The Uprising Against Testing: When A People Lose Their Fear
I had a busy morning yesterday. Rutgers Newark hosted its first college fair for undocumented immigrants. I knew one of the organizers, so I wanted to go and show support, as well as learn more about the process so that I could pass it along to my students. It was informative, although the staff did pull me aside, give me the side eye, and ask if I was a member of the press…
At the same time, the Abbott Leadership Institute was hosting its third class of the semester across the street at Boyden Hall. The topic: “The Movement Against the New Age of Standardized Testing.” Sounded like a particularly interesting session, so I slipped out of undocuRutgers and into the ALI class around 11:00 AM. Just in time to hear Jesse Hagopian, a social studies teacher from Garfield High School in Washington state.
One quote from Jesse (roughly paraphrased) stood out from his talk: “Something amazing happened. We lost our fear. When a people lose their fear, it’s truly awe inspiring.” He was talking about the refusal of teachers at Garfield High School to administer the MAP test. Threats be damned, they had lost their fear and decided to boycott, on principle, the assessment.
He went on to describe other moments of civil disobedience in the new uprising against high stakes testing, many of which he chronicled in his book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-stakes Testing. I ordered my copy from Amazon while he was talking, and I look forward to it arriving tomorrow while I still have some time off for President’s Day (hooray, Amazon prime!).
Jesse compared that moment of “losing fear” to what his parents had talked about from the Civil Rights movement. I immediately thought of the movie Selma, and the historical events it portrays. Watch this video of John Lewis recounting that day on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and you’ll see a man who clearly lost his fear. [Note: Click on the link in the image caption to the right to see the entire, 90 minute event.]
The iconic image of “Tank Man” at Tienanmen Square also popped into my head. While writing this, I took a detour through the Internet and stumbled on a Lens blog post from the NY Times about the photographers who took that image. This recollection from Charlie Cole, a photojournalist for Newsweek, is telling:
As the tanks neared the Beijing Hotel, the lone young man walked toward the middle of the avenue waving his jacket and shopping bag to stop the tanks. I kept shooting in anticipation of what I felt was his certain doom. But to my amazement, the lead tank stopped, then tried to move around him. But the young man cut it off again. Finally, the PSB (Public Security Bureau) grabbed him and ran away with him. Stuart and I looked at each other somewhat in disbelief at what we had just seen and photographed.
Fear is a tool of coercion. It’s the last resort of an authority that has lost its legitimacy. That expectation of “certain doom” is paralyzing. The segregationist south used fear to perpetuate Jim Crow a century. The Communist Party in China used fear to prevent the modernization and democratization of Chinese society.
In education, we’ve been beset by this same fear for decades. A Nation at Risk? Fear. Our schools are failing, the Soviets are going to take over. Governor’s like Scott Walker and Chris Christie attacking teacher’s unions? Fear. If we don’t wipe them out, they’ll bankrupt the state, with their exorbitant benefits and cushy pensions.
And now the PARCC? Fear. If your kids don’t take the PARCC, they won’t be college and career ready. Commissioner Hespe directed schools to “review the district’s discipline and attendance policy” to ensure students don’t opt out. He backtracked from that one a bit, but now the administration is feeding another line of fear: if students opt out, or if the legislature passes a bill recognizing a parent’s right to opt their students out, we risk losing our federal funding under Title I.
Enough fear. We need more Jesse Hagopians and Karen Lewises to remind us to stand up to illegitimate authority. The reformy types that are destroying public education have already lost their legitimacy – they don’t have any real arguments for how their “reforms” will make things better – and their last leg to stand on is the power they hold through fear.
When parents, students, and teachers lose their fear, they’ll lose their power. And maybe then we can get back to educating students for life instead of preparing them for a test.