Archive | February, 2013

In the wake of the testing boycott: a 10-point proposal for teacher self-organization

28 Feb

The teacher, student, and family boycott of the MAP test  in Seattle is an inspiring event that has the potential to generate a new wave of organizing in and around public schools.  The boycott signals the possibility of a movement for creativity, not control and learning for life, not labor.

However, for these possibilities to come to fruition, teachers need to organize ourselves so that we can continue to take bold direct action.  We need to unite with students, their families, and the rest of the working class to create more actions like this one.  If we simply return to the same old activist patterns of proposing resolutions at union meetings or lobbying politicians then we will miss the historic possibilities this moment opens.  In that spirit, here are a few proposals for how we can move forward.

1) Let’s teach well, break the rules that make that impossible, and get each other’s backs when we face retaliation.

Educational policy is set by bureaucrats and billionaires, not people who have actual experience in the classroom.  To change policy from above, you need millions of dollars in funding to hire lobbyists.  There is no way that teachers, students, and working class public school families will be able to beat the corporate interests at this game they have set up.

Instead, we should assert our own power at the school and community level.  If a state or district policy is oppressing and failing students then we should simply refuse to follow it – the Seattle teachers who are boycotting the MAP test show us that this is entirely possible to pull off, and that this kind of action will earn broad support from working class people.

Likewise, instead of allowing the corporate education deformers to monopolize the political agenda in the name of reforming schools, we should transform our schools ourselves through collective direct action. We should form our own grassroots think tanks to research best practices in education, and then should implement these in our classrooms, without waiting for the district, state, or federal government to approve or promote them.

To put it another way, we should occupy and decolonize our own classrooms, and do “teach-ins” as part of our daily practice – throwing out the oppressive, damaging, boring, racist, and authoritarian curriculum they want us to teach, and creating a liberating curriculum together with each other, our students, and their /our communities.

2) Let’s fight to develop an anti-oppressive, student-centered curriculum

When I say “best practices” and “teaching well”,  I don’t mean using instructional practices that improve test scores according to some corporate driven, pseudo-scientific research studies.  I mean the methods that the best classroom teachers already use in our communities and around the world.   I mean the practices that respect and build upon student and family needs, desires, and expectations, so that trust and community can be built in and around the classroom.

I am thinking of practices like culturally relevant, anti-racist, multicultural curricula,  student-centered cooperative learning, and classroom activities where students and teachers construct knowledge together instead of the teacher depositing knowledge in the students’ brains in an authoritarian/ top down fashion.  I’m thinking of an anti-patriarchal curriculum that helps create a school community where sexual assault, rape culture, and violence against LGBTQ folks is confronted not just by formal “anti-bullying” policies but by students and teachers taking responsibility for checking each other and creating a liberating, safe environment.

To do this we will have to break the rules.  We will have to refuse to use class time for boring standardized test prep and rote memorization.  We will have to reject Eurocentric/ white washed curricula, even if the school or district expects us to teach them.  We will have to challenge academic tracking, which tends to reproduce race and class hierarchies, as well as school social events and dress codes that reproduce rape culture and oppressive gender roles.  We will have to refuse to participate in discriminatory suspension policies, and other aspects of the school-to-prison pipeline.  In short, we will have to come together to critically assess every aspect of how we teach and how our schools are organized, building a grassroots basis to reorganize all of this through collective direct action.

3) Let’s overcome individualism and competition; let’s collaborate with each other

Obviously, one teacher cannot do all of this alone. This is not Freedom Writers or Dangerous Minds.  It is not about individual hot shot teachers trying to patronizingly “save” students by beating the odds through sheer willpower.  Good teaching and learning requires collaboration, camaraderie, and community.    As the Creativity Not Control “about us” statement puts it:

“When the system celebrates [some] teachers as exceptional individuals, it covers up the real lessons here: that the actual  heroes are the students, that they are capable of a lot more than what society has assigned them, and they are only capable of creating this when they cooperate instead of compete with each other.  Focusing on the myth of the exceptional teacher who rises above her colleagues undermines the cooperative spirit that makes this success possible in the first place.  The exceptional teacher is held up as a prop to get other teachers to feel lazy and guilty if they are not working 70 hour weeks and destroying their personal lives and mental health in order to excel in the classroom.   The reality is, for these kinds of successes to become the standard, instead of the exception, we need creativity not control, and we need collective learning that prepares us for life, not labor.”
4) Let’s combine struggles over teaching with labor struggles

If you talk with progressive or radical teachers today, you’ll find that each of us tends to find a different niche in the schools.  Some consider their teaching itself to be their activism, and they focus on doing the best they can within the constraints of the system to make sure that their working class students get a good education.  Others focus on multi-cultural education and critical literacy, seeing themselves as equipping their students with the tools necessary to challenge oppression in their lives.  Still others see teaching as a kind of W.E.B. Duboisian service to their ethnic/ racial/national community, building up young leaders to fight against white supremacy.   Finally, some get involved in union meetings or try to fight union busting, budget cuts, merit pay, etc.

Each of these practices, if taken on its own, is limited.  For example, without  a sense of collective labor struggle, multi-cultural educators will only be able to go so far in implementing an anti-racist curriculum; we will start to compromise with the white supremacist system in order to keep our jobs unless we know that our coworkers are prepared to strike over it.   Conversely, rank and file union activists might fight for a stronger, more active, more democratic teachers’ union, but if they are not also fighting for anti-racist schools, then they are still complicit in reproducing institutionalized white supremacy.

5) Let’s fight for the time to think, care, and collaborate

I know that many teachers will think I am setting an unreasonable standard here – most of us barely have enough time to finish our grading and lesson plans, let alone to do all of this organizing.  That’s why a major part of all of our struggles needs to be a fight over time – a fight against the excessive bureaucratic paperwork we are increasingly asked to complete, a fight for smaller class sizes, and a fight for paid time in the workday to collaborate with our coworkers and students to create liberating curricula and learning experiences.

However, the proposal I am making builds off of what good teachers already do: we  communicate with our students, their families, and our coworkers, and we plan our classroom activities with their needs and interests in mind.  This proposal would simply take it to the next level, building the kind of solidarity necessary to do this as consistently as we all want to.

6) Let’s fight against corporate union busting

Across the country, teachers’ unions are under attack by corporate educational reformers and the attacks don’t show any sign of letting up.  There are several reasons why we should mobilize to prevent corporate union busting.  First of all, it is very expensive to become a teacher, and many of us will be paying off student loans for a long time.  Union contracts keep our pay just high enough for teachers from working class backgrounds to be able to barely pay off the education necessary to enter the field in the first place.  If unions are busted then many of us will be working second jobs and sleeping even less than we are now just to pay our student loan bills.

Teaching as a field is already not nearly accessible enough to working class youth, especially folks from communities of color.  Teacher training programs act like gatekeepers, creating many hoops that students have to jump through.  If unions are busted and teacher pay goes down, many youth of color who are interested in becoming teachers might choose other careers in order to pay back their student loans.  This will help keep the profession white, middle class dominated.

In some cases, we can use teachers’ unions to help prevent arbitrary firing.  For example, we may be able to use the union contract as a shield to protect ourselves if they try to fire us for engaging in  the kind of organizing described in points 1-6.  However, as I argue below, it is not enough of a shield, and we need to build our own protection.  And the union is not an effective tool for going on the kind of offensive struggles we need to wage against  against the  white supremacy, patriarchy  and capitalist competitiveness our schools currently reproduce each generation.

Like unions in general, teachers unions are set up to make sure that we as workers get the full value of our wages under capitalism -wages that can make it possible for us to pay for the education, housing, clothing, etc. necessary for us to keep coming to work.  However, no worker under a capitalist system ever gets paid the full value of the work we put in because the wealthy pocket the difference as their profits.  Also, many exclusionary unions have  been complicit  in maintaining privileges for white workers or male workers at the expense of the rest of the working class.   Moreover, in a sexist/ patriarchal system, wages are also lower than they should be because the system is built on the assumption that someone – usually women – will be doing unpaid labor at home washing dishes and doing laundry and taking care of our kids so that we can make it into work: the system does not account for this labor when it measures the value of our wages.  Teachers who do this unpaid labor at home are essentially working two shifts a day – two shifts of difficult caring labor. US unions as a whole do not have a good track record when it comes to struggling against these deeper injustices.

7) Let’s organize independently from the union

Also, most  teachers’ unions across the country have not been effective at fighting the corporate education deformers’ agenda.  This is because the corporate interests are appealing to parents and students who are fed up with the problems in the public education system.  Instead of overcoming these problems through the kid of direct action organizing I’m proposing here, the unions have simply rallied around the slogan “defend public education”.    Think about it for a second – how many of you have passed out flyers saying “defend public education”, and gotten a response from working class folks – especially youth – who ask you “what is there to defend?”

Again, this is the brilliance of the Seattle testing strike: it wasn’t just another union contract  struggle in which union leaders pay lip service to parent and student interests.  It was an example of teachers actually taking collective direct action to make sure that students can learn instead of waste time.

If the Garfield High teachers in Seattle had waited to propose to the union to initiate this action, they would have been waiting forever.  This is because the currently existing unions are simply not set up to do these kinds of actions.  As stated above, they are set up to make sure the capitalists don’t drive our wages below a set value.  But in return for the right to collectively bargain around wages and benefits, the unions sign contracts that actually limit our creativity, giving the administration legalized control over us on the job.  We forfeit our ability to self-organize.

Many collective bargaining agreements state that matters of school organization, classroom placement, and curriculum are the administration’s prerogatives.   For example, Seattle Superintendent Jose Banda invoked the union contract when he threatened to discipline teachers for insubordination because they were refusing to give the MAP test.

The Seattle Educator’s Association did vote to support the boycotting teachers, which is great.  However, what does this support mean in practice?  Did the union organize to expand the boycott to all schools in the district?  Did they call mass public meetings of teachers, family members, and students to widen the boycott?  Did they use their connections to the national union structures to try to expand the boycott outside of Seattle?  Did they try to link up the struggle with the struggles of warehouse workers,  longshore workers, or striking NYC school bus drivers going on at the same time? Did they open up discussions about the possibility of striking if teachers face discipline for the boycott?   All of these moves would have been powerful.  Most of them would have also violated either a) union contracts, b) US labor law , c) the union’s own rules and bureaucracy or d) the union’s claim to defend teachers only, not the entire working class.    Union leaders naturalize all four of these limits and confine strategizing within them; often they outright attack teachers who try to go beyond them.

If we continue to accept these rules and limits, we will never have the power to actually transform the racist, boring, oppressive, controlling conditions in so many schools.  Whether we like it or not, if we don’t act we will be blamed for these conditions, not only by the corporate education deformers, but by fellow working class folks from our own communities, as I discuss below.   Good teachers encourage their students to think outside of the box, to take risks in the name of conscience, and never to use the constraints of the system as an excuse to refuse responsibility for our own lives.  Our students can easily say the same thing back to us: “instead of telling us what you can’t do, when are you going to actually take responsibility for changing your situation?”

Given all of this, I’d like to propose the following:

a) That we start building formal and informal committees that can operate independently of both the union and the anti-union organizations.   These committees can choose to defend the union when it’s under attack from the right wing; for example, we should intervene if city governments use contract negotiations as excuses to attack teachers, increase class sizes, etc.  However, we should not wait for the union to defend us, our students, or their families.

b) These committees should include teachers, students, and their families.  They should include education workers of all job classifications, whether unionized or nonunionized: after school workers, custodians, teachers at charter schools, etc.   As we saw during the Chicago teachers’ strike this fall, during union contract negotiations only the specific group of teachers who are bargaining actually have a say at the bargaining table.  While they might mobilize in solidarity with students and families, only the teachers – and usually only their union reps – actually have a say in strategizing or bargaining meetings.  We need  to overcome these divisions by creating broader working class-wide committees where we can struggle and strategize together.

c) These committees should focus on taking collective direct action to transform our schools, as proposed above.

d) These committees should work in coalition with union reform caucuses like Social Equality Educators to accomplish specific tasks together.  However, they should maintain their autonomy and should not get sucked into efforts to run for union office.  With limited time and energy, we should focus our attention on uniting teacher, family, and student struggles against oppression in the schools.  If union reform activists want to collaborate around this, we should work with them but should brainstorm and propose strategies that go beyond the limits set by the union structure.  We should set our goals based on what our communities need, not what is legal or contractually protected.

I see Creativity Not Control and groups like Classroom Struggle as seeds of  possible committees along these lines.

8) Let’s be accountable to the rest of the working class – not to corporate bureaucrats. 

Our schools educate  youth from the entire working class; therefore, what happens in them is the concern of the entire class. Instead of acting like middle class professionals who aim to defend our historic privileges,  teachers should unite with the rest of the working class as the class starts to move and rise up against this failing system.  As any teacher who works in a large urban district should know, the future of this working class is global, majority non-white, and composed of many complex genders.  It is people who are employed, unemployed, working at home, hustling, and in prison.    Teachers need to act like these are our people, or get out of the way.

It is not about sensitivity trainings and diversity window dressing; it is about basic solidarity.  We should stop acting like another constituency  who aim to get a better deal for ourselves alone, under this system.  In fact, we carry the honor and responsibility of educating and learning with our class’s children, the very human beings who are most likely to create a new society to replace this broken one.  This honor and responsibility should not be taken lightly; if we neglect to do it well, we are essentially scabbing on the rest of the class by participating in the reproduction of the race and gender divisions that keep folks chained.

When my friends and I organized the Dec. 12th port shutdown as part of the Decolonize/ Occupy movement, some port union officials argued that it was none of our business to mobilize at the ports without their permission.  We replied by saying that the port is public property and what happens there affects the whole working class; we were there to shut down Wall St. on the Waterfront, particularly terminal 18 which is partially owned by Goldman Sachs, a bank responsible for countless misery here and around the world.  They cut short the lives of people in our community, and we retaliated by cutting the flow of their goods – and their profits.  We were also mobilizing in solidarity with immigrant port truckers at that terminal who face so much racism on the job that they are not even allowed to use the port bathrooms; a few months later, they went on strike. ( I am a member of a group called the Black Orchid Collective, and we wrote a controversial piece about all of this here.)

During these controversies,  I told longshore workers at the union hall that if they were to mobilize in the schools around what is happening to their children, I would welcome them with open arms and would not ever ask them to get permission from the teachers’ union before showing up.  I mean that, and I think all of us teachers should have that attitude of respect toward working class folks from any industry or walk of life – whether employed or unemployed.

 When it comes to education, no one is an outside agitator – except for the corporate scumbags trying to ruin our schools.

9) Let’s stop trying to act like  professionals, but let’s not let them turn us into  prison guards either.

Fellow teachers might respond to my last proposal by reminding me that part of the attack on teachers unions is an effort to deprofessionalize our jobs.  Isn’t all my rhetoric about not acting like a special constituency of professionals just playing into the hands of the right wing?

It is true that they are trying to deprofessionalize us, which means taking away some of our historic privileges, including a few privileges once secured in our union contracts.   But we need to go deeper into understanding why this is happening, instead of promoting nostalgia for the good old days, which were not really that good  for most people.

Our deprofessionalization is the result of  the ever-widening divide between the thinking classes and the working classes.   Some students are tracked into the thinking classes, where they learn the skills necessary to manage and administer the increasingly high-tech, automated economy where robots are replacing factory workers.  Other students are tracked into the working classes where they prepare to flip burgers or sweep floors as part of the service industries that have replaced those factory jobs. Still others are tracked into unemployment and prison, what some call the school to prison pipeline.  The thinking classes need highly-skilled, merit-paid teachers who use the latest techniques and technologies to prepare a new generation of managers.  Meanwhile, they are assigning everyone else to the working classes and the school to prison pipeline, which will be fed by teachers who only need to know how to instill discipline in their students like pseudo-prison guards.

In other words, they are trying to split our f0rmer “profession” into a cadre of elite, overworked hyperteachers and masses of lower paid education service workers/ disciplinarians who will run the penitentiary prep classes.    Ironically,  as we loose pay, professional status, and control of our own work process, our managerial role over students actually increases.  So either way, we are pushed out of the working class: we either become elite professionals looking down on the class from an ivory tower, or we become tough managers keeping the class in check like street-level bureaucrats.

We need to fight both of these outcomes.  But we can’t fight them simply in defence of our own former professional prestige and pay.   We need to fight them in solidarity with our working class students who are getting pushed further down every day.  If we keep publicly asserting our right to be treated as “professionals” then we will isolate ourselves further from the rest of the working class who will come to see our role as ivory tower elites; without the backing of the rest of the class, our struggles will fail and our jobs will become more and more stressful.  At the same time, if we keep accepting concessions and the system’s vision of deprofessionalization, then most of us will be commanded to assert more and more prison-like control over our students, and our unions will become something akin to the notoriously hated prison guard and police unions – if they continue to exist at all.

10 ) Let’s think globally and act locally

To prevent these outcomes, we should learn from teacher struggles around the world, where teachers have shown a little more backbone and have fought militantly for themselves,  their students, and their communities.  From the Oaxaca uprising of 2006 (which started as a teacher strike), through the anti-austerity demonstrations across Europe today, we can take inspiration from the fact that teachers are on the move.   Movements like Decolonize/ Occupy, the Wisconsin labor upsurge, or the militant actions of port workers in Longview show that this kind of energy has started to erupt here as well, though at a smaller scale.

During the Occupy movement,  there were small but spirited high school student walkouts here in Seattle, especially during the Dec. 12th Port Shutdown and later during May Day.  Occupy in particular brought new energy into classrooms across the city, with youth helping build and defend the camp, and activists from the movement regularly speaking at schools.

There is a real possibility of students initiating new waves of movements that go beyond the limitations of these recent upsurges, and in the process they could agitate and radicalize their teachers.

Instead of simply fighting for our own narrow interests, teachers should realize that our own freedom, creativity, and well-being is linked with everyone else’s, and our best option is to join these movements, making our classrooms and schools hot beds of creative struggle.

We welcome discussion about these proposals in the comments section, as well as response pieces and counter-proposals.

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End notes:

1. The ideas in this article were formed in conversation with folks from Creativity Not Control, Classroom Struggle Advance the Struggle, Insurgent Notes, Black Orchid Collective, and Fire Next Time. Thank you everyone for the vibrant collaboration.

2. If you reproduce or quote this article, please include an attribution and  link back to the original posting.    Thanks!

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Shout Out From Oakland

14 Feb

Classroom Struggle – an organization fighting for equality in the Oakland Public Schools –  is organizing to support the testing boycott in Seattle.  In their solidarity statement, they gave a shout out to Creativity Not Control:

This struggle is also being waged by some students who are mobilizing to join the boycott by answering ‘C’ for Creativity not control on all questions of the MAP test. For more information on the boycott please visit creativitynotcontrol.wordpress.com. Creativity Not Control is a group of educators organizing to spread this boycott to schools in working class neighborhoods. They intend to pass out flyers on the boycott at two South End schools over the next two weeks.

via Solidarity with Seattle Teachers and Students Refusing Pointless Standardized Tests!.

We should prepare to reciprocate that solidarity if need be.  Oakland schools are currently  facing 7.6 million in cuts, and folks there are organizing against it.

The MAP test, and the AP test, and White Supremacy

6 Feb

The  Seattle Weekly reports that the NAACP has joined the struggle against the MAP test:

In addition to broad concerns over what results of the MAP test actually reflect, the local branch of the NAACP has specific concerns regarding the Seattle School District using the computerized test to determine which students are placed in advance courses – a practice the NAACP says can lead to an “inequitable result” for children of color and those living in poverty.

This is a great point,and I’m glad the NAACP is joining the fight.  But I think we need to go further, and question the very existence of tracking systems in schools, and how they reproduce institutionalized racism/ white supremacy.  For example, Garfield High is in the historically Black Central District, a neighborhood which has gentrified with an influx of middle class white families.  Many Black families have been pushed out by rising rents, and   some of the new white families push for increased police surveillance and harassment of youth of color.   How does this play out at Garfield?  Who controls the school – the gentrifiers, or the Black community?   How many Black students are in Garfield’s Advanced Placement (AP) classes?

Furthermore, the Advanced Placement tests given at the end of AP classes are also standardized tests with their own cultural biases. For example, overemphasizing AP tests can push high schools to cling to a eurocentric (white dominated) approach to social studies instruction. In other words: there is no AP Black History.

I used to teach African and Asian studies at a borugie prep school.  There was tremendous pressure for seniors to take AP European History so they could get into elite colleges.  On about the third or fourth day of the semester, I soon realized that my “ethnic studies” classes were considered the “easy” alternative to the more “serious” AP classes.  Many student athletes had been informally tracked into African studies and considered it a “jock class”.  I remember discussing and analyzing that with my students.  I made it clear that African history is just as important as European history, even if it doesn’t prepare you for getting a 5 on a prestigious AP test. I made that class just as rigorous as any AP European History class, but also a lot more creative, because we didn’t have to focus on test prep lessons.

Black Student Unions at schools like Garfield fought hard against these kinds of racial hierarchies and white-washed curricula.  As the boycott of the MAP test unfolds, I hope these dimensions of the struggle for equality continue to be central.

Upcoming Events

6 Feb

Here is an  invitation for upcoming events.  Feel free to copy it into your email so you can send it out to friends.

***Please forward widely****

Creativity Not Control

  -Learning for Life, not Labor –

-Decolonize Schools-

We are a new group of  family, teachers, students, and working class community members coming together to fight for equality and creativity in our schools: https://creativitynotcontrol.wordpress.com/CreativityNotControl@gmail.com.

We’d like to invite you to the upcoming events.  We hope they can be opportunities for networking and solidarity-building among various communities, organizations, and groups:

Flyering sessions to expand the MAP test boycott:

We will be passing out flyers encouraging more teachers, students, and family members to join the Seattle teachers who are boycotting the MAP test: https://creativitynotcontrol.wordpress.com/flyers/

Wed, Feb 13th.  Flyering at Franklin High School.  Meet at 2:45 PM in front of FHS.

Thurs, Feb 14th, Flyering downtown.  Meet at 1:00 PM at the Westlake Park stage, at the north end of the park across the street from the mall.

NOTE: Fri, Feb 15th Flyering at Franklin High School is cancelled

Picket vs. High-Stakes Standardized Testing

When: Tues Feb 19th, meet at 6:00 PM

Where: in front of Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Avenue, Seattle.

Invite your friends on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/125676074275863/

Michelle Rhee, one of the ideologues of the corporate “Education Reform” movement, is speaking at Town Hall.  The corporate agenda of education reform means more high -stakes standardized testing, and less culturally relevant, anti-racist curriculum.  It means more boredom and control and less creativity for youth and teachers in the classroom.

The current public schools reproduce racial, class, and gender inequality, and we all need to come together to fight these problems ourselves as working class and oppressed communities. CEOs like Rhee might claim to be radicals fighting these issues in order to put students first.  But they are really pushing further corporate takeover of the public schools, which will make these problems worse.  We need to fight back and create our own solutions.

We will gather outside Rhee’s talk in a demonstration of solidarity with the Seattle teachers who have really put students first by refusing to administer the standardized MAP test: http://scrapthemap.wordpress.com/

Discussion Forum:

When: Thurs, March 21st, 6 PM

Where:  Black Coffee Coop, 501 E. Pine St. Seattle, WA 98122

We will host an open discussion about problems in the current education system, alternatives to standardized testing, and how we can come together to fight back.

We may watch and discuss a short film about education struggles to get our imaginations going

Students join the boycott: a sit-down strike against boredom?

6 Feb

This was posted today on Change the Stakes’ Facebook page:

Here’s what happened at Garfield today: Admins came into classrooms and tried to pull students out to take the MAP test in the library. Students stared straight ahead, and wouldn’t budge.

In a library with about 60 computers stations set up for the MAP, there were single digit numbers of students sitting at computers. Of those, many sat at the computers and refused to press even a single button.

That’s how that went.

Lots of local news was covering….

Image

 

Here are some interviews that King 5 News did with students at Garfield.

All power to the students!  Let’s spread this to other schools!

Creativity, not Eugenics; Authentic Assessment, not Control

5 Feb

Here is a great interview with Wayne Au from Rethinking Schools about the Seattle MAP test boycott and its impact nationally.

Au points out how standardized testing has its roots in old IQ tests, which, in turn, have their roots in a climate of eugenics and racist pseudo-science:

THE TESTS actually originate way back with the first IQ tests. And let me be clear, these tests were developed by a French psychologist, whose last name was Binet, and he developed this test simply to determine if young children were developmentally disabled or not. He had no intent of doing a fixed version of IQ–he didn’t see intelligence as innate. It was purely an assessment tool to see how to best work with young children.

Psychologists in the United States–Lewis Termin, for instance–took the basic ideas of Binet’s test and built off to start trying to measure the IQ–intelligence quotient–of adults. Then they started to come to all sorts of conclusions based on the results of these very biased tests. They basically found, through what they thought was objective science at the time, that poor people and nonwhite people and immigrants were literally dumber than U.S.-born white men.

My parents are both special education teachers, and they often warn me that ideas of eugenics are re-emerging under the guise of education reform. They point out the discriminatory, ableist effects this is having on students with disabilities.  If someone’s learning does not correspond to the standards set by a culturally biased, high-stakes test, they are often deemed unable to work after graduation.  In a capitalist society,  those who are deemed unfit to work are treated as less than human, and are made to feel expendable.  Jomo analyzed this in her essay Caring: A Labor on Stolen Time, where she reflected on her experiences caring for people with disabilities in a nursing home:

 Capitalist society has so many hang ups about the value of “work,” judging peoples’ worth by how much they are willing to subjugate themselves to workplace coercion, their willingness to be exploited, that makes them more, or less, deserving of a livelihood.  It is the focus on “productivity” that allows most people to accept the authoritarian discipline of the workplace and see the subjugation of creativity and free will as acceptable norms.

This same framework of judging one’s worthiness to live by one’s ability to work at a job is also the backbone of the nursing home industry.  The awful conditions in such a form of institutionalized living are deemed unworthy for someone who is mobile, independent, and able to work.  However, they are seen as acceptable for the elderly and people with disabilities because they can no longer work.

 Standardized testing and nursing homes are two examples of the shame this society inflicts on those who are not deemed able to work  according to official, standardized conceptions of ability.  From the bubble sheets of the MAP test to the bed-sheets of the nursing home, we are ranked and sorted according to our abilities, according to inaccurate, biased standards set by those in power.  Those who fail the test are given less power, less freedom, and less respect.

Proponents of standardized testing would likely respond by saying that the public school system is already discriminatory, and that lack of accountability leads to drastic differences in the quality of teaching, which can mean that students with disabilities, students of color, and other marginalized groups are not given equal access to the upward mobility that public education is supposed to create.  Wayne Au points out that these same arguments were made in favor of the original IQ and SAT tests – they were supposed to open up spots in the ruling class to those with ability, not simply a blue-blood inheritance.  The problem is, the tests are highly inaccurate, so they don’t measure ability, they simply reproduce the biases and inequalities they claim to overcome.

This is a good point, but it doesn’t address the reason why so many communities end up supporting standardized testing as a lesser evil: the lack of accountable and quality education in so many public schools.  As John Garvey points out in his essay Once Again on Education: Beyond Ordinary Leftism, teachers can’t simply put the blame on the corporate education deformers.  We can’t simply rally around the banner “Defend Public Education” when public eduction itself is so flawed.   We need to take direct responsibility for solving the problems in our schools.  More specifically, we need to challenge each other to teach well, break the rules that prevent us from doing that, and get each others’ backs when we face retaliation for it.  In this sense, the Seattle teachers boycotting the MAP test are pointing the way forward.

Groups like Rethinking Schools help with this process by opening up space for teachers, family, students to share best practices with each other, without hedge fund billionaires or astroturf “ed deform” groups stacking the meeting to push a corporate agenda.  This  begins to create the possibility of horizontal, working class accountability.  Rethinking Schools is also promising because it links discussions of quality teaching and curriculum development with discussions around collective struggle and organizing.

In his interview, Wayne Au also provides a great response to a question we have been hearing a lot as we organize to expand this boycott: “what will we do instead of standardized tests?”  Some people have read the slogan “creativity not control” as a call to avoid accountability, or to allow bad teaching to happen under the excuse of “creativity.”  What if a teacher is doing something that he thinks is creative, but students are disengaged and bored by it, to the point where they aren’t learning?  What if a teacher is doing something she thinks is creative, but only the white students are responding to it because it is culturally biased?

 We need assessment to make sure that all students are actually learning, and if they are not, we need to change our teaching so that they have the opportunity to learn.  Instead of standardized assessment, Au  suggests authentic portfolio assessments, linked to public presentations.  This is the kind of assessment I’m implementing in my own classroom, and I’m finding it motivates students to put in more effort because they are excited about the possibility of sharing their work with peers, family, and their community.  Au points out how this approach is consistent with contemporary research:

Because we also know from research that that kind of metacognitive reflection is the highest level of learning–thinking about your thinking. So being able to demonstrate that through something like a portfolio, or some sort of public defense of your work, is a much more authentic way of measuring student learning.

Through this process, working class and oppressed communities can develop our own high standards for our children’s growth and education, demanding and supporting teaching that fosters creativity and growth in every child.  Parents, teachers, and students can hold each other accountable to meet these goals through events such as public presentations of students’ portfolios.

If the choice is between an ableist and racist eugenics program of standardized testing on the one hand, and a series of unaccountable, ableist, and racist public schools on the other hand, many people will choose the standardized testing.  But if we practice authentic teaching and authentic assessment accountable to our communities, then we can stop the testing agenda and  replace it with collective creativity.