It was one of the most triumphant days of my life.
Thursday, June 15th was a day when I took the most painful moment in my life and used it to produce one of the most joyous days of my life. This was the day I had the honor to present the Black Education Matters Student Activist Award to four incredible young changemakers in the Seattle Public Schools. The Student Activist Award fund offers a cash scholarship and community support to deserving Seattle public school students who demonstrate exceptional leadership in struggles for social justice and against institutional racism. Our winners this year were Jelani Howard, Baily Adams, Precious Manning-Isabell, and Mahala Provost—young activists who you will undoubtedly hear much more about in the future as they continue to challenge racism and transform every institution they encounter.
Each student received $1,000 from the fund I started after winning a settlement when I was assaulted by a Seattle police officer. I won this settlement by launching a federal lawsuit against the City and the Seattle Police Department after being pepper sprayed without provocation at the 2015 Martin Luther King Day rally in Seattle. While the officer who doused me with pepper spray, officer Sandra DeLaFuente, didn’t even receive a one-day suspension for assaulting me on the sidewalk, I was at least able to win some compensation that I could put to good use. I then partnered with leaders in the Seattle NAACP–education chair Rita Green and youth outreach coordinator Rachael DeCruz–to form a committee for finding and selecting leading student activists.
Joining us for the award ceremony were the Super Bowl champion Bennett brothers, Michael and Martellus–two of the greatest football players in the NFL and two of the greatest activist athletes in the world. Having these two celebrated athletes and powerful spokesmen for justice made the award ceremony deeply meaningful for all in attendance. Seattle Seahawk defensive end Michael Bennett gave one of the awards in the name of his mother, Pennie Bennett, to Mahala Provost. Bennett said of this newly established award,
The Pennie Bennett Black Education Matters award is given in the name of my mother who, as an administrator and a teacher, has dedicated her life to changing the school system and her community. This award is presented to the most outstanding student changemaker for their work in the community and at school–and for believing that anything is possible and inspiring others to be different.
Provost won this award for her dedication to showing the power of STEM fields (winning seven gold medals statewide in the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics) and her activism for food justice with the organization FEAST, where she worked to eliminate food deserts and teaches about nutrition in communities of color.
Student award winner Precious Manning-Isabell is the president of the Black Student Union at Chief Sealth International High School and has been a leader on and off the campus. She helped to lead the Black Lives Matter At School day action at her school, as a cheerleader she refused to stand for the national anthem to raise awareness about racism and police violence, and she helped produce an award winning documentary, “Riffing on the Dream,” about race relations at her high school.
Award winner Baily Adams is the president of the Black Student Union at Garfield High School and has helped organize teach-ins, die-ins, know your rights trainings, and was leader in the Black Lives Matter At School event this year. When Donald Trump was elected president, Adams was one of the students who lead a walkout of hundreds of students out of the school, joining thousands of other students from all around the city in one of the biggest walkouts in Seattle’s history.
Jelani Howard is a member of the Garfield High School football team and helped lead the team in discussions about taking a knee during the national anthem, building on the example of Colin Kaepernick, to raise awareness around racism and police violence against people of color. The entire team agreed and their action–all season long–garnered national news headlines and inspired teams all around the city, state, and nation to follow suit.
Seeing the joy in the faces of the student activist award winners and their families that evening made me certain that pain I endured from being assaulted by the police was not in vain. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Education without social action is a one-sided value because it has no true power potential.” These students represent a new generation of young Black rebels who are expanding our understanding of the purpose education, refuse to accept a system that does respect their humanity, and are becoming truly powerful agents of change.
Some 6,000 high school seniors in Washington are at risk of not graduating because they haven’t passed one of the myriad of high-stakes tests, including the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (SBAC) Common Core aligned language arts and math exams, as well as a biology end-of-course exam. These students could have met all the other requirements, excelled social and academically in school, and yet be denied a diploma from a test-and-punish political system that is completely out of control.
However, because of the massive uprising of the opt-out movement in Seattle, Washington State, and around the country, politicians are being forced to reconsider the testing graduation requirements. There are currently two bills in the Washington State legislature that could help alleviate the pain.
House Bill 1046 would complete eliminate the requirement to pass any of the high-stakes exit exams for graduation. Proponents of corporate education reform, such as Stand for Children and the Business Roundtable, opposed the House bill and the Senate then drafted Bill 5891, which would only eliminate the biology end-of-course exam as a requirement for graduation—until the year 2021.
On Thursday, the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, announced he is asking the legislature to reach a compromise that would suspend all of the graduation test requirements until 2019. Then students who don’t pass one of the exams would have six alternative ways to graduate, including reaching a minimum score on college-entrance exams or taking a college-level course.
Let’s be clear: Requiring exit exams to graduate has nothing to with what expert educators know about best practices for assessing students. In fact, 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.
Let’s be clear about another thing: none of these proposals to lessen the cruelty of the testocracy would have been possible without rebellion from parents, students, educators, and community members who have demanded an end to over-testing. From the student walkouts of high-stakes tests, to the teacher boycotts, to the parent opt-outs, it has been the grassroots struggle that has proven most important in changing the narrative about abuses of standardized testing and the authentic assessment alternative.
One of the champions of this movement is Rita Green, the NAACP Education Chair for Seattle (and a three state region). Below is the testimony she gave before the Washington State Legislature on March 20, 2017 to demand they stop using high-stakes exams as graduation requirements. Read her story and then contact a Washington State Legislator to let them know our children are more than a score.
Hi my name is Rita Green, I am the Education Chair for the NAACP, representing the State of Washington, Oregon and Alaska.
I am here today to speak in support of removing and delinking the passage of SBAC as a graduation requirement.
First, These exam do not show, prove or measure the entire character or capabilities of students. These exams do not measure discrepancies for the students whose families pay for test prep classes to artificially drive up their test scores. [These tests measure]:
1) Working memory-how well your child can hold information in their mind & execute upon it.
2) Processing speed-how quickly your child can solve problems
3) Nonverbal reasoning- how well your child can solve problems for which they received no previous education all 3 of these are universal skills.
4) What is measured in these exams are verbal comprehension skills. This measures the cultural knowledge – words, Ideas and concepts that white people use. These are foreign to people of color because they have nothing to do with their experience and thereby makes these exams discriminatory.
Proficiency can be measured through Course Finals, and demonstration.
Second, my daughter Brittany never passed the Math [standardized test] WASL, because she missed a passing score by 6 points. In 2009 she graduated from High School. In 2013, Brittany graduated from Lincoln University with a BS in Criminal Justice and a Law Certificate. She worked one year for City Year at a school in Baton Rouge, LA. In 2014, she went back to school and graduated in 2016 with a Master’s Degree in Justice and Security Administration. Brittany plans to go back to school to get a PHD in 2018. This is a student who would not have graduated under the current WA State Graduation requirements.
How many other Brittany’s could our current law potentially hurt, harm or hinder?
Philly Educators Launch Black Lives Matter At School Week
Today, educators in Philadelphia are launching the Black Lives Matter week of action, continuing to build the Black Lives Matter At School movement that has now reached school districts across the country. During this week-long campaign, teachers will dedicate more instructional time to issues of racial and social justice, diversity, and community building.
The #BlackLivesMatterAtSchool movement erupted in Seattle on October 19th of this school year when thousands of educators wore Black Lives Matter Shirts and many held discussions and taught lessons about institutional racism. Now the Philly Caucus of Working Educators Racial Justice Committee has organized a powerful week of action to address the many intersectional identities within the Black community.
Here’s a list of the week’s activities and themes:
Jan. 23: Restorative Justice, Empathy, and Loving Engagement
A city-wide event starting in the classrooms, where all schools and educators are encouraged to allocate at least an hour of their school day/lesson plan for educating and empowering students on the Black Lives Matter movement.
Jan. 24: Diversity and Globalism (#EthnicStudiesPHL)
This first official meeting will create a work plan for educators and encourage the exploration and expansion of ethnic studies in the Philadelphia area. It will be held at 5 p.m. at St. Stephen’s Green, 1701 Green St.
Jan. 25: Transgender-Affirming, Queer-Affirming, and Collective Value
This event – titled “How to Bridge the Gap Between Parents/Families and Schools” – will be held as a town meeting at City Hall. Organizers say it will be a community conversation about the present disconnect and growing gap between parents and school staff.
Jan. 26: Intergenerational, Black Families, and Black Villages – screening of the movie 13th
The movie focuses on how the U.S. criminal justice system has unjustifiably and unequally imprisoned African Americans through the 13th Amendment, which made slavery and involuntary servitude illegal “except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” After the movie screening, there will be a talkback discussion regarding intergenerational communities and the disruption of the Western nuclear family. This event will be held from 5 to 8 p.m. at Edward T. Steel Elementary, 4301 Wayne Ave.
Jan. 27: Black Women and Unapologetically Black
A panel will discuss “Beauty, Society, & More” and the effects on Black girls and women. This event will start at 5 p.m. at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, 3700 Walnut St., Room 203.
Jan. 28: Conversation & Closing Panel Discussion
After screening clips from the movies Pariah and Moonlight, there will be a conversation about LGBTQ people’s lives as they relate to the film and the Black Lives Matter movement. This event will be held from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. in the Ritter Annex at Temple University.
The closing panel will discuss “Next Steps: How Does the Work Continue Beyond Black Lives Matter Week?” from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at Temple, Tuttleman Learning Center, 1809 North 13th St.
Black Lives Matter Week is co-sponsored by the Teacher Action Group Philadelphia and is also endorsed by many education organizations, including Parents United for Public Education, Neighborhood Networks, Philadelphia Children’s March, Philly Socialists, Teachers Lead Philly, Youth United for Change, and United Caucuses of Rank and File Educators (UCORE). Organizations that support these invaluable school and community dialogues can sign up to endorse here.
In addition, dozes of scholars and professors have signed on to a statement of support for the Philly Black Lives Matter At School action. You can read the statement below and if you are a professor you can add your name by visiting their website.
We, the undersigned professors and scholars, publicly express our support for and solidarity with teachers and community members and their January 23-28 action in recognition of making Black Student Lives Matter in our schools.
We believe that these goals are vital for educators, parents, students, and all communities in order to…
- create a space for introspection and dialogue around the 13 guiding principles;
- build deeper connections between educators, parents, students, and community organizations;
- stand in support of national organizing supporting Black Lives Matter;
- empower students and student groups to play a leading role in this week and moving forward.
As this work continues beyond January 28, we support the Racial Justice Statement written by the Caucus of Working Educators, which asserts that “purposeful action needs to be taken in order to eliminate the adverse outcomes derived from perpetual structural racism evident in public education.”
This ongoing work will promote equality; the value of human life; and educational, political, and social justice. It requires us to develop the knowledge and actions necessary to eliminate the barriers that structural prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination, and bias create in Philadelphia and beyond. We are committed to teaching, learning, and culture in our classrooms that reflect these missions and goals, and to our role in building the leadership of our students to live by them. The survival and empowerment of all communities demands this.
Rhiannon Maton, Ph.D., Critical Writing Program, University of Pennsylvania
Mark Stern, Ph.D., Department of Educational Studies, Colgate University
Amy Brown, Ph.D., Critical Writing Program, University of Pennsylvania
Sonia M. Rosen, Ph.D., Arcadia University School of Education
Camika Royal, Ph.D., Loyola University Maryland School of Education
Imani Perry, Ph.D., J.D. Princeton University Department of African American Studies
Kathleen Riley, Ph.D., Department of Literacy, West Chester University
Casey Bohrman, PhD, MSW Undergraduate Social Work, West Chester University
Seth Kahn, PhD, Department of English, West Chester University
Katie Solic, Ph.D., Department of Literacy, West Chester University
Kristen B.Crossney, PhD, Department of Public Policy and Administration, West Chester University
Gabriel A. Piser, PhD, Ohio State University
Tabitha Dell’Angelo, PhD, The College of New Jersey
Jill Hermann-Wilmarth, PhD, Western Michigan University
David I. Backer, PhD, West Chester University
Laura A. Roy, Ph.D., Penn State Harrisburg
Erin Hurt, PhD, Department of English, West Chester University
Craig Stutman, PhD., Department of Liberal Arts,
Delaware Valley University
Timothy R. Dougherty, Ph.D., Department of English, West Chester University
Edwin Mayorga, Ph.D. Dept. of Educational Studies and Program in Latin American & Latinx Studies, Swarthmore College
Miriam Fife, Ed.D.
Kira J. Baker-Doyle, Ph.D. Arcadia University School of Education
Jessica A. Solyom, Ph.D., Center for Indian Education, Arizona State University
Benjamin J. Muller, Ph.D., King’s University College at Western University (Canada)
Chonika Coleman-King, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Bruce Campbell Jr., Ph.D. Arcadia University School of Education
Erin Whitney, Ed.D., School of Education, California State University, Chico
Susan Bickerstaff, Ph.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Katie Clonan-Roy, Ph.D., Colby College
Jerusha Conner, Ph.D., Villanova University
Jill E. Schwarz, Ph.D., The College of New Jersey (TCNJ)
Anita Chikkatur, Ph.D., Carleton College, Minnesota
Kim Dean, Ph.D., Arcadia University
Rick Eckstein, Ph.D., Villanova University
Ali MIchael, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania
Kelly Welch, Ph.D., Villanova University
Shivaani Selvaraj, D.Ed., Penn State Center for Engaged Scholarship, Philadelphia
Amy Stornaiuolo, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania
Sukey Blanc, Ph.D., Creative Research & Evaluation LCC
Vicki McGinley, PhD, Department of Special Education, West Chester University
Rob Connor, PhD, CSA
Graciela Slesaransky-Poe, Ph.D., Professor and Former Founding Dean, School of Education, Arcadia University
Brian Lozenski, Ph.D., Educational Studies Department, Macalester College
Kathy Schultz, Ph.D. Dean and Professor, School of Education, University of Colorado Boulder
Jonathan Shandell, Arcadia University
Dean J. Johnson, Ph.D., Peace and Conflict Studies Program, West Chester University
Dean Rachael Murphey-Brown, PhD, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Duke University
Lan Ngo, PhD, Critical Writing Program and Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania
Jessica Whitelaw, PhD, University of Pennsylvania
Ashon Crawley, PhD, University of California, Riverside
Shaleigh Kwok, PhD, Critical Writing Program, University of Pennsylvania
Rochelle Peterson, School of Education, Arcadia University
Keely McCarthy Ph.D., Chestnut Hill College
Kathy Hall, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania
Marc Meola, MA, MLS, Community College of Philadelphia
Jamie A. Thomas, PhD, Dept. of Linguistics, Program in Black Studies, Swarthmore College
Steven Davis, PhD, Dept. of English, Community College of Philadelphia
Anna (Anne) Ríos-Rojas, Ph.D., Department of Educational Studies, Colgate University
Encarna Rodríguez, Ph.D., Saint Joseph’s University
Monica L. Mercado, Ph.D., Department of History, Colgate University
Debora Broderick, EdD., Chester County Intermediate Unit
Chandra Russo, PhD, Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Colgate University
Ali Stefanik, SERVE 101 Coordinator, Office of Student Engagement, Philadelphia University
Sally Wesley Bonet, Ph.D., Department of Educational Studies, Colgate University
Emily A. Greytak, PhD.
Danny M. Barreto, Ph.D., Colgate University
Rosemary A. Barbera, Ph.D., MSS, Lasalle University
Rachel Throop, Ph.D., Education Studies, Barnard College
Caitlin J. Taylor, Ph.D., La Salle University
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Ph.D., African American studies department, Princeton University
Cheryl A. Hyde, PhD, MSW, School of Social Work, Temple University
Jessie M. Timmons, LCSW, School of Social Work, Temple University
Mansura Karim, LSW, School of Social Work, Temple University
Emeka Nwadiora, LLM., MED[c]., MSW., PhD., JD., PhD/DSW, College of Public Health, Temple University
Adam Miyashiro, Ph.D., Stockton University
Susan Thomas, PhD, International Studies, American University
Miguel Muñoz-Laboy, DrPH, MPH, School of Social Work and College of Public Health, Temple University
Debora Kodish, Ph.D., Philadelphia Folklore Project, retired
Dana Morrison Simone, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Delaware and West Chester University
Lauren Ware Stark, MA, PhD Candidate, University of Virginia
Richard Liuzzi, Ed.D. student, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania
Martha Carey, PhD, Urban Education, Temple University
Jen Bradley, Ph.D., Educational Studies, Swarthmore College
Susan L. DeJarnatt, Professor of Law, Temple University Beasley School of Law
Ryan Villagran, MSW, School of Social Work, Temple University
Katie Pak, Ed.D student, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania
Jody Cohen, Bryn Mawr College
Anne Pomerantz, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania
Len Rieser, Temple University Beasley School of Law
Sherisse L. Laud-Hammond, MSW, School of Social Work, Temple University
Ryan M. Good, Ph.D., Adjunct Assistant Professor, Temple University
Monica L. Clark, M.S., Ph.D. Student & Undergrad Gen Ed Instructor, College of Ed, Temple University
Maia Cucchiara, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Urban Education, Temple University
Stephen Danley, DPhil, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Rutgers-Camden University
Juliet Curci, PhD, Temple University College of Education
Elaine Leigh, Ph.D. Student, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania
Lynnette Mawhinney, Ph.D., Associate Professor, The College of New Jersey
The struggle for equitable education went to summer school, and the new school year is getting underway with leading Black organizations bolstering the movement against the central components of the corporate education reform agenda.
In an earthmoving decision for the education landscape, the NAACP — the nation’s oldest civil rights organization — voted at its July national gathering to call for “a moratorium on privately managed charter schools,” saying charter schools:
do not represent the public yet make decisions about how public funds are spent [and have] contributed to the increased segregation rather than diverse integration of our public school system…. Researchers have warned that charter school expansions in low-income communities mirror predatory lending practices that led to the sub-prime mortgage disaster, putting schools and communities impacted by these practices at great risk of loss and harm.
A moratorium would halt the granting of any more licenses to open new charter schools — that is, schools funded by the public but privately run and not accountable to democratically elected school boards. The NAACP announcement has corporate education reformers reeling. Rick Hess, director of education policy at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, said that if local governments adopt the NAACP’s proposed moratorium, “It would give a permanent black eye to the sector.”
If the NAACP’s stance on charters would bruise the corporate agenda, then the declaration from the Movement for Black Lives — the newest civil rights coalition, comprised of dozens of grassroots organizations around the country — would flatline it altogether. The coalition released a policy platform at the beginning of August that called for, among other things, a moratorium on all out-of-school suspensions and the removal of police from schools, replacing them with positive alternatives to discipline and safety. It also called for a moratorium on charter schools and school closures, and full funding formulas that adequately weigh the needs of all districts in the state. The Movement for Black Lives wrote:
Sixty years since Brown v. Board of Education, the school-to-prison pipeline continues to play a role in denying Black people their human right to an education, and privatization strips Black people of the right to self-determine the kind of education their children receive. This systematic attack is coordinated by an international education privatization agenda, bankrolled by billionaire philanthropists such as Bill and Melinda Gates, the Walton Family, and Eli and Edythe Broad, and aided by the departments of Education at the federal, state, and local level…. Their aims are to undermine Black democracy and self-determination, destroy organized labor, and decolor education curriculum, while they simultaneously overemphasize standardized testing, and use school closures to disproportionately disrupt access to education in Black communities.
Indeed, billionaire philanthrocapitalists have upended education over the past 15 years by backing a series of major policy changes — codified in the No Child Left Behind Act, the Race to the Top initiative and the Common Core State Standards. These policies have badly damaged education for all kids and have had particularly harmful effects on Black and Brown communities. Today, increasing numbers of people have discovered that these reforms are in reality efforts to turn the schoolhouse into an ATM for corporate America.
While their program for corporate reform is being eroded by research and rising grassroots movements, the corporate reformers are clinging to one last glossy brochure in the public relations portfolio — the one with photos of Black youth on the cover and promises that all of these reforms are really about civil rights and defending kids of color.
The president of the pro-corporate reform group Democrats for Education Reform, Shavar Jeffries, scolded the NAACP for its opposition to charters: “It’s a divide between families who are served by charters and see the tangible effects that high-quality charters are having, and some who don’t live in the inner-city communities, where it becomes more of an ideological question versus an urgent life-and-death issue for their kids.”
What these neoliberal reformers know, but don’t want you to know, are the findings of a recent study on charter school discipline practices. This comprehensive analysis found:
- Black students at charter schools were suspended 6.4 percent more often than white students at the primary level and an astounding 16.4 percent more at the secondary level.
- 374 charter schools suspended 25 percent of their enrolled student body at least once.
- Nearly half of all Black secondary charter school students attended one of the 270 schools that was hyper-segregated (meaning at least 80 percent of the student body was Black) and where the aggregate Black suspension rate was 25 percent.
- 235 charter schools suspended more than 50 percent of their enrolled students with disabilities.
Also of great concern for neoliberal reformers is the Movement for Black Lives’ opposition to the abuses of standardized testing. With the rise of a mass movement of teachers, parents and students opting out of standardized testing, the multibillion-dollar testing industry has been scrambling for talking points to maintain its legitimacy. The industry’s latest strategy for containing the movement against test-and-punish education policy is to pretend it is aligned with the civil rights movement. Take this sophistry on behalf of the testocracy from the Education Post, a website funded in part by the Walmart-funded Walton Foundation:
Spreading misinformation about testing threatens one of the primary data points that can be used by parents, teachers and lawyers to fight for the civil rights of children who have been under-taught…. Every time someone opts their middle-class kid out of an exam, they are impacting the validity of data that could be used in a court case to prove that students’ civil rights are being violated in their schools. Every time someone spreads the lie that teachers can’t do their jobs because of standardized testing, they give credence to forces who don’t believe that teachers should be accountable at all.
Forget the fact that the nation’s largest public school systems have more cops than counselors. Forget the criminal underfunding of our schools. Forget the racist corporate textbooks rampant in our schools. The testocracy would have you believe that the primary problem in education — indeed the real obstacle to civil rights — is the parent who opts their kids out of a standardized test, or the teacher who explains how the curriculum is being warped by having to teach to the test.
What the testocracy doesn’t want you to know is that standardized testing is a multibillion dollar industry, with the average student in the American public school system taking an outlandish 112 standardized tests during their k-12 career. They don’t want you to know that many schools that serve Black and Brown students have become test-prep factories rather than incubators of creativity and critical thinking, with testing saturating education at even higher concentrations in schools serving low-income students and students of color. They don’t want you to understand the way high-stakes tests are being used around the country in service of the school-to-prison-pipeline. A review by the National Research Council concluded that high school graduation tests have done nothing to lift student achievement, but they have raised the dropout rate. When one test score can deny students graduation — even when they have met every other graduation requirement — it can have devastating consequences. 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.
While it may be true that the students opting out today are disproportionately white, to portray the movement against standardized testing as a white movement 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 woman, is one of the most important leaders in the national movement 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. 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. This past school year in Baltimore, the predominantly Black students in the Baltimore Algebra Project produced a brilliant music video against standardized testing — and then led a walkout during the PARCC [Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers] test, coinciding with the anniversary of the murder of Freddie Gray by the police, in an effort to highlight the school-to-prison-pipeline. And some of the biggest student walkouts in US history against standardized testing occurred in New Mexico at schools serving a student population that is roughly 90 percent Latino and Latina.
Nationally, the NAACP has yet to join the opt-out movement and advocate for civil disobedience in the struggle for authentic assessment and education justice. However, an increasing number of local NAACP chapters are raising opposition to the punitive nature of high-stakes testing and preparing for a struggle at the national level. In Seattle, the local NAACP hosted a press conference 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.”
The increasing involvement of the Black Lives Matter movement in struggles to democratize education may come as a surprise to the obscenely wealthy, who are using their money to control public education and often fancy themselves civil rights crusaders. But it shouldn’t surprise the rest of us.
The struggle for education has been a part of every major uprising for racial justice that Black people have engaged in throughout US history. This includes resistance to the “compulsory ignorance” laws during slavery, the establishment of the Freedman’s Bureau and public schools during Reconstruction, the debates between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois on the purpose of education during Jim Crow, the Brown V. Board Supreme Court lawsuit, the Freedom Schools of the civil rights movement, and the fight for Black studies programs during the Black Power era. The struggle for Black education has always been central to the fight for Black liberation.
Today, a new Black rebellion has erupted — from the sit-down protests on NFL fields, to the urban rebellions in the streets — galvanized by extrajudicial executions of Black people by the police and racist vigilantes. While the movement to defend Black folks from unaccountable, racist police has been the most prominent aspect this new movement, Black Lives Matter doesn’t end with the demand that Black people not be shot down in the streets. While there are certainly many prerequisites to achieving a society where Black lives truly matter, one of them, certainly, is confronting the long legacy of racist schooling and replacing it with an a consciously anti-racist education system.
A world where Black lives matter and Black education is empowering will not come easily. It won’t be funded by benevolent philanthropists. It won’t be promoted by corporate lobbyists or legislated by the politicians they own. It will only happen with an uprising beyond even the scale and militancy of the last century’s civil rights and Black Power movements. The contradictions of unhinged police murder of Black people in the “land of the free,” coupled with corporate education reformers’ racist schooling policies enacted in the name of “closing the achievement gap,” are already producing large-scale, renewed social unrest. The question of how powerful this movement grows is up to us.
Time to hit the books and take our struggle for public education Black to school.
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.
Jesse Hagopian is an associate editor for Rethinking Schools magazine. Jesse teaches history and is the Black Student Union adviser at Garfield High School, the site of the historic boycott of the MAP standardized test. He is the editor and contributing author to More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing (Haymarket Books, 2014) and recipient of the 2013 “Secondary School Teacher of the Year” award from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences. A survivor of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Jesse is an advocate for Haitian human rights. Visit his blog: iamaneducator.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jessedhagopian.
“It’s about collective struggle”: Interview with Jesse Hagopian on education & the movement for Black Lives
As the one-year anniversary of a Seattle police officer pepper spraying me on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day approaches, I sat down with the Seattle Weekly reporter, Casey Jaywork, to discuss ongoing struggles for social justice. Here are my reflections on police brutality, the intersection of race and class, and disrupting the school-to-prison-pipeline.
A conversation with Jesse Hagopian.
By Casey Jaywork Tue., Jan 12 2016 at 06:07PM
Last year, teacher and activist Jesse Hagopian broke the Internet—but not in a good way. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Hagopian was randomly pepper sprayed by a panicked cop. Video of the incident went viral, adding yet another chapter to the Seattle Police Department’s long history of excessive force. Hagopian is currently suing the city.
Teacher and activist Jesse Hagopian. Photo by Jose Trujillo.
But there’s more to this teacher than his receipt of SPD’s favored less-than-lethal weapon. With another MLK Day approaching, Seattle Weekly sat down with Hagopian to talk about race and justice in Seattle.
SW: You’re a teacher and advocate, but you may be best known for getting pepper sprayed during last year’s MLK march.
JH: It’s rough to be known for your worst day of your life. It’s hard that random people come up and say, ‘Oh, you were the guy who got pepper sprayed.’ To be known for such a low moment in my life can be difficult, but I think it’s also important that that moment serve as a lesson to our city: that nobody’s safe when we have unaccountable police.
You still feel like that officer and SPD have not been held accountable.
Absolutely…[Prior to getting pepper sprayed, I gave a speech about how] those who claim to honor [MLK] and degrade the Black Lives Matter movement are fraudulent. The words I spoke that day were about how King would be in the streets with the Black Lives Matter activists demanding justice. Many people today disparage Black Lives Matter activists–sometimes calling them thugs–but yet they like to give hollow remembrance to Martin Luther King.
He’s kind of become a teddy bear.
Right? Like a tame icon. And I wanted to call out that contradiction. I just think that it’s ironic that only a few minutes after I spoke those words, I was preparing to leave the demonstration to go to my son’s two year old birthday party, on the phone with my mother coordinating the ride, and an officer just–clearly without provocation, out of the blue–sprays me in the face and turns what was one of my most proud and joyous days into a deeply painful experience…The physical pain was one matter, but what was truly painful was trying to explain this to my kids at the birthday party.
When a citizen has definitive evidence of police misconduct and wrongdoing, there has to be accountability for that officer. I had every possible advantage to be able to prove my case, advantages that most people will never have–when they take stands for justice, or when they just live their lives and encounter police. I had video documentation. I had many eyewitnesses. I have a lot of supporters in the community. And I had the [Office of Professional Accountability] rule in my favor. What more do I need to lay out a case that there’s a clear misconduct and wrongdoing? And yet the chief of police intervenes in my case and downgrades the discipline to the lowest possible form, overruling the [OPA]. I think that’s a real shame, and something that has to be corrected if there’s going to be justice.
How have you seen the Black Lives Matter movement change over time?
I think that we’ve seen an ebb and flow as different high profile cases go, but I would say that beyond the media representation of the movement, there’s been ongoing organizing of people committed to making black lives matter that might not be as visible but is definitely important organizing that’s deepening people’s understanding of the roots of institutional racism, and is also laying the basis for future, bigger collective struggle for police accountability, and also to broaden the Black Lives Matter movement beyond police accountability–to say that if we really want black lives to matter, then there has to be housing for African Americans. There has to be job programs, there has to be education that empowers our youth to solve real problems like racism in their community, and not just to score high on a test or be ready for a low-wage job in the economy.
In terms of racial justice, what have been the most notable events in Seattle over the past year?
The struggle against the youth jail has united a lot of important activists…I’ve brought that issue to the teachers’ union. That discussion is ongoing…
Garfield began working with some different trainers on [restorative justice programs], and we’re now this year working on peace circles with the staff so they can really gain a strong understanding of the power of being able to solve problems collectively. It is my hope that we can roll out a full pilot of restorative justice in the coming years, and try to move away from zero tolerance. The important thing is that it actually gets support from the school district, and resources and financial backing, because to make restorative justice more than just a box to check…I think it has to actually have full-time coordinators who are trained in restorative practices. There has to be training for students and faculty around those kinds of practices, that can actually help students solve their problems. Rather than just punish them for transgressions, let’s actually empower them to solve the problem.
What would that look like, compared to how things work now?
Seattle public schools suspend African American students at four times the rate of white students for the very same infractions. So we know that there’s dramatically disproportionate discipline, and many schools have zero tolerance policies where you’re immediately suspended for different infractions. And oftentimes, it’s very discretionary for the administrations to perceive student behavior and make a judgement that they should be excluded from school for a period of time. And then the students miss school, they fall behind in their work, they become more bitter because the problem hasn’t been solved, and they often come back more likely to engage in the very same behavior and more likely not to pass their class or graduate. We know that that is part of the school-to-prison pipeline, where students who don’t graduate then turn to survival crimes, sometimes, because they aren’t the most desirable to be employed without a diploma.
We want to sever the school-to-prison pipeline by putting restorative practices, which is bringing together the person that’s been injured and the person who’s been accused and actually make them do something much harder than stay home from school: make them face their problem with mentors and peers. Have them work through the issue, have them set goals, have them collectively figure out what a just resolution would be. That’s a much harder practice, but it demonstrates to our kids that our school actually cares about you. Not just when you’re scoring well on a test, not just when you’re doing well in school, but when you’ve made a mistake, when you’re down, when nobody else cares about you or people are angry at you–we care about you enough to help you solve this problem. That’s how we transform student lives and create better people through education. I’m excited to try to push for those kinds of practices. One of the triumphs of the strike this year was that the union pushed for race and equity teams and we won in the contract having thirty schools have race and equity teams. These teams can form with parents and students and teachers and community members to make recommendations about how to undo institutional racism at their school.
Yeah. I would hope that those recommendations would be taken seriously by the school district and by the administration, and I would hope that many schools look at moving toward restorative practices if those race and equity teams find that their school is part of the disproportionate suspension rate. I think that one of the functions of that equity team could be to begin to organize restorative justice practices in the school.
The strike and the fight for these race and equity teams should be seen through the lens of the Black Lives Matter movement. I think one of the high points of solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement was a letter that many of the leading Seattle Black Lives Matter activists put out in solidarity with the strike, saying, ‘Your fight for public education is our fight, and your struggle for these race and equity teams are a prerequisite for having a culturally competent education.’ I was very proud of the Seattle movement when that letter was released.
The restorative justice model sounds great, but it seems like political will and funding make it a longshot. Can this actually happen?
The exciting thing is that it is being rolled out in innovative school districts around the country. Just a few weeks ago, I had an incredible opportunity to speak at a forum with Fania Davis, who’s Angela Davis’ sister, and the young people that she has been working with in the Oakland public school system. They have had incredible results with the restorative justice movement there–in terms of dramatically reducing suspension rates in the district overall, and at some schools completely eliminating suspensions altogether.
One young man who spoke on the panel described how, in preschool, he had been suspended because he was having anxiety as a four year old when his mom would leave. And his mom left him with a bag of Skittles and said, ‘Every time you’re worried about where I am, pop one of these Skittles and then you’ll know that I’m thinking of you and I love you.’ The teacher caught him eating Skittles in class and confiscated them, and gave them to the principal who put them in [their] desk. He was crushed, but he had an idea: he saw the window open, so he crawled through the principal’s window and got his Skittles back.
He wasn’t just suspended–he was suspended for theft. For taking back his Skittles. And he said from that day on, he didn’t trust school, and he didn’t trust those in authority. He was often suspended, and in and out of school. It wasn’t until he landed in one of the schools that Fania Davis was working at–that had a restorative practice, that welcomed him in from day one, with a circle to find out who he was and what mattered to him–that he realized that school could be a community that’s about supporting you, even if you’re African American, instead of punishing you. That’s what we have to move toward. It’s being done in communities around the country. The fact that we’re not doing it right now [in Seattle] is because there isn’t the will amongst those in power.
You mean the superintendent and school board?
The superintendent, for sure. I’m happy that we have a new school board. We just had an election, and I actually expect that the new school board will take unprecedented action and try to [pursue] a dangerous course that our past school board and officials weren’t brave enough to tackle. We can’t have any more incentive than we’ve had. It’s time.
The students in the Black Student Unions around the city are ready for a move away from zero tolerance and have told many teachers across the city and other students that it’s time we move there. I think that they will definitely raise their voice on that issue and many others, to help the school board move as quickly as possible.
When you say “maintaining institutional racism,” do you think legislators are consciously trying to do that?
All the major, powerful institutions that run our society have replicated racism generation after generation. You can see that slavery was ended, but segregation continued. Not just in the Jim Crow south, but through the practice of redlining. Banks would exclude lending to African Americans outside of prescribed areas like the Central District. [Then] redlining ends, but you have mass incarceration…It doesn’t take Klan members to organize that type of racist practice. It just takes people continuing the status quo, putting the needs of communities of color last, not funding public programs…We have to have a conscious effort to undo institutional racism or it will be maintained.
So if I’m a legislator, I can do racism by just being a cog in the machine without being a racist in a subjective, personal sense?
Absolutely. It doesn’t take having overt racist ideas to continue to vote for a budget that primarily incarcerates African Americans and other people of color. We have to transform the institutions dramatically. That, to me, would look like fully-funding education, diverting the funds in King County toward housing programs and health care rather than toward mass incarceration.
Can white students join Black Student Unions?
Absolutely. And we usually have a mix of backgrounds that come to our weekly meetings. The [BSU] at Garfield has a mission of empowering black students and confronting racism. Anybody who’s interested in that mission is more than welcome to participate. We’ve seen some great collaboration between Muslim students and the Muslim Student Association and the BSU and students of all backgrounds supporting.
Have you seen big changes in the thinking of white students who’ve become involved in a BSU?
There was a really powerful moment when there was a non-indictment of [Officer] Darren Wilson [in 2014, for killing Michael Brown]. Over a thousand students walked out of Garfield, of all different backgrounds and races. And it wasn’t just Garfield that walked out: Roosevelt, which is overwhelmingly white, had a walkout, and several other schools around Seattle. It showed the potential for the Black Lives Matter movement and message to galvanize a wide spectrum of society and of young people. I think that that is a lesson that our movement should look at, and work on organizing all those people that knew that there had to be justice for Mike Brown.
If I’m not a student, what’s a concrete way that I can help dismantle institutional racism?
The campaign against the youth jail. We need our hundreds of millions of dollars set up for tutoring programs and job programs, not more incarceration. So joining with campaigns that are being waged around that would be really important.
Participating in struggles around school funding and looking at restorative justice programs with the school district would be campaigns that I would highly recommend. I think the groups doing those campaigns are continuing to organize, and it’s my hope that those kinds of campaigns become bigger and more visible and begin more outreach to wider sections of Seattle.
How can white people talk about racism? It sometimes seems–at least for me, as a white person–that I face a dilemma where if I say anything, then I’m worried that I’ll say the wrong thing, and if I say nothing then I’m complicit. Any advice?
The key is the work. It’s not so much the exact way that you phrase your opposition or exactly what you say. To me, it’s: What actions are you taking to help us challenge institutions that continue to replicate racism year after year? As a white parent, can you go into the school and help work on forming a race and equity team at your kid’s school? You might not have the expertise, but you can work together with people who have more and help to implement something that could transform the lives of students of color in that school who are able to graduate instead of being pushed out [under] zero tolerance. You can join the campaign against the youth jail. You can do the work. As you do the work, you’ll learn more about theories and history that is important to help guide our struggles. [Don’t] let your uncomfortableness stop you from rolling up your sleeves and getting involved in the work.
I’m inspired by many struggles in our nation’s history, when white people joined in the struggle for racial justice. We need to be reminded of that, and we need to continue to push white people to hold up the best of that legacy of the Freedom Rides, of multiracial dockworker strikes [that occurred] all up and down the West Coast in the Thirties. There’s many important examples of the abolitionist movement: William Lloyd Garrison, a white man starting an abolitionist newspaper and helping to train Frederick Douglass as a journalist, building a multiracial partnership that proved historically important when Abraham Lincoln was waffling on what the Civil War was going to be about. Was it going to just put the South down and reintegrate it into the United States but continue their practice of slavery, or was it going to abolish slavery altogether? I’m thankful that a mass coalition of multiracial people in this country was able to convince him that the war should be about ending slavery. And eventually he came to that position.
I’ve just seen the importance of multiracial mass movements all throughout history. And I think that we’re desperate for another one today, when you look at Tamir Rice’s killer being let off, when you look at Sandra Bland–the officer who intimidated, and in my mind wrongfully arrested, Sandra Bland getting a slap on the wrist. Every day it seems there’s another example of gross injustice and deep racist practice of our country. We’re in desperate need of another mass uprising in this country that is about challenging the institutions of racism and redistributing power and wealth.
What’s the relationship between class and race?
They’re inextricably linked. Originally, the creation of racial categories was about maintaining the power of a wealthy, white elite. We’ve been studying this, actually, in school. Race was actually a modern invention that hasn’t existed very long.
You can actually look at the first racial laws that were written, shortly after Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia. That was multiracial mass uprising of white and black indentured servants and slaves that took over the Virginia colony for eight months. They burned the capital to the ground. And that mass multiracial power was terrifying to slaveowners and plantation owners, and they did what they had to do to maintain their power, which was what Frederick Douglass said: “They divided both to conquer each.” They wrote the first laws separating blacks and whites. They gave the vast majority of poor white people a little bit of wages, a little bit of benefits, so that they would separate themselves from African Americans and no longer work in solidarity. Which maintains the vast majority of both white and black people at the bottom, and a tiny white ruling minority at the top controlling all the wealth.
I look at that, and I look at our society today, and I don’t see a whole lot of difference, when you look at the fact that there are 85 people that have as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion people on our planet, you can see how they have hoarded the resources in the hands of a very few, and then they point to immigrants as being the problem. Racists like Donald Trump say, ‘We’re gonna build a border to keep out Mexicans, or we’re going to stop all Muslim immigrants from coming in, or it’s the black thugs that are the problem and you should worry about their crime and violence.’
All of that is rhetoric to deflect attention away from the fact that they have robbed us all, most blatantly when the banks sabotaged the global economy and then just pillaged taxpayer money to repay themselves. It’s an ongoing process that happens every day. They want us to fight amongst each other. They want us to blame immigrants or Muslims, rather than organizing a collective struggle to take back that wealth and to build a school system, a housing system, a healthcare system that meets the needs of all of us. I think that’s really the struggle that we have to engage in, and I think we’re at the very beginning of [it]. But I see great hope for the coming time as I see more and more young people getting active and raising their voice.
Are we going to see you run for office anytime soon?
[Laughs] No immediate plans on that. My work is so rewarding, to see young people getting active. And really, if there’s going to be a change in our society, it’s not going to be any shining knight coming in and fixing the problems. It’s not going to be any one politician.
Are you thinking of someone specific when you say that?
Not at all. I’m just saying that politicians aren’t going to be the source of fixing the problems in our society. I think what we’ve seen over and over again throughout US history is, when things get better for black people, when things get better for ordinary working people, it’s because they organize and make it happen. It’s because of the mass strikes in 1934 that won us social security and minimum wages and decent working conditions and the right to unionize. It’s because of the mass civil rights movement that brought down Jim Crow. A movement my dad was part of, the Black Student Union in his college, the University of Madison in Wisconsin, fighting for black studies so that we can learn about black history in colleges now.
It’s always about organized, collective struggle. There are important instances when politicians can be part of helping encourage those struggles, but I’m always focused on: How are more people going to be part of organizing to put a better vision forward of what our city or what our society can be?
What are you doing on MLK day?
I’ll be back at the rally…I’m really proud to say that my [BSU] students are going to be emceeing the event. To me, that’s much more important than me speaking…It would be a [victory] for the forces of unaccountability and police brutality if I didn’t show up. So I’ll be there.
This is a longer, but still edited, version of the interview which appeared in the January 13th, 2015 edition of Seattle Weekly.
Resistance to High Stakes Tests Serves the Cause of Equity in Education: A Reply to “We Oppose Anti-Testing Efforts”
Twelve national civil rights organizations released a statement today in opposition to parents and students who opt out of high-stakes standardized testing–what has now become a truly mass direct action campaign against the multi-billion dollar testing industry. I believe that their statement titled, “We Oppose Anti-Testing Efforts,” misses the key role that standardized testing has played throughout American history in reproducing institutional racism and inequality. I wrote the below statement, with the aid of the board of the Network for Public Education, to outline the racist history of standardized testing and to highlight leadership from people of color in the movement against high-stakes testing. I sincerely hope for a response from the civil rights organizations who authored the statement and I hope that this dialogue leads to deeper discussion about how to make Black Lives Matter in our school system and how to remake American public education on foundation of social justice.
Today several important civil rights organizations released a statement that is critical of the decision by many parents and students to opt out of high stakes standardized tests. Though we understand the concerns expressed in this statement, we believe high stakes tests are doing more harm than good to the interests of students of color, and for that reason, we respectfully disagree.
The United States is currently experiencing the largest uprising against high-stakes standardized testing in the nation’s history. Never before have more parents, students, and educators participated in acts of defiance against these tests than they are today. In New York State some 200,000 families have decided to opt their children out of the state test. The largest walkout against standardized tests in U.S. history occurred in Colorado earlier this school year when thousands refused to take the end of course exams. In cities from Seattle, to Chicago, to Toledo, to New York City, teachers have organized boycotts of the exam and have refused to administer particularly flawed and punitive exams.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attempted to dismiss this uprising by saying that opposition to the Common Core tests has come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” Secretary Duncan’s comment is offensive for many reasons. To begin, suburban white moms have a right not to have their child over tested and the curriculum narrowed to what’s on the test without being ridiculed. But the truth is his comment serves to hide the fact that increasing numbers of people from communities of color are leading this movement around the nation, including:
Members of the Baltimore Algebra Project organized a die-in of recent Black graduates who took over a Baltimore school board meeting in protest of the school closures that had been facilitated in part by labeling them failing with test scores. Heritage High School graduate Antwain Jordan said of the plan to close his alma mater, “The education system, there is no value on black life in this country. That’s nothing new, it’s not a secret. It’s the status quo, which is why these things are allowed to happen.”
- During the first week in March, several New Mexico schools with Latino/a student populations of over 90% organized mass walkouts against the Common Core PARCC tests in Albuquerque and across New Mexico, with the message, “We are not a test score.”
- On Feb. 17th the Newark Student Union, an organization led primarily by students of color, occupied the Newark school district headquarters in part because of their opposition to the implementation of the new Common Core tests.
- On April 7th Gerald Hankerson, the President of the Seattle/King County NAACP chapter launched a press conference against the new Common Core, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), tests, by saying, “…the Opt Out movement is a vital component of the Black Lives Matter movement and other struggles for social justice in our region. Using standardized tests to label Black people and immigrants ‘lesser,’ while systematically under-funding their schools, has a long and ugly history in this country.”
You would expect the multi-billion dollar testing industry not to celebrate this resistance. Conglomerates such as Pearson, the over 9 billion dollar per year corporation that produces the PARCC test, could stand to lose market share and profits if the protests continue to intensify. But it is unfortunate that more civil rights groups have not come to the aid of communities resisting the test-and-punish model of education. In a recent statement issued by the national leadership of some of the nation’s most prominent civil rights organizations, they wrote:
Data obtained through some standardized tests are particularly important to the civil rights community because they are the only available, consistent, and objective source of data about disparities in educational outcomes even while vigilance is always required to ensure tests are not misused.
We agree that it is vital to understand the disparities that exist in education and to detail the opportunity gap that exists between students of color and white students, between lower income students and students from more affluent families. There is a long and troubling history of schools serving children of color not receiving equitable access to resources and not providing these students with culturally competent empowering curriculum. Moreover, the schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1960s—a fact that must be particular troubling to the NAACP that fought and won the Brown vs Board of Education desegregation decision. For these reasons, we understand why national civil rights organizations are committed to exposing the neglect of students of color.
Yet we know that high-stakes standardized tests, rather than reducing the opportunity gap, have been used to rank, sort, label, and punish students of color. This fact has been amply demonstrated through the experience of the past thirteen years of NCLB’s mandate of national testing in grades 3-8 and once in high school. The outcomes of the NCLB policy shows that test score achievement gaps between African American and white students have only increased, not decreased. If the point of the testing is to highlight inequality and fix it, so far it has only increased inequality. Further, the focus on test score data has allowed policy makers to rationalize the demonization of schools and educators, while simultaneously avoiding the more critically necessary structural changes that need to be made in our education system and the broader society.
We also know that standardized testing is not the only, or the most important, method to know that students of color are being underserved; student graduation rates, college attendance rates, studies showing that wealthier and predominantly white schools receiving a disproportionate amount of funding are all important measures of the opportunity gap that don’t require the use of high-stakes standardized tests.
The civil rights organizations go on to write in their recent statement on assessment,
That’s why we’re troubled by the rhetoric that some opponents of testing have appropriated from our movement. The anti-testing effort has called assessments anti-Black and compared them to the discriminatory tests used to suppress African-American voters during Jim Crow segregation. They’ve raised the specter of White supremacists who employed biased tests to ‘prove’ that people of color were inferior to Whites.
There are some legitimate concerns about testing in schools that must be addressed. But instead of stimulating worthy discussions about over-testing, cultural bias in tests, and the misuse of test data, these activists would rather claim a false mantle of civil rights activism.
To begin, we agree with these civil rights organizations when they write that over-testing, cultural bias in tests, and misuse of test data are “legitimate concerns about testing in schools that must be addressed”—and in fact we hope to hear more from these civil rights organizations about these very real and destructive aspects of high-stakes standardized testing. Moreover, we believe that when these civil rights organizations fully confront just how pervasive over-testing, cultural bias and misuse of data is in the public education system, these facts alone will be enough to convince them join the mass civil rights opt out uprising that is happening around the nation. Let us take each one of these points in turn.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT, the second largest teacher’s union in the nation) conducted a 2013 study based on a analysis of two mid-size urban school districts that found the time students spent taking tests claimed up to 50 hours per year. In addition, the study found that students spent from between 60 to more than 110 hours per year directly engaged in test preparation activities. The immense amount of time devoted to testing has resulted in students in a constant state of preparation for the next high-stakes exam rather than learning the many skills that aren’t measured by standardized tests such as critical thinking, collaboration, civic courage, creativity, empathy, and leadership. The new Common Core tests are only in math and language arts and thus have served to skew the curriculum away from the arts, physical education, civics, social studies, science, music, and a myriad of other subjects that students of color are too often denied access to.
Standardized tests have repeatedly been found to contain cultural biases. The process by which test questions are “normed” tends to eliminate questions that non-white students answer correctly in higher numbers. In New York, the number of Black students rated “below standard” jumped from 15.5% to 50% with the introduction of new Common Core tests. English learners did even worse – 84% tested “below standard” on the new tests. This sort of failure has devastating effects on students, and does not reflect their true abilities.
Violations of student privacy
Common Core tests are associated with the collection of unprecedented levels of data from individual students, with few safeguards for student privacy. These systems allow for-profit testing companies, and third party companies, access to information that could be used against the interests of students in the future.
However, if those problems weren’t enough there are a myriad of other ways that these high-stakes standardized tests are being used to perpetuate institutional racism. Perhaps the most curious omission from their letter is the fact that they assert that, “The anti-testing effort has called assessments anti-Black and compared them to the discriminatory tests used to suppress African-American voters during Jim Crow segregation,” yet they offer no rebuttal of the assertion that the standardized tests today share many of the characteristics of the discriminatory exams of the past. As a recent editorial by the social justice periodical Rethinking Schools asserted:
The United States has a long history of using intelligence tests to support white supremacy and class stratification. Standardized tests first entered the public schools in the 1920s, pushed by eugenicists whose pseudoscience promoted the “natural superiority” of wealthy, white, U.S.-born males. High-stakes standardized tests have disguised class and race privilege as merit ever since. The consistent use of test scores to demonstrate first a “mental ability” gap and now an “achievement” gap exposes the intrinsic nature of these tests: They are built to maintain inequality, not to serve as an antidote to educational disparities.
This is why some of the most prominent early voices of opposition to standardized testing in schools came from leading African American scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Horace Mann Bond, and Howard Long. Du Bois, one of the most important Black intellectuals in the history of the United States and a founding member of the NAACP, recalled in 1940, “It was not until I was long out of school and indeed after the [first] World War that there came the hurried use of the new technique of psychological tests, which were quickly adjusted so as to put black folk absolutely beyond the possibility of civilization.”
The great educator and historian Horace Mann Bond, in his work “Intelligence Tests and Propaganda,” wrote this statement that so clearly reveals one of the primary flaws of standardized testing that persist to this day:
But so long as any group of men attempts to use these tests as funds of information for the approximation of crude and inaccurate generalizations, so long must we continue to cry, “Hold!” To compare the crowded millions of New York’s East Side with the children of Morningside Heights [an upper-class neighborhood at the time] indeed involves a great contradiction; and to claim that the results of the tests given to such diverse groups, drawn from such varying strata of the social complex, are in any wise accurate, is to expose a fatuous sense of unfairness and lack of appreciation of the great environmental factors of modern urban life.
Bond was expressing then what is today know as the “Zip Code Effect,”—the fact that what standardized tests really measure is a student’s proximity to wealth and the dominant culture, resulting in wealthier, and predominately whiter, districts scoring better on tests. Their scores do not reflect the intelligence of wealthier, mostly white students when compared to those of lower-income students and students of color, but do reflect the advantages that wealthier children have—books in the home, parents with more time to read with them, private tutoring, access to test-prep agencies, high-quality health care, and access to good food, to name a few. This is why attaching high-stakes to these exams only serves to exacerbate racial and class inequality.
This point was recently driven home by Boston University economics professors Olesya Baker and Kevin Lang’s 2013 study, “The School to Prison Pipeline Exposed.” In this peer-reviewed study they reveal that the increases in the use of high-stakes standardized high school exit exams are linked to higher incarceration rates. This landmark study should be a clarion call to everyone interested in ending mass incarceration to end the practice of high-stakes exit exams in high school and work towards authentic assessments.
A July, 2010 statement authored by many of the same civil rights organizations that penned the aforementioned letter titled, “Framework for Providing All Students an Opportunity to Learn through Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” stated:
The practice of tracking students by perceived ability is a major civil rights obstacle…Ideally, we must provide opportunities for all students to prepare for college and careers without creating systems that lead to racially and regionally identifiable tracks, which offer unequal access to high-quality.
We agree with this statement and thank these civil rights organizations for raising concerns about the terrible effects of tracking on the public schools and the detriment that tracking has been to Black students, other students of color, and low-income students. We only want to emphasize that the standardized exams they are now defending are one of the most significant contributing factors to the tracking and racial segregation of students into separate and unequal programs and schools.
In that same “Framework” document the civil rights groups write:
Because public schools are critical community institutions especially in urban and rural areas, they should be closed only as a measure of last resort. And where a school district deems school closure necessary solely for budgetary or population reasons, the burdens cannot be allowed to fall disproportionately on our most vulnerable communities.
Again, we agree, but we want to point out that it is the use of test scores in labeling schools as “failing” that have contributed to clear cutting of schools that serve students of color in cities around the nation—most notably the closing of 50 schools in Chicago last year all in Black and Brown neighborhoods.
We call on the civil rights community to support the work of educators around the nation who are working to develop authentic forms of assessment that can be used to help support students to develop critical thinking. Innovative programs like New York City Consortium Schools have a wavier from state standardized tests and instead use performance based assessments that have produced dramatically better outcomes for all students, even though they have more special needs students than the general population—and have demonstrated higher graduation rates, better college attendance rates, and smaller racial divides in achievement than the rest of New York’s public schools.
Finally, we ask that you consider the rousing call to action against the new Common Core tests that was recently issued by the Seattle/King County NAACP chapter in the following statement:
It is the position of the Seattle King County Branch of the NAACP to come out against the Smarter Balanced Assessment tests, commonly referred to as SBAC. Seattle and Washington State public schools are not supplied with proper resources and a lack of equity within our schools continue to exist.
The State of Washington cannot hold teachers responsible for the outcome of students test results; when these very students are attending schools in a State that ranks 47th out of 50 States in the Nation when it comes to funding education. Furthermore, Washington State cannot expect the majority of students to perform well on increased targeted performance assessments while the State continues to underfund education in direct violation of a Washington State Supreme Court Order. We also know that our students of color are disproportionately underfunded and will disproportionately be labeled failing by the new SBAC test.
For this reason, we view the opt out movement as a vital component of the Black Lives Matter movement and other struggles for social justice. Using standardized tests to label Black people and immigrants as lesser—while systematically underfunding their schools—has a long and ugly history.
It is true we need accountability measures, but that should start with politicians be accountable to fully funding education and ending the opportunity gap. The costs tied to the test this year will run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. If the State really wants students to achieve academic performance at higher levels these dollars should be put in our classrooms and used for our children’s academic achievement, instead of putting dollars in the pockets of test developers.
We urge families to opt out of the SBAC test and to contact their local and state officials to advise them to abide by the State Supreme Court McCleary decision to fully fund education.
–Rita Green, MBA; Seattle King County NAACP Education Chair
We join the Seattle NAACP in calling for true accountability for educational opportunities. For too long, our nation has labored under the illusion that “shining a light” on inequities is an adequate remedy. Inequitable opportunities are manifestly evident to anyone who cares to look. The use of tests for this purpose has become part of the problem, rather than a solution. We reiterate our support for parents and students who make the difficult choice to opt out of high stakes tests, and call on our nation’s leaders to shift policies away from these tests.
While in Boston speaking about my recently released edited book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet with the great EduShyster, who asked me important questions about the connection between the recent rise in student protests against police brutality and high-stakes, standardized testing. Here’s what I told her:
Jesse Hagopian says protests against police and high-stakes testing have more in common than you think… EduShyster: You happened to be in Boston recently giving a talk about the new uprising against high-stakes testing on the same night that thousands of people here were protesting police violence and institutional racism. Here’s the people’s mic—explain how the two causes are related. Jesse Hagopian: If I could have, I would have moved the talk to the protest to connect the issues. I would have said that the purpose of education is to empower young people to help solve problems in their community and their society. The purpose of standardized testing is to learn how to eliminate wrong answer choices rather than how to critically think or organize with people around you or collaborate on issues you care about. These tests are disempowering kids from the skills they really need to solve the big problems that our society and kids themselves are facing—like rampant police brutality and police terror. What’s the point of making our kids college and career ready if they can be shot down in the street and there’s no justice? You look at how testing and the preparation for testing now monopolizes class time—that is the American school system. If our schools emphasized rote memorization and dumbing down, that would be unfortunate. But the problem goes so far beyond that. We face huge problems as a society: mass incarceration, endless wars, income inequality. Our education system has to be about empowering students to solve those problems. EduShyster: I can think of one key difference between the two movements. All of the people who are protesting testing are white suburban moms who are unhappy that their kids aren’t as brilliant as they thought. Hagopian: That comment is offensive for lots of reasons but one of the biggest is that it dismisses the parents and teachers of color who are leaders of this movement. Look at Castle Bridge Elementary in New York where more than 80% of the parents opted their kids out of the test. The PTA leaders who helped spearhead that movement are both parents of color. Look at Karen Lewis in Chicago, who has led a civil rights struggle for the schools Chicago’s students deserve, which includes a fight against high-stakes testing. In Seattle we organized a multi-racial coalition, and some of the most vocal opponents of the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test were Black teachers, myself included. We were able to partner with the NAACP and it was a really powerful coalition. At one point the NAACP held a press conference and said *Look: the MAP test is the tool that’s used to decide who is in AP classes which are overwhelmingly white. This is a tool of institutional racism and tracking and the MAP tests have long played that role. If this is the metric that we use to decide who is advanced and who isn’t, and only white children end up being identified as advanced, then something clearly isn’t working.* EduShyster: In your new book, More than a Score, you argue that the movement against high-stakes testing actually started with civil rights activists. Explain. Hagopian: The first major test resisters were Black intellectuals. Horace Mann Bond has a beautiful passage where he describes how these tests are used to rank and sort our children and how, when you test the kids in the rich neighborhoods who have access to all of the resources and of course they do better. It has nothing to do with intelligence—it has to do with access to resources. What he wrote in the 1930’s is exactly what we see happening in our schools today. Or W.E.B. Dubois, founder of the NAACP, who spoke out against early standardized tests because they were grafted onto the public schools via the eugenics movement, the idea being that it was possible to prove white supremacy through *scientific* methods. He knew from the very beginning that these tests were designed to show Black failure, and they’re still showing that. The fact that there’s been such a stability of test scores—that rich white students score the best—shows that these are a tool for ranking and sorting. And increasingly these tests are being used to shut down schools in poor neighborhoods and which serve predominantly students of color. EduShyster: Here’s where I have to channel one of my favorite critics. Let’s call him Math Teacher, because that’s the name he uses when we tangle on my blog. He teaches at a Boston charter school, and as he’ll be quick to ask, if those schools are failing to teach kids at the most basic level, should they be kept open? Hagopian: That’s a great question. I think we have acknowledge that, as much as I vehemently defend our public schools against corporatization and what I call the testocracy, our schools have long played the role of ranking and sorting students into different strata of society and have long sorted students of color in particular into the bottom. There’s a tension in public schools because on the one hand they play that ranking and sorting function, but on the other hand they hold radical democratic possibilities to empower people with the knowledge that they need to transform society. That’s why schools are contested spaces and why every civil rights movement in our history has been focused on the schools in some way. We need to transform our school system. The question is *who are the best people to do that?* And the best people to do that are teachers and parents—not billionaires or the one percent. That sorting process worked out just fine for them. EduShyster: What if the billionaires suddenly decided to transform the public schools into the sorts of schools where they send their own kids? Hagopian: I’ve often said that the MAP boycott didn’t start at Garfield High School, but Lakeside High School, where Bill Gates went and where his kids go. The private schools for the elites never administer the MAP tests and all of these other tests because for their children they want the performing arts, creativity, time to develop their children into leaders, libraries with tens of thousands of volumes, study abroad programs, Olympic swimming pools. But they want for our kids rote memorization and that’s getting *career and college ready.* We say *what’s good enough for your child is good enough for ours.* EduShyster: Garfield High is associated with rabble-rousing teachers because of the successful MAP boycott, but students there are really active too. I follow you on Twitter, so I know that in addition to walking out to protest the Ferguson decision, students also walked out over budget cuts. Are all of these walkouts getting in the way of their test prep? Hagopian: Garfield High is going through an incredible season of student activism. I’m the adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School, whose members were recently recognized by the Seattle Human Rights Commission for being rising human rights leaders. After the Darren Wilson decision, they called a meeting in the cafeteria, held a speakout, then 1,000 students marched out of Garfield and to a rally at the NAACP. I happened to be driving down the road and had to pull over because all of a sudden here come 1,000 students chanting *hands up, don’t shoot.* The students will tell you that the problem isn’t just in Ferguson or on Staten Island, but with institutional racism. They look around and it’s there in the Seattle Public Schools with, for example, disproportionate suspension rates for minority students. They feel like it’s their responsibility to highlight these issues and to act on their own behalf. They’ve become the teachers. They’re teaching a whole city about the depths of racism in our society and what it means to stand up for what you believe in. That’s exactly what education should be about. These students didn’t just become activists overnight, by the way. The last few years, students protested against budget cuts at Garfield High, followed by the successful MAP boycott that galvanized our whole community, and really demonstrated to students and teachers the power of standing up. I think what I’m most proud of is that we’re actually showing what the alternative to rote memorization and standardized curriculum looks like. — Jesse Hagopian teaches history and is the co-advisor of the Black Student Union at Seattle’s Garfield High School. He is the editor of More than a Score: the New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. His website is: http://www.IAmAnEducator.com Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.