be used for high-stakes decisions around funding. It deeply saddens us that policy makers would deny funding to a school for any reason, but particularly one so narrow and tangential to real learning. Our son has excellent teachers and we think there is no substitute for their assessment of his progress.

We are deeply committed to our school community and look forward to working with you on these issues in years to come.

Thanks!

 

Arne Duncan: Testocracy Tsar. Educational Alchemist. Corporate lackey.

Arne_Duncan_at_Fern_Creek_High_School,_Louisville,_Kentucky2016 has begun with important news: We have endured the last days of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan roaming the halls of government, looking for teachers and students to intimidate.  Arne, “the nation’s bully,” no longer runs the schoolyard.  Educators and families around the country will remember him by many monikers, none of them sympathetic.

I should admit from the outset that my appraisal of Duncan isn’t informed by a dispassionate tally of his pluses and minuses. My evaluation of Duncan’s performance is the result of my personal interaction with the Secretary and his staff, his attack on the schools in my community, as well as a through review of his policies.

I wrote this essay for The Progressive magazine giving my assessment of Duncan’s tenure–let’s just say he didn’t pass the class.

Arne Duncan: Testocracy Tsar. Educational Alchemist. Corporate lackey.

Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education is set to resign at the close of the 2015, ending his tenure as one of the most destructive forces against public education in history.

“He’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anyone else,” President Obama gushed announcing Duncan’s resignation last October. Obama’s words were meant as praise for the Secretary, but in this one aspect of the assessment of Duncan I have to agree with the President. There can be no doubt that Duncan inflicted policies that caused students and educators to cry out for help.

Duncan’s official title may have been Secretary of Education, but his real role has been the “testocracy tsar.” His signature policies of Race to the Top and Common Core have been singularly focused on promoting high-stakes, standardized test-and-punish policies.

For example, in order for states to compete for grant money under Race to the Top, Duncan required them to increase the use of standardized testing in teacher evaluations. Duncan’s championing of the Common Core State Standards—and the tests that came shrink-wrapped with them—has ushered in developmentally inappropriate standards in the early grades that punish late bloomers, while further entrenching the idea that the intellectual and emotional process of teaching and learning can be reduced to a test score. For many, Duncan will be remembered as an educational alchemist who attempted to turn education into “testucation”—with the average student today subjected to an outlandish 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation. The highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color.

In addition, Duncan has been widely derided as “the national school superintendent” for the way he held waivers to the No Child Left Behind Act over the heads of state officials. NCLB set an unattainable goal of 100% proficiency in math and reading for every school in the country by 2014. As per the plan, not a single state reached the proficiency goals, and schools could only escape sanction by the federal government if they were granted a waiver—which Duncan would only grant to states who would agree to more testing.

This hit home for me last year when my state of Washington refused to mandate standardized tests in teacher evaluations. Arne Duncan then took off his gloves and showed he wasn’t afraid to punish children by revoking the NCLB waiver for the state. With the waiver gone, nearly all of Washington’s schools were labeled failures, resulting in the loss of control of millions of dollars in federal money.

And yet, as harmful as Duncan has been to our nation’s children, it’s important not to credit him with having too much impact. Duncan wasn’t a mastermind or a skilled political operative. He was a corporate yes man who did anything that was asked of him by the richest people the world has ever known. As Anthony Cody and others have detailed, billionaires such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family, set the education agenda, wrote the policy, worked political backchannels, and lined up the corporations who would profit. Once the education reforms were neatly packaged, these billionaires trotted out their flunky, Secretary Duncan, who dutifully worked to sell their agenda to the nation.

One of Duncan’s primary objectives has been the privatization of education through the dramatic expansion of charter schools. But as The Washington Post reported, an audit by the Department of Education’s own inspector general found “that the agency has done a poor job of overseeing federal dollars sent to charter schools.” This lack of oversight laid the foundation for a recent report from the Center for Popular Democracy and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), which found some $200 million in “alleged and confirmed financial fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” committed by charter schools around the country.

04-dscf3949-antoinette-barnesDuncan also implemented his policies in a cruel and arrogant manner. He infamously proclaimed Hurricane Katrina as “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” Duncan saw the destruction as a great opportunity because so many people were displaced that it allowed the privatizers to completely end public schooling in New Orleans. Today the district is 100 percent comprised of charter schools. Duncan wasn’t content replacing the arts, physical education, civics, literature, and critical thinking with high-stakes tests. He also sternly chastised parents who chose to opt their children out of standardized tests, dismissing the opt out movement as “coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were…” Duncan insulted white moms while simultaneously erasing the rising leadership of people of color who have long organized against high-stakes testing.

Duncan’s general attack on education got personal for me on July 9th, 2010, when he visited my hometown of Seattle to deliver a speech at an area school. I joined a throng of protesting teachers that day outside the school to picket his appearance and the corporate reform policies he was promoting.

As we rallied outside the high school, his handlers grew nervous that we would disrupt this stage-managed affair. They offered us a meeting with Duncan in exchange for our polite behavior during his address. We agreed, and after the event were escorted to a nearby classroom for the meeting.  That half hour with the Secretary was all I needed to know. The following is a transcript from an article I wrote at the time:

Mr. Duncan: To be clear, we [the Department of Education] want curriculum to be driven by the local level, pushing that. We are by law prohibited from directing curriculum. We don’t have a curriculum department.

Mr. Hagopian: I have to interject on that point. Because I think that merit pay…

Mr. Duncan: Let me finish, let me finish…

Mr. Hagopian: …Directly influences curriculum. When you have teachers scrambling and pitted against each other for a small amount of money [based on how their students perform on a test], what it does is narrow the curriculum to what’s on the test, even if you don’t set curriculum specifically. So I think you have to address that.

Mr. Duncan: I will. No one is mandating merit pay.

Mr. Hagopian: But you support it though?

Mr. Duncan: I do, I do…

Mr. Hagopian: So you support narrowing the curriculum.

Mr. Duncan: Can I finish? It’s a voluntary program. Schools and districts and unions are working together on some really innovative things.

Mr. Hagopian: Merit pay isn’t part of Race to the Top?

What my meeting with Secretary Duncan demonstrated, more than anything else, was his refusal to listen to educational professionals about how to improve public education. His dismissal of professional expertise has greatly contributed to the plummeting moral among teachers.

Yet, I have also discovered that the best antidote to despair is collective struggle. The one positive aspect of Duncan’s legacy is that his policies have sparked the largest uprising against high-stakes testing in U.S. history. Increasing numbers of teachers have flat out refused to administer standardized tests, students around the country have lead walkouts against the tests, and during the 2015 testing season, parents opted out some 620,000 public school students around the U.S. from standardized exams. This mass movement forced Duncan in his waning days as Secretary to begrudgingly acknowledge his policies have led to an “overemphasis on testing in some places,” and that “testing and test prep are taking from instruction.”

As thrilled as I am to see Duncan resign, President Obama’s replacement, John King, will likely only serve as a new testocracy tsar.  As Long Island opt out leader Jeanette Deutermann said of King when he stepped down as head of the New York State Education Department:

For the past few years we have endured an education commissioner that has repeatedly ignored our pleas for help. He has heard our stories of our children suffering as a result of the Board of Regent’s corporate reform agenda, and replied, “full steam ahead.”

Secretary John King will be tasked with carrying out the new federal education policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which eliminates the “Adequate Yearly Progress” annual test score gain requirement. However, the new law maintains the detrimental mandate to give standardized reading and math tests to children in every grade, from 3-8 and once in high school—empowering states to sanction any school labeled as underperforming.

Federal education policy will continue to follow the whims of the richest people in the world—people who did not attend public schools and would never dream of sending their children to one—until the opt out movement joins with other social justice struggles to fundamentally shift the balance of power away from the executive board room and towards the classroom.

So, join me in a New Year’s toast to Duncan’s dethroning—and then join the struggle to overthrow the testocracy all together.

Jesse Hagopian is a Progressive Education Fellow and the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. Follow him on twitter: @jessedhagopian

Five 2015 victories that put cracks in the ‘testocracy’

Never in U.S. history have more students, parents, and teachers engaged in acts of resistance to standardized tests. During the 2015 testing season, over 620,000 public school students around the U.S. refused to take standardized exams, according to a report by the National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest).

I wrote this essay for the National Education Association’s “Education Votes” blog to sum up the top five victories against against the “testocracy” and its test-and-punish model of education, accessible here: http://educationvotes.nea.org/2015/12/28/five-2015-victories-that-put-cracks-in-the-testocracy/

Please share the stories of our victories for a meaningful education–and join us in this uprising in 2016!

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