Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Rebellion Against Testing: A Q&A with Jesse Hagopian

Jesse Hagopian is a leader in the group Social Equality Educators focused on social justice unionism within the Seattle Teachers Association (www.socialequalityeducators.org). He has written many articles on education reform. He co-wrote the chapter “Teachers’ Union and Social Justice” for the book Education and Capitalism Struggles for Learning and Liberation (www.haymarketbooks.org/pb/education-and-capitalism). Jesse teaches social studies in Seattle at Garfield High School and is one of many teachers boycotting the MAP Test. I had the opportunity to ask Jesse questions about the role of Social Equality Educators and the increased solidarity for the MAP Test Boycott. Jesse is pictured above with his right hand raised wearing a baseball hat at a MAP Test Boycott Rally.


Why are educators at Garfield High School boycotting the MAP test?

Quoted from Jesse’s Op-ed in The Seattle Times Why Garfield teachers boycotted the MAP test

“Seattle’s ninth- and 10th-grade students already take five state-required standardized tests, with 11th- and 12th-graders taking three. Seattle Public Schools staff admitted to a Garfield teacher the MAP test is not valid at the high-school level, because the margin of error is greater than expected gains.

In addition, teachers are forbidden to see contents of the MAP test so they can’t prepare students. Teachers who have looked over the shoulders of students taking the test can tell you that it asks questions students are not expected by state standards to learn until later grades.

This test especially hurts students receiving extra academic support — English-language learners and those enrolled in special education. These are the kids who lose the most each time they waste five hours on the test. Our computer labs are commandeered for weeks when the MAP is on, so students working on research projects can’t get near them. The students without home computers are hurt the most.

Students don’t take the MAP seriously because they know their scores don’t factor into their grades or graduation status. They approach it less seriously each time they take it, so their scores decline. Our district uses MAP scores in teacher evaluations, even though the MAP company recommends against using it to evaluate teacher effectiveness and it’s not mandated in our union contract.”
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How did the teachers at Garfield become unified and agree to boycott the MAP assessment?

JESSE: It started with one teacher at Garfield wanting to talk with me as the building union rep. I figured it was just about a normal everyday union concern. It turned out this teacher had been talking with a few other teachers questioning the validity of the MAP test. The teacher wanted to know what would happen if they didn’t administer the MAP test. We talked about how in order for this to be a more powerful action we needed a unified effort with a bigger group of teachers. So we first meet together with all the teachers in the tested areas and had a conversation. Then we called an all staff meeting where we talked about consequences such as insubordination and debated the collective action of not administering the MAP test. The moment that really turned the debate was when one teacher got up and said that the test would label them as a bad teacher and the students as failures. The teacher explained that they would rather be known for standing up against something that they knew was wrong instead of sitting back and being labeled a failure. Later the staff took a vote and unanimously voted to not administer the MAP assessment.

The boycott has gotten national attention, how have Garfield teachers and the overall message kept up the momentum/organizing efforts?

JESSE: It has taken a huge effort and a lot of coordination to keep the boycott going. There are basic tasks that have to get done: talking with the media, parent outreach, website development, other schools outreach, etc. We started by electing a five person steering committee to make decisions quickly and bring proposals to the larger group. We created committees around research, parent outreach, other schools outreach, solidarity, etc. There are now five schools participating in the boycott Ballard High School, The Center School, Chief Sealth International High School, Garfield High School and Orca K-8 School. We have a citywide boycott committee with representatives from the various schools. They are also broken up into sub committees. One of the committees is working on putting forward an alternative assessment proposal using current research. A dozen schools in the area have sent statements of solidarity. There have been different national days of action and support from educators and education activists around the nation.

It sounds to me like what has to done to prepare for a strike.

JESSE: Yes, it is a similar action in the sense that it is a testing strike and we are refusing our labor. It is slightly different in approach teachers are the ones self-organizing along with support from our unions.

What has been the role of a group like Social Equality Educators (SEE) in the boycott?

JESSE: SEE has played a critical role in the boycott. The main teachers that came together against the MAP test were SEE teachers. The schools that have joined the boycott all have SEE leaders in their buildings. They have been instrumental in holding meetings in their buildings, meetings with the PTAs, and creating resolutions. SEE had a group that was already unified and had organizing skills that have played out in the boycott.

How do you see the Garfield teachers “Scrap the MAP” boycott influencing what is happening in education today?

JESSE: What the boycott has raised is just how little teachers are consulted or actually never consulted about what is happening in our schools. We should be the first asked about our schools. What types of tests, interventions, or wrap around services do our students need? The answers should come from the teachers, parents, and students. If given the opportunity, we as educators have ideas and could put forward a plan to improve our schools.  We are not asked to be a part of the dialogue. Instead billionaires are asked and they put forward plans that are for privatizing education.

What teachers/union leaders or movements do you view as influencing public education in a constructive way?

JESSE: We have seen how teachers can push to shape the conversation. Look at how the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike demanding better schools for their students. Another group that inspired us here in Seattle are the Tacoma teachers that went on strike. They were even threatened with an injunction, but continued to stay out on strike until their demands were meant. We can look to these recent actions demonstrating how to assert our voices through collective action, and not just be heard, but also shape the outcomes.

Obviously high stakes testing is one, but what other main challenges do you see educators facing today? What are some ways educators can overcome those challenges?

JESSE: The biggest challenge is for educators to find their voice and use that voice in what is happening in education today. We are the ones who should be shaping the conversation about what is happening in our schools. This can happen when we join together to make sure our voice is heard. We can do this by joining groups like Social Equality Educators, or others working for social justice in our schools. We should be the leaders in education. We can be the leaders in education if we use our ability to unite together and make ourselves heard.

How have you seen students question their educational experience through the boycott of high stakes tests?

JESSE: Students are also questioning the value of these high stakes assessments. Our student government and the PTSA voted in support of the boycott. Student groups in Portland, Oregon and Providence, Rhode Island created their own boycott against standardized tests. Students in Colorado are walking out this week against high stakes tests. This is just the beginning of a larger push back against such privatization reforms that come from billionaires and corporate reformers. The struggle highlights a bigger problem of privatization and a need for teachers to assert their voice. 

Jesse will be in Portland for a panel about high stakes testing. Saturday, March 16th at 4pm.

Other resources about the Seattle MAP Boycott:
http://www.democracynow.org/2013/1/29/seattles_teacher_uprising_high_school_faculty