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Leadership and Activism

The Revolution Will Not Be Quantified (Seattle boycott solidarity)

This post was a submission to my local Patch news site as part of the national Garfield solidarity day today. Also I would like to thank Katie Strom for some of the information and wording on high stakes tests.

Revolutions are rarely, if ever, sudden. They are a final breaking point – the product of collective acts of resistance over a period of time. When we teach our own American Revolution, it is important to reinforce to students that Lexington and Concord and the Declaration of Independence were the culmination of thirteen years of colonial resistance – sometimes highly organized, sometimes spontaneous, and inclusive of far more events than what makes it into textbooks. When it comes time to write the history of resistance to the so-called education “reform” movement, we will also tell the story of a gradual collection of acts – some individual and anonymous, some concerted and highly visible – that reversed an assault on public education that is morally bankrupt, ideologically driven, and flat out factually wrong. The “reformers” obsession with standardization and quantification will be seen for what it is: an educational paradigm of school-as-workforce-preparation aligned with the needs of the American capitalist class rather than with our students’ needs as human beings.

 Today is a national day of action in solidarity with the brave teachers in Seattle’s Garfield High School, who are refusing to administer the state standardized test for ninth graders, the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP). The teachers correctly critique the test as a waste of time and money, bad for students, a questionable measure of learning, and yet another attempt to match teacher evaluation to the junk science of “value added modeling” (VAM). The Garfield resistance is the latest chapter in the nascent revolution against the so-called education “reform” movement.

 While there is no neat starting point to this revolution, it has certainly accelerated in the last two years. In early 2011, education workers in Wisconsin were among the most vocal and visible members of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to undermine organized labor in that state (as they were in similar situations in states like Ohio and Michigan). That summer, the national Save Our Schools March and Rally united thousands of education workers, former educators, activists, families, and allies from around the country. The SOS organization still thrives today as one of the few national organs of resistance. When the Occupy movement was most visible, education workers participated in various actions as they spread awareness of the connections between the so-called education “reform” movement and the neoliberal economic assault on the 99%.

 As the 2012-2013 school year began, the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike not just because of workers’ issues such as faulty evaluations and unfair layoff procedures, but mostly because the school system, which they have accused of educational apartheid, was not implementing policies that would create the schools Chicago students deserve. While their strike did not solve those problems overnight, it raised critical awareness of issues facing many urban schools, and reinforced the truth that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. A few months ago, the Newark Teachers Union, amidst opposition from many rank-and-filers, had to resort to lies and scare tactics to secure a “yes” vote on the first contract in New Jersey to include merit pay, one of many “reforms” wholly discredited by research. All this, of course, is in addition to the longstanding work of organizations like Rethinking Schools, the Education Law Center, Fair Test, and various groups of educators and community allies in cities like Oakland, Boston, and New York City.

 A popular critique of this resistance used by so-called “reformers” is that it is a defense of the status quo. Nothing could be further from the truth. The money and power are behind the reformers, not the resistance, so the alternatives we dissidents propose do not get the visibility those the “reformers” propose receive. Additionally, the resistance movement disagrees fundamentally on what the problems facing public schools really are (e.g. inequity and systemic racism vs. individualistic notions of students not prepared to compete for jobs). So while it is important to forward an alternative vision, it is first important to critique the opposition, especially since they hold sway with policymakers and much of public opinion.

 The popular paradigm of “college and career readiness” may seem innocuous and apolitical, but it is in fact a framework for education as simply labor force preparation. This model conveniently abandons necessary (but difficult and expensive) comprehensive social policy and attempts to boil teaching and learning down to an easily measurable input-output process. Individualism and competition are reinforced over citizenship and the common good. But worst of all, even if we accept this vision of public school, the “reforms” being used do not even succeed at doing what they purport to do. Thee cult of “data” twists good pieces of research and produces misleading ones. As economic journalist Doug Henwood stated, “For a bunch of business-supported technocrats supposedly in love with metrics, there’s absolutely no empirical support for their ambitions. You might suspect that their real aim is to bust teachers unions and save money educating a population that elites have lost interest in.”

 A legion of research reports, journal articles, and entire books have been written refuting the assertions and policies of the “reform” movement, and the issue is very complex. Perhaps the best element of the “reform” agenda to discuss here, especially in light of the brave resistance of Garfield teachers, is the increase in standardized testing, since that is the engine that drives so much of the rest – student outcomes, school ratings and punishments like closings and charterization, and teacher evaluations – and since it embodies the obsession with measurement, quantification, positivism, and linearality.

 These are the realities of high-stakes testing:

  • Standardized tests are often culturally and linguistically bias and disproportionately punish low-income students, English Language Learners (ELLs), and special education students

  • Standardized tests can be poor, invalid measures of student learning and ability.

  • Standardized tests lead to a narrowing of the curriculum, “teaching to the test,” less focus on critical thinking and problem solving, and the marginalizing of untested subjects.

  • Standardized tests waste instructional time, threaten the arts and even recess, and are often expensive to administer.

  • Standardized tests become sorting and stratifying mechanisms, and some students wind up with more of the same (test prep and rigid regulations), while high-scoring schools in affluent areas maintain a more varied curriculum.

  • Standardized tests and VAM are very poor indicators of teacher effectiveness.

 Let’s briefly examine one local example. My school district just approved a new teacher and principal observation rubric. In doing so, it cited the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) studies as providing “decisive data.” These studies have been widely criticized and discredited as ideologically driven, reifiying what Bill Gates wants to see, and woefully flawed and misleading, most recently by the Shanker Institute and the National Education Policy Center.

 What is worse is that the New Jersey Department of Education intends to take VAM one step further by using an even worse predictor of teacher effectiveness, Student Growth Percentiles (SGPs). While the vast preponderance of research shows VAM is, at best, a statistical measure with huge margins of error and therefore only useful as part of identifying the very worst and very best teachers – the teachers at either far end of the spectrum – SGPs are such a worse indicator of teacher effectiveness, that no credible education researcher will study them.

 Here is some perspective. The American Institutes of Research issued this tepid warning on VAM: “We cannot at this time encourage anyone to use VAM in a high stakes endeavor. If one has to use VAM, then we suggest a two-step process to initially use statistical models to identify outliers (e.g., low-performing teachers) and then to verify these results with additional data. Using independent information that can confirm or disconfirm is helpful in many contexts,” while the very inventor of SGP, Damian Betebenner, as reported on the Jersey Jazzman blog, “has said explicitly that SGPs do not attempt to find teacher effect (or any other cause) for variations in student test scores. In other words, they are the wrong instruments to use when attempting to infer a teacher’s ‘value.’”

 The “reformers” are wrong. They are ideologically wrong. Even if we accept their ideology, they are factually wrong about their own assertions. They are wrong for our schools, our education workers, our communities and taxpayers, and for our students. The teachers of Garfield High School have taken a brave stand against the testing juggernaut. May it be the first of many.

For information on legally opting students out of of high-stakes standardized tests, go to


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