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.
“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.
Jesse 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
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.
Jesse 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
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.
José Vilson teaches middle school math in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, NY. His book, This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, stormed the heavily guarded gates of the education reform debate, battered them down, and made people sit up straight and listen to a social justice teacher about what our children and schools need.
Below is José’s important reflection on the book I edited, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing–and his thoughts on the movement that so many of us are building to defend and transform public education.
A Not-Review of More Than A Score [Edu-Activated]
In the spring of 2014, a few books dedicated to the “Education Spring” revolt came out from various publishers, one of which was mine, and the other was More Than A Score, a collection of stories edited by Jesse Hagopian from numerous dissidents from across the nation. [Full disclosure: Haymarket Books came out with both of our books). As I consider many of them colleagues in this work (and some of them friends), I was happy that so many of them got to tell their story.
So why a review from me almost a year later? Simple. As any of the activists in this volume can tell you, these stories are still relevant to the work of moving the profession forward.I read these chapters in the authors’ voices. I was intrigued by Rosie Frascella and Emily Giles’ story of co-leading the charge to have her entire Brooklyn-based school opt out of unnecessary exams, much to the chagrin of NYCDOE and the United Federation of Teachers. I was enthralled by Barbara Madeloni’s vision for a new education system, including racial dynamics as part of her call to activate. I recalled Karen Lewis’ ascension to the leader of Chicago edu-resistance, envisioning how they organized for better schools and not just a better contract for teachers. Stephanie Rivera’s chapter on becoming a future student reads as a precursor to the ways she’s currently managing the school system as a rookie teacher.
John Kuhn’s tale of resistance in perhaps the most reform-friendly state in the nation rang of hope. I laughed aloud at the chapter co-written by Cauldierre McKay, Aaron Regunberg, and Tim Shea of the Providence Student Union, who resisted their state’s education reforms through creativity and art, two ideals that their legislators sought to reduce by overtesting their students. Folks like Helen Gym, Nikhil Goyal, Brian Jones, Malcolm London, Mary Cathryn Ricker, and Jia Lee also turned in chapters worth having in your back pocket.
But my favorite was easily Jesse Hagopian’s, which was the real beginning of the book. He sets the chapter through the framework of a century’s old resistance to eugenics. This framing allows for discussions of WEB Dubois, one of my favorite public intellectuals. Here’s a bit from Jesse himself:
Resistance to these exams surely began the first time a student bubbled in every “A” on the page in defiance of the entire testing process. Yet, beyond these individual forms of protest, an active minority of educators, journalists, labor groups, and parents resisted these early notions of using testing to rank intelligence. Some of the most important early voices in opposition to intelligence testing – especially in service of ranking the races – came from leading African-American scholars such as W. E. B. Dubois, Horace Mann Bond, and Howard Long. Du Bois 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.”
This read like a call to reframe the notions of “the civil rights issue of our time,” coded language to tap into the imaginations of black folk, and consider we’ve already been here with standardized testing. This is the path towards connecting the education resistance movement to black lives mattering. In Brian Jones’ chapter, he talks to friend and Chicago activist Xian Barrett how he deals with questions of inequity and why some parents have bought into the current education reform structure. His advice: “When parents raise those difficult issues, that’s when you have to deepen the conversation.” The aforementioned chapters do just that.
This is truly what is meant by nuance, and I’m thankful for these folks, not just in their writing, but in their works. Let’s move.
10 Reasons to Refuse the PARCC Test for Your Child: Maryland parent on opting out of high-stakes testing
TakePart.com ran an article by Joseph Williams this week titled, “Boycotters Might Be Winning the Battle Over Standardized Testing.” In that article he writes:
“In districts across the nation, from Florida to Alaska, the grassroots push for a rollback in high-stakes testing has gained momentum, and a broad coalition of parents, teachers, and advocates are poised to take advantage, even if it means an end to federal grants in tight fiscal times.”
He can now add Maryland to his list.
My good friend Michele Bollinger just sent me a copy of a statement to publish (see below) of her intention to respect her daughter’s wishes not to take the new Common Core high-stakes test—and why other parents should join this opt-out movement. Michele is a teacher in Washington, D.C. and was my mentor to becoming a social justice educator when I first began my teaching career in that city. Michele is also the editor of the young adult textbook, 101 Changemakers: Rebels and Radicals Who Changed US History.
Here now is Michele’s statement and ten reasons parents should join this growing opt-out movement:
As a parent and educator, I cannot stay silent as PARCC testing begins around the country. After much discussion within our family, our 5th grader has decided to decline the PARCC exam. We agree with her and have expressed our refusal to consent to testing to her school. Here are some of the reasons why.
It is easy to feel alone in this, but people are standing up to high stakes testing all around the country right now. If any Maryland residents, especially those in Montgomery County, Maryland are interested in declining the PARCC exam, please contact me at email@example.com.
10 Reasons to Refuse the PARCC Test
for Your Child in Maryland
1. High-stakes standardized testing takes an emotional toll on students.
- The PARCC is unlike any test you took as a child. It is unprecedented in its level of standardization and in the punitive measures attached to testing performance
- The PARCC is a timed exam and unfamiliar to students in form and content
- The stress of high-stakes test taking produces anxiety and is even more challenging for students who already experience anxiety
- The testing environment can be oppressive, as students movements and behavior are heavily monitored
2. The PARCC test drives the standardization of learning.
- The Common Core State Standards, which support the PARCC, have narrowed state curriculum to fit the demands of the test
- Untested subjects are deprioritized or dropped altogether
- This unprecedented level of standardization cannot accommodate student differences in need, ability and interests
3. Test prep means less quality instructional time in schools.
- PARCC is longer than previously administered tests
- PARCC means more testing beginning at younger ages
- Schools now commonly refer to a “testing season” that lasts from March until June
4. The PARCC test is a fundamentally flawed assessment.
- There is no evidence that PARCC prepares students for college or careers
- PARCC is developmentally inappropriate for students at all grade levels
- Not enough sample tests, practice tests, or exemplars have been released
- The expectation that many or most students will perform poorly on the test is public knowledge
- Because Maryland students are already tested and assessed throughout the school year, the PARCC is unnecessary
5. Schools around the state of Maryland are unprepared to take a high stakes exam.
- Never before have so many students taken an online exam simultaneously
- Districts have continually reported schools’ IT infrastructure cannot support PARCC administration
- The rush to implement the PARCC does not make sense for our schools
6. PARCC is a cash cow for testing companies such as Pearson, Inc.
- Technology and testing companies – not educators – have funded and organized the rush to develop and implement the Common Core and PARCC
- States have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Common Core and PARCC
- In Maryland, combined costs for Math & English/Language Arts tests are as high as $61.24 per student
- Pearson is a private company which will have access to student data with very little oversight. Pearson may sell personal data related to individual children who have taken the PARCC
7. School districts have been bullied into accepting PARCC and the Common Core – and residents have been failed by their elected leaders who signed on to it.
- When Chicago Public Schools announced they could not and would not administer PARCC this year, they were threatened with losing up to $1 billion in funding
- Schools and school districts across the country have been forced to comply with federal and state mandates around PARCC or risk lose millions of dollars in funding
- Maryland policy makers have endorsed Common Core and PARCC without diligently investigating what is at stake and without asking the right questions
- We will call their bluff – we will not allow our children’s schools to be held hostage to bad educational policy
8. PARCC test scores will be used to justify punitive measures.
- Per “No Child Left Behind” and other school reform measures, test scores are used to fire teachers, hold students back and close down schools
- These actions are disruptive and are unsettling to the communities that have to endure them
- These measures disproportionately impact under-resourced communities and students of color
9. There is no legal way for school administrators to force your child to take a test she or he does not want to take.
- The official position of the state Department of Education is that there is no “opt out” provision for testing in Maryland
- There is no legal precedent for forcing a student to take a standardized test
- Maryland students and parents can opt-out, refuse, or decline to take the test just as families can in other states
- National “messaging” around the Common Core and PARCC has been carefully crafted to conceal problems and to appeal to parents and teachers
- Schools present a favorable view of the PARCC and their ability to carry out testing because of a lack of political leadership from the state
- All parents should be informed of the detriments of standardized testing
- Your child cannot be punished, failed, or held back for refusing this test
10. Now is the time!
- More people are questioning PARCC than ever before – teachers, students and parents around the country have begun to speak out against high stakes testing
- Boycotts and other actions against high stakes testing have galvanized communities to fight for justice in education
- Given the large number of problems with the test, many schools will not be held accountable based on test results this year. This is a lower-stakes opportunity to boycott the test and to build momentum for bigger boycotts to stop the damaging “accountability” provisions in the years to come
- If your child is “fine” taking tests and you can supplement your child’s test-driven curriculum with enriching experiences outside of school, the same cannot be said for everyone
- Even if your school tends to meet AYP or other defined goals, the same cannot be said for all schools – especially those in under-resourced areas and disproportionately those populated by students of color
We need to stand up for all children who are experiencing an unprecedented transformation of the learning experience via the expansion of high stakes testing.
PLEASE check out:
Top Ten Acts of Test Resistance in 2014–The greatest year of revolt against high-stakes testing in U.S. history
For too long so-called education reformers, mostly billionaires, politicians, and others with little or no background in teaching, have gotten away with using standardized testing to punish our nation’s youth and educators. They have used these tests to deny students promotion or graduation, close schools, and fire teachers—all while deflecting attention away from the need to fund the services the would dramatically improve our schools. The year 2014 marked the greatest year of revolt against high-stakes testing in U.S. history. Across the country, students are walking out, parents are opting their children out, and teachers are refusing to administer these detrimental exams—often taking great personal and professional risk to defy the corporate education reformers. The impact of this movement can be seen in the poll released in August 2014 by Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup, which found that 54 percent of the general public said standardized tests are not helpful–the rate for public school parents was even higher, at 68 percent. To gain a full appreciation of the size and scope of this mass rebellion, check out the “Testing Reform Victories Report” from Fair Test. To gain insight into to the motivations and strategies of the leaders in this movement, order the newly released book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing. Here then are my picks for the top ten most powerful acts of resistance to high-stakes, standardize testing in 2014, listed in chronological order. I hope to add your action to my list next year! Top Ten Test-defiers 2014
In what was perhaps the largest student walkout against high-stakes testing in U.S. history, hundreds of high schools students in Colorado staged a mass walk out in November refusing to take their 12th grade social studies and science tests. Overall, more than 5,000 Colorado 12th graders refused to take the tests.
Karen Hendren and Nikki Jones teach first grade at Skelly Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma and sent a beautiful letter home in November with their students explaining to the parents why they would be refusing to administer any of the standardized tests. This brave act met with immediate scorn from the school district and these teachers will need all of our support as they struggle for their students and their own jobs.
Amidst the cheers of anti-testing activists, Florida’s Lee County school board became the first district in the state to vote to opt out of all state-mandated testing—despite the fact that the state could implement sanctions for refusing to administer the tests. Ultimately those high-stakes frightened the school board into resuming the testing, however, the dramatic action changed the political landscape in Florida and prompted the State Education Commissioner to call for an “investigation” of standardized testing in Florida’s public schools to increase transparency for parents about the use of assessments and standardized tests.
Most school districts across Washington state were forced by Secretary Arne Duncan’s selective enforcement of the No Child Left Behind Act to send letters to nearly all the parents in the state informing them that their child attended a failing school. On August 2014, 28 school superintendents from around the state authored a letter of their own, where they declared that their schools’ successes are not reflected in these ratings and criticized No Child Left Behind.
In July, the thousands of educator delegates to the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly voted to demand the resignation of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and launched “Toxic Testing” campaign that is raising awareness around the nation about the harmful effects of high-stakes testing.
The Providence Student Union has been one of the most organized and creative student groups in the nation in opposition to high-stakes testing. These students’ unrelenting efforts to expose the high-stakes testing sham—from staging a zombie march to show what the test do to your brain, to making the adults take the test and announcing their scores at a press conference—put enough pressure on the state legislature get them to vote in June for 3-year moratorium on use of high-stakes.
During the June testing season, New York State became the epicenter against high stakes testing as 60,000 parents refused to let their children be reduced to test scores and chose to opt out. One of the most prominent stories of opting out came from Castle Bridge Elementary in New York City where the test had to be canceled because over some 90% of children were opted out!
On May Day, international workers day, teachers at International High School, which serves English Language Learners, announced that they would refuse to administer a test that was culturally and linguistically inappropriate for their students. They defeated the test and were not reprimanded.
In April, three teachers at New York City’s Earth School became the first teachers in the nation to publicly refuse to administer a Common Core standardized test. They penned a beautiful letter describing their decision and their vision for education.
In February, teachers at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy voted unanimously to refuse to administer the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT). The teachers were threatened with the revoking of their teaching certificates. However, because of the overwhelming solidarity of the parents, students, and community, they defeated the ISAT and were not reprimanded!
Jesse Hagopian teaches history and co-advises the Black Student Union at Garfield High School in Seattle. He edited the book, “More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing,” which includes a foreword by Diane Ravitch, an introduction by Alfie Kohn, and an afterward by Wayne Au (Haymarket, December). You can sign up to follow Jesse’s blog at: http://www.IAmAnEducator.com or follow him on twitter: @jessedhagopian