Teachers Refuse to Give Standardized Exams at Seattle Schools: There is more than one way to skip accountability.

“..Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain..”         


           Strategically, this is a brilliant move on the part of Teacher’s Unions; and why not? When the “tone” of the battle is dramatically going against you, what better time to throw “caution to the wind”. There are times when the only play you have, is to throw a pass into the end zone and hope someone on your team is somehow able to catch it (hey, its super bowl timeJ).  This move is fraught with tremendous dangers, and that is perhaps why the Seattle Superintendent is moving in such a thoughtfully cautious way. This “play” could work to totally dismantle the standardized testing system, too quickly and without planning. This Seattle situation is dangerous for the following reasons: State and school districts have been granted major sustaining funding (Federal, State and private) based on some relationship to standardized testing. Standardized assessments are linked to many other activities in public education (i.e. labor contracts, funding based on student performance on these exams; this includes monitoring special populations of students simply showing up to take the exam). Without standardized testing what happens to all of these evaluation tools; and their connected funding criteria? (Some like special education is coded in law). What if the taking and passing of these exams are requirements for promotion, or in the case of High School, graduation? State Education Departments and Legislatures would need to “race and scramble” to change promotion and graduation laws, before the end of the school year (doubt that can happen). If standardized exams are one of the criteria used to evaluate teachers and administrators (in present contract agreements); an educator terminated, not granted a “step increase”, not promoted  for “poor standardized test results”; would have a strong argument for appeal if similar colleagues were not affected , or held “safe-harmless” because their schools did not take the standardized exams. Teachers are smart, (they are teachers!) they may say: “Hey, I will take the 10 day suspension without pay, if I can keep my job!” Further, an entire teaching staff refusing to give a standardized exam is an uncharted disciplinary topic; who knows how hearing officers may decide. If you just don’t do that one “thing”, and do every other part of your job well, is that a dereliction of duty?   As a former superintendent I have more than once experienced “strange” rulings on the part of these independent hearing officers.  And even if the school district “wins”, do you fire or suspend the entire teaching staff in the middle of the year, and cause educational havoc (folks calling for the superintendent to fire or suspend the staff, have no idea what that would mean for a school’s learning environment) The superintendent is playing it right; bring water not gasoline to the situation. He must find a “diplomatic” way for those teachers to “back down”. He should make this “event” an opening opportunity for a productive, and thoughtful school district discussion: “How do we transform standardized assessment into something that could actually support instructional practice; and also hold schools accountable to a standard?”

How did we get here?

               The accountability through standardized testing train had already left the station with the birth of NCLB (and all of its State based offspring tied to state-wide exams); this train was fueled by corrupt out of focus school boards, union contracts that basically said that if you just don’t kill a student, you can keep your job; in NYC we have the infamous “rubber rooms”; where teachers can collect years of salary for doing nothing, as they await the contract driven  disciplinary process that would get dusted in a race with a snail. The public correctly analyzed when looking at school budgets, and then looking at the “product” (academic achievement and graduation rates) that they were not getting any bang for their hard earned tax bucks.  Here we had a profession unlike no other, where failure was placed solely on the backs of the customer, the parent and the students. No teacher in the school building was held accountable for students not learning, no one lost pay, and no one lost their job. The public was told the students were too poor; too non-English; too few positive role models in their community; too Black, too Latino; too many living with parents without college degrees; too many without two parents; too many without any parents; the message: “send us perfect kids, and then we can successfully educate them” and of course: “Send us more and more money”. The public was not fooled. The problem emerged when (which is why we teach students History) the public and elected officials panicked and responded in not a well thought out way. Ill-informed “Reform” advocates where championed and put in charge; this  infusion of people who lacked pedagogical knowledge and history would transform testing into a tool very different from its original purposes: (1) which was to guide teachers and administrators as to what methodologies they need to employ to support academic improvement. Testing in itself is not bad (want to go to an untested medical doctor or dentist, live in a home designed by untested architect?) I wrote a paper on the use of high stakes testing in motivating and sharpening instructional techniques long before the emergence of the “new reformers-testing fan club” (This year in School Science 1990 Assessment in the Service of Instruction – AAAS, “Assessing An Accelerated Science Program for African- American and Hispanic Elementary and JHS Students Through Advanced Science Examinations” – Johnson, Michael A., pp. 267-2 872, 1991) One of the arguments I made was that the standardization of high expectations and content knowledge helps those students for whom high expectations is not a given; It alerted teachers to “gaps” in student content and/ or experiential knowledge, it provide students with an opportunity to know who was their competition, and the rules of that competitive  “game”. (2) The second important role of standardized testing was to provide equity of expectations and content standards inside of schools, and across schools of students from different social-economic-cultural-disability (or ability) backgrounds. But the new view of testing was that it would serve as a “hammer” that could drive poorly performing educators out of the system. But because “testing” was not originally designed for that purpose, it was doomed to fail, not just students, but as a school improvement strategy. For sure, many teachers and principals lost their positions; but academic performance still did not significantly improve; and many educators realized that a quicker, safer and easier way to raise students’ scores was simply to cheat. These educators kept their jobs (and very often earned monetary bonuses) and many of the leaders on the district level received laudatory headlines and national recognition. The public and policy makers were happy, and wanted more, and they simply ignored the obvious lack of evidence that students were improving academically. It is a little like the idea of “school closings” as an academic improvement plan; the public, press and policy makers feel something is happening, because something is, well… happening. They have never stop to think that just simply moving an under-performing student to now a more crowded school of other under-performing students does not serve the arriving, or presently situated students well. In fact it does more harm than good; since the receiving struggling school now must contend with a larger cohort of struggling students (the more aware and aggressive parents having moved their children to Charter schools) Well this myth of “do something, we will worry about if it works later”, was also true of “testing results penalties as a tool of school improvement”; people were getting fired, it look good, felt good; but the fact that it did no good for students did not matter. It gave the public what it wanted, the illusion of “change”; it give them “bread and circuses!”


The testing lion comes home to roost!

              The accountability hammer has not come down completely (but it will) on teacher unions because those same “new testing reformers” leading the charge are so ill-informed and ingenuous as to the real purpose and role of student assessment. Outside of the punitive factor you can’t make a case for assessments to be used in this way; except as a cynical tool to commoditize and privatize public education. But what the “reformers” lack in pedagogy, is made up in good public relations, and so let the games continue at the expense of children. But this small testing “revolt” could invite a full-fledged rebellion that could quickly spin out of control; and further drive the public’s shrinking confidence in our profession in a negative direction.  Unfortunately there is no reasoned voice of responsible standardized testing that can speak in the larger public square; that space is monopolized by selfish, stubborn teacher unions; and their badly misinformed evil testing obsessed twins. I read an African proverb once that said: “when the elephants fight the grass suffers”.  The students of color, students with ESL parents, poor students in general will suffer if we stay on the present testing as hammer path; or if we end up with little or no standardized assessment accountability. Then the poorest and least politically powerful students will be relegated to a lower expectations, and academic standards status.


The False Promise of School Closings…NYC Education as Performance Art…

The idea that “school closings” represent a sound student academic improvement plan is beyond being false; it is also a dangerous myth. It truly speaks to a “reform movement” that is bankrupt of ideas, and is lost in its own theoretical deficiencies. It is the soup du jour move for these folks; but then, (in classic Brooklynese): “you can’t beat nothing, with nothing.” Students who are “under performing” at an “under performing” school, don’t suddenly become high academic performers, just by changing buildings; (in high school they don’t pick up credits on their way to their new school) particularly when they are just crowed into another, (on the verge of) “under performing” school. If anything  the receiving school is under-resourced and is on the “tipping point” (toward “under performance” itself); now taking in large numbers of struggling students, forces that school then to become the next school “in need of closing”…A vicious cycle, and game played on the communities that are least able to (politically) resist these disruptive actions; and at great harm to students least able to absorb dramatic “lateral” change (lateral meaning: its not like they are moving these kids to Bronx Science or Brooklyn Tech!)… well these dramatic (gives the public the “feeling” that something is really happening!) closings would only make sense if your plan is to put that newly found school consolidation money into something other then classrooms; or, to turn the children (of the most informed and best organized parents) into traveling ATM machines; and ship them off to charter schools where their attendance promises to generate if nothing else… money for somebody….

When I was a child I saw things…. like a child.

When I was a child I saw things…. like a child.


        I continue to be amazed at how many successful adults still view their High School experience through a “teen-age lens” (and to be fair how many of those who don’t). “Growing-up”, in my view means deconstructing all of the major developmental experiences in your life; and then reconstructing that information into a better understanding of who you really are… really. We are very much a compilation and configuration of our time-period, nationality, race, home cultural experience, religious experience, schools, neighborhoods, etc. There are situations that a young person may experience, that informs thinking going forward into adulthood; like that scene from The Autobiography of Malcolm X; where a teacher tries to convince him that his professional intellectual career aspirations should be lowered down to the limits of a manual laborer. Reflecting on, and even conveying that story to younger generations can be extremely positive and useful, as one reaches for and achieves higher levels of accomplishment. But things that occurred in our previous stages of development can also be a little subtle; and requires a mature and thoughtful analysis. Such was the case for me and my high school classmates; and our English Regents teacher from hell! This teacher was the embodiment of meanness. She never smiled, never made jokes, a deadline was just that, a deadline, she utilized biting sarcasms, never accepted any excuse for failure (“oh, the dog destroyed your homework; well the bad news is that the dog is not able to appreciate an “F”; but you on the other hand are fully able..”); She returned our poorly produced writing efforts laced with red corrections (grammar, spelling & punctuation); it was as if our writings were dipped in red ink (symbolically our blood:-), and so everyone labored hard to not be called up to her desk in order to receive an obvious paper full of red marks as she made no attempt to fold your paper so that others could not see your shame. She was not our friend, and made every effort to make sure we were clear on that point. She was universally despised (hate being too strong a word here); in her world bad work, through effort could be made good; and good work, through effort could be made better. But nothing, no amount of effort, no amount of extra effort made her happy; if she had “class favorites”, we had no idea who they were; and everyone in the class was fully convinced that she was “picking-on” them. Her occasional commentary on the upcoming Regents exam was more threat then inspiration: “Don’t you dare think of failing that exam; for if you do, you will spend summer school with me!” Talk about an incentive! And even after some ridiculously high percentage (which I don’t remember) of us passed the English Regents exam, we still did not appreciate that woman; I know I didn’t, for I did not have her sign my senior yearbook and I can’t remember seeing her signature on anyone else’s yearbook. Alas, good riddance; she was a one woman graduation incentive!

           The first time I was able to see her through a different lens was that next year in college. I was sitting in a first-year  chemistry class; and first of all, it was in an auditorium with a couple of hundred students. The professor was cold, official, ridged and held fixed and inflexible office hours (it was reported that a classmate saw him, by accident coming out of his office during his non-office hours; she just wanted to ask one question about a problem; without saying a word he simply pointed to the “office hour’s sign on his door”) At some point during the class he announced: “My task is to separate the real science students from the pretenders, and so you still have time to drop this class and sign up for the, chemistry for liberal arts majors.” The student in the seat next to me turned and said sarcastically: “well, that was inspiring.” Now to fully appreciate this moment; you would need to contrast this class with a history elective class I signed up for, that was actually in a classroom. The professor was welcoming, “cool”, did not keep to ridged office hours, was witty, told jokes, often extended deadlines, and unlike the chemistry professor often asked us what we thought. But I was able to get through both of these professors because I learned an important lesson in high school: Don’t get enrolled into the personality of the teacher; it is the job of the student to “manage” the relationship; I adjusted accordingly to each of their styles. The second experience where the “ghost” of my English Regents’ teacher would emerge took place in a college sociology course. The first hint came when the professor announced that there would be no “multiple, short, fill-in, true-false answer exams. All exams in this class would be essay and research papers responding to topics covered in the class. The entire class groaned in disappointment; I on the other hand, was ecstatic…”Wow, testing that involved writing only!” I did not realize until that moment how comfortable and confident I felt about writing for a grade. Later in the semester  the final piece to the still developing puzzle lit up in my mind, and it all came together on a single day. One day after class; the professor ask if he could have a word with me. I could not imagine what it could be since I was doing so well in the class. After the room was empty he asks me a question (well, 3 questions): “where did you attend high school?” “Did you attend NYC public schools?’…(I thought: Oh man, where was this going? And then relief)..…“Where did you learn to write this well?”……. “I just find it amazing, the high level of your writing skills.” I felt so lifted by his compliments, I forget that I am so tired and must get a few hours’ sleep before I show up for my 12:AM-8:AM shift at the Post Office.  I stepped out of the building and onto the campus feeling very good about myself; and of course, I wanted to spend the rest of the day showering in that wonderful praise…but in reality, as I walked toward the 145th street train station all I could think about was that high school English Regents teacher I so despised back then; I am ashamed because her signature is not in my senior yearbook… and I can’t, like so many things in life, go back and fix the past….I can see the red ink of her correction pen…I can hear her 50 writing rules we were forced to memorize, like the one on 1st drafts “don’t get it right, get it written”…or her 101 classroom rules; like the one that earned Ed MacDougal a “0” for not sitting in the middle of his seat! All of the “irrelevant” pieces of literature that I so hated then, but now I am so glad I read……I don’t even think she had a bathroom pass, and in any event nobody ever ask to go (“this is high school, take care of your personal needs during your lunch period; and as you may have noticed this is not your lunch period”)……no gum, no candy, back straight, both feet firmly on the floor; “I am collecting assignments, not excuses”… I am on my way to work; I am so tired…. how do I pull this off; Full-time student with a full time job…….At that moment I am able to see all of the folks in my past who did not accept excuses, standing next to her…I am so tired… but they don’t seem open to excuses now…They just say: “anything you want to say Michael?”…..I descend down into the subway; and descend deeper into my thoughts…I imagine that I am speaking to her…. “Thank you, I am so grateful”; as if she could hear my thoughts; but I can hear her standard sharp comeback inside of my head, above the roar of the coming train…. “Well, Mr. Johnson (as was her method of addressing us); “How do you like me now?”