‘They’re Robbing Kids of Critical Thinking’

Janine Jackson interviewed Jesse Hagopian on educational struggles in Seattle for the September 18 CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: Seattle public school teachers reached a tentative agreement with the school system after a five-day strike. As with most labor actions, there were a number of points at issue, but one of them was the question of basing teacher evaluations on student scores on standardized tests that are a source of frustration for growing numbers of teachers, parents and students.

Here to tell us what’s at stake in Seattle, and how it fits within the national debate over education, is Jesse Hagopian. He is a high school history teacher, associate editor at Rethinking Schools, and editor of and contributor to the book More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. He joins us now by phone. Welcome to CounterSpin, Jesse Hagopian.

Jesse Hagopian: Thanks for having me on the show.

JJ: While the eyes of those who care about education are on Seattle right now–for a number of reasons–we’re taping this show on September 17. What can you tell us, first of all, about the state of the teachers’ strike? Is it over over? Are there still things that are at issue?

JH: The strike has been suspended while the teachers consider the tentative agreement that was reached by the bargaining team, and on Sunday, the entire membership of all the educators in Seattle will come together to figure out if they’re going to ratify that contract or not. It’s been an absolutely incredible struggle that erupted here in Seattle, of teachers demanding a school system that our children deserve, and willing to strike to fight for it.

I think one of the greatest things that occurred in this fight you won’t find in the tentative agreement, and that is the solidarity and the collective struggle. I mean, the picket lines at every school across Seattle were electric. There was a new group called Soup for Teachers that formed, and parents spontaneously organizing this, bringing soup down to the picket lines and food to every school in Seattle to help sustain the teachers in the struggle. Many thousands of parents joined that teachers solidarity group on the Facebook page, students came down with their instruments to play music at the picket line, and there was a sense of a new community that had a common purpose. And that purpose was to make education better.

We fought for and won guaranteed minimum of 30 minutes of recess in the public schools. And that was incredible, because so many schools are seeing their recess vanish as there’s this emphasis on high-stakes testing. Especially the schools that serve the kids of color and low-income students were down to some 15 minutes a day in dozens of schools in Seattle.

We fought for ending the use of high-stakes testing in teacher evaluations, which is really unscientific, fluctuates wildly year-to-year, the scores do, depending on the condition that the students come from. We had some 60,000 families opt their kids out of these high-stakes standardized tests this last school year, showing that the movement is truly a mass social struggle to redefine the purpose of education: instead of being filling in bubbles, actually critical thinking.

So we took up the struggle for race and equity; the union fought and got in the tentative agreement 30 race and equity committees set up in the schools across Seattle. And the Seattle public school system has been found guilty of suspending black students at some four times the rate of white students for the very same infractions. So we really took up some critical social justice demands in this bargain that I’m really proud that our union stood strong on.

I wish that our union actually had fought a little harder for the pay that teachers deserve. We put forward fair demands at the beginning, and the district whittled them down and whittled them down, and you know, rent in this city is skyrocketing — we are the No. 1 city in the nation for the rising costs of rent. But in terms of some of the really important issues that affect the students’ learning conditions, I was really proud of the collective struggle that we waged.

JJ: It is very heartening to hear about the solidarity among parents, students and teachers. So often media coverage of any labor action, frankly, talks about the disruption, and makes it seem like it’s a zero-sum game, you know, “teachers vs. parents.”

I want to ask you—again, you’re really pulling together so many issues here—the opt-out movement, my daughter opted out of standardized testing, her school had a high percentage of opt out, the movement is growing. And as teacher and journalist Molly Knefel just wrote for FAIR.org, we are seeing big media weighing in on the issue, and they are agin it, using arguments that echo corporate education reformers. Parents are duped by unions, teachers oppose testing because they don’t want to be evaluated.

But let’s get at this class thing, because what we also hear is that opting out is “selfish,” as the Washington Post said, because it’s driven by families who, as the New York Times said, are “white and in wealthy or middle-class communities.” Now leaving aside the laugh factor that elite media are really bent out of shape over the needs of low-income minorities’ communities, how do you respond specifically to this idea that testing benefits the disadvantaged, and objecting to it is just for the privileged?

JH: It’s an absurd argument, and it’s the last one that they are clutching to to try and advance high-stakes testing and reduce the intellectual and emotional process of teaching and learning to a single score that they then can then use to punish kids. What that argument doesn’t take into account is that the revolt in communities of color against this high-stakes testing is growing and growing. You had one of the largest walk-outs in US history against high-stakes testing in New Mexico this last year, in a school system that serves some 90 percent Latino students, who led organized marches out of their high school with signs that said “We’re more than a score” and refusing to take the new common core high-stakes tests.

What the argument from the corporate reformers miss is the study out of Boston University that was recently released that shows that the No. 1 outcome of attaching high-stakes exit exams to these tests for graduation requirements is increased incarceration rates, so that we can see that these high-stakes tests are part of the school-to-prison pipeline that is being built in this country — where you deny students graduating from high school based on a bubble exam, and instead  putting students’ fate in the hands of Pearson Testing Company, that’s a multi-billion dollar company, with a test that is designed by someone who doesn’t know the student. And then when you deny them graduation, they often end up unemployed or underemployed, and we know that that then is linked to incarceration.

These tests were first designed by eugenicists, open white supremacists in the early 1900s who grafted these tests on the public schools with a conscious project of wanting to prove the intellectual superiority of not just white people, but men and native-born, to prove that they were smarter than immigrants, than women, than people of color.

What these tests measure is your access to resources. Can you afford a test prep service? Do you have lots of books in the home? Do your parents have extra time to help you, or are they working two, three jobs to make ends meet? That’s why a growing anti-racist movement is fusing with the opt-out movement, and I’m proud that there is a growing number of communities of color that are learning the history of how these tests have been used to maintain institutional racism, and how they’re robbing kids of critical thinking, recess time and all the things that really enrich education today.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Jesse Hagopian. You can find out more about his work at his website www.IAmAnEducator.com. Jesse Hagopian, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

JH: I appreciate it.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.