Review, Reflect, Respond
You need to be fed by other people's creativity
More Than A Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, (Haymarket Books) a collection of essays and interviews (and a few student poems), is a must-read for anyone concerned about the state of public education in America today. When I received my review copy in the mail, I was working on another project. Because I am retired, I am not as personally affected by education politics as I was when I was working. In many ways and for many reasons, I had left that world behind, so I wasn't compelled to start reading it right away. But it kept staring at me. It kept shouting to me, "Read me!" Finally, I cautiously started, knowing I would find it interesting, but not expecting to be blown away. Once I got started, I was hooked. Here are the reasons why:
Yes, the essayists and interview subjects are impressive. They are my education justice heroes. Edited by Jesse Hagopian, forward by Diane Ravitch, introduction by Alfie Kohn, afterword by Wayne Au. And so many others. It is logically organized; teachers, students, parents, and administrators and advocates are in their own sections. But these are not the reasons I was hooked. It was the storytelling.
It is clear that Hagopian (I want to call him Jesse, though I don't know him, I feel we would be friends), had a vision. He wanted it to be about people's stories, he wanted it to be personal, so that through the stories, they would connect on a human level. In each piece, there is a personal story along the lines of, "How did you become so moved to be able to do what you did?" There is a thread of, "this happened and so I knew I had to take a stand."
There is agreement in my community that there is something terribly wrong with the test-based reform that we have been plagued with since No Child Left Behind and made worse with Race to the Top. But it is not common to hear voices of activism, of taking a stand, of making courageous choices. And being successful at it! Rather, we treat the onerous mandates like bad weather, not much you can do about it, so just deal with it. This book speaks to that defeatism, in that it gives hope that we can do more than just grumble.
Not only does Jesse "midwife" the stories in this collection, it seems that he wanted a path to activism to be delineated. In the stories, there is "So what did you do once you knew you had to take a stand?" And in all these stories, there is a bit of a game plan. For example, one of the reasons why the Garfield boycott (Jesse was one of the leaders) of their MAP standardized testing worked, was that the Parent Teacher Student Association voted unanimously to support the boycott. He also described having a well-researched, fact-based reasoning for their boycott, and passionate, respectful discourse with their new superintendant. Another example of a resistance strategy was the zombie protest (perfect!) against high-stakes testing, organized by students in Rhode Island.
There is a mixed report on the role of unions in being part of the anti-testing resistance. Jesse was a union leader at his school, and worked with the teachers who spearheaded the boycott. One of the chapters is by Karen Lewis, the dynamic leader of the Chicago Teacher's Union, who came to power through activist channels, upsetting the union's status quo at the time. The interview with Mary Catherine Ricker, the president of the St.Paul (Minnesota) Federation of Teachers, shows how unions can use their contract to pursue good education practices. But several times in the stories, a disappointment in the union is expressed. For example, in New York City teacher, Jia Lee's interview, she mentions how an email from the union informing them that the union could not protect them put a damper on their efforts to organize an opt-out campaign, which was ultimately successful, despite the union's lack of support. For the most part, the union was not the driver of the acts of resistance, and the stories are mixed regarding their eventual involvement. Unions can and should be bolder.
The thread doesn't end there. Jesse also lays out alternatives in these stories. One of the responses to critics of high-stakes testing is, but what is the alternative? This collection makes sure to have an answer for that. Although the answers are not without their own issues, possibilities are presented. The principal, Carol Burris, who organized her colleagues in New York to sign a letter stating their concerns about the use of test scores in teacher evaluation, mentions the International Baccalaureate performance-based assessments as an alternative to standardized testing. There is a interview with Phyllis Tashnik, a proponent of inquiry learning and the Performance Alternative Assessment used in some schools in New York. Jesse observes: "That seems like a big difference to the standardized test that is wasted pedagogical time. So the assessment is inspiring rather than mind-numbing and anxiety-producing."
Perhaps because I have as an intellectual goal for myself, to be able to articulate why public education is so important, I found this thread throughout the collection as well. I highlighted many quotes that spoke to why the test-based reform is destructive to the ideal of public schools as a pillar of democracy. I am inspired to go back over the book and collect all the pieces of this thread and write an essay about just that. Here is one that I especially liked, from Helen Gym, a Philadelphia parent advocate:
"... public spaces opened up the world to me, gave me new opportunities, and exposed me to a diversity of people and ideas. These public spaces were where people from all backgrounds came together and understood - in a deeply personal way - what it means when a society provides opportunities to its citizens."
There is also a thread that explains how this corporate reform came to prominence. Readers will come to understand this description of "the "testocracy" - "the test-and-punish corporate education reform tsars whose interests are served by the proliferation of high-stakes standardized tests."
This book has the potential to be a huge lever for change, much like Thomas Paine's Common Sense for the American Revolution. It makes sense! Here are the leaders of the education revolution. Read their stories and through their stories, learn why we need to be as courageous as they have been. Be inspired by their motivations and their actions. In solidarity and community with these justice activists, keep your eye on the prize - not on the standards, not on the test scores, but on public schools where children get the support they need to thrive.