Education Teacher Leaders Network

Teachers, Testing, & Civil Disobedience

April 30, 2008 13 min read
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Educators in the Teacher Leaders Network spent quite a few hours this past week sharing thoughts about Seattle teacher Carl Chew’s refusal to administer the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. Chew, a second-career middle school science teacher, was suspended for two weeks without pay. Chew told the Associated Press that “he has seen kids struggle through the test with few positive results to show for the time and effort expended over two weeks each spring.” Here are some excerpts from the TLN conversation.

In the daily TLN discussion group, a Virginia teacher asked:

Are there any implications for us in the Carl Chew story? Has the realm of possible action expanded for teacher leaders? Or are we all too tempered through our leadership work to be this radical?

Marjorie, a guidance counselor in Colorado, replied:

Today, one of the most dedicated skillful youngish teachers I know whispered to me, “I really don’t think I can keep doing this.” By “this,” she meant teaching in ways that she doesn’t believe are meaningful for her kids and compromising everything she believes in. She feels dishonest and it is wearing her down. I can’t help but wish that if enough of us followed Mr. Chew’s example, we could change the situation.

It will be interesting to see if Mr. Chew’s action brings attention to this situation in some new way. It might be really good timing since NCLB is being revisited. I think the tests have become such an embedded part of our system that, in order to let them go, we would have to look at the whole system and what drives it.

As part of a partnership, teachermagazine.org publishes this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

Bill Ferriter, who blogs at the TLN Web site, offered these observations, which he also developed into a widely read blog post:

Whether we like it or not, we’re public employees, and taxpayers invest a heaping load of cash into what it is that we do. In most places, elected officials determine the curriculum and elected officials determine the methods we use to assess that curriculum. To make the kind of stand this guy made essentially says we don’t respect or value the decisions made by the communities we serve.

Isn’t an action like Chew’s a bit arrogant? Doesn’t the broader community have the right to select the kinds of assessment tools that they’d like to see applied to schools? After all, it is their kids we’re speaking about and their dollars we’re spending.

The way I see it, standardized testing is wrong. It has destroyed what I do in my classroom each year, changed the dynamic of teaching and learning completely, and has done far more damage that it has done good.

But it is a system selected and believed in by the people who pay my check. And (in theory) it’s based on the values and beliefs of a group of people that go far beyond me. For those reasons, I choose to honor and respect the system even though I don’t totally believe in it.

What I’ve worked to do is make my thinking on the testing issue as transparent as can be. I write about it often, both on my blog, in the local newspaper, and on a blog I keep for my school district. Every conversation that I get into with parents, reporters, and business leaders is all about the harm this kind of testing does.

Because (like most teachers) I have great credibility in the community, people are slowly starting to listen and to speak up. There is a swell of pushback against testing (and) eventually, I believe, that swell will lead to change in the system because it will lead to a fundamental change in the way the community feels about assessment. We will have come to consensus through productive conflict and conversation, rather than a confrontational “us v. them” pyrrhic victory.

Anthony, a California teacher, replied:

Civil disobedience has a strong tradition, going back to the Boston Tea Party. We define the limits of authority when we stand up to it and refuse to follow orders. In California, executions were delayed a few years ago because no doctor could be found to supervise the lethal injections. The medical profession has an oath that says they will do no harm. Should we not take a similar stand as educators?

A teacher in New York added:

Bill, I think your practice of “making your thinking about testing transparent” is important. You use your expertise and influence to plant seeds in the mind of the “broader community” about the true nature of testing, thus helping to set the stage for large-scale change.

But when radical change comes from “the people,” there are usually those individuals who act as catalysts for the movement, often at a great risk. Anthony mentioned the Boston Tea Party, a great example of an act of civil disobedience that served as a catalyst for a change that was a long time coming. Sit-ins during the civil rights movement would be another example. I think there are many roles for people to take in making change.

I don’t think you’re wrong to stand where you stand. But I don’t think Carl Chew was being egotistical in refusing to administer the test. We teacher leaders probably need people like Chew to help us move our case forward in a timely manner.

David, another California teacher, commented:

Were I to consider civil disobedience, I’d have to consider who pays the consequences. So, if one teacher can refuse to give the test and they can just pop a substitute in there, the teacher accepts all the consequences for making a statement. If a group of teachers walks out and invalidates their school’s scores somehow, then they’ve triggered consequences beyond themselves, and I’d have a problem with that.

Anthony responded:

If we agree that the system that is labeling schools is unfair and unjust, then in my opinion, an action that derails it is justifiable. If we see ourselves as part of a movement, and not just as individuals, then the actions of many can indeed bring down a corrupt system. If one teacher at one school refuses to give a test, then that teacher can be suspended for a week and the machine grinds on. If teachers and parents and students at one school rebel and refuse to cooperate, that school may lose federal funding and face repercussions from the District. But if many teachers and parents and students take action, it has the potential to overwhelm the capacity of the system to punish, and destroy the illusion that somehow this system is just or useful. Then things will have to change.

Cindi, a middle school teacher in the Southeast, wrote:

I find myself nodding in agreement at many different ideas about this. One concern I have is that if we as individuals make a stand like that teacher, we may send a message to our students: “If I don’t want to do something, I don’t have to do it ... no matter the consequences.”

I have students tell me daily—"I don’t want to do this work.” I certainly can’t allow them to be insubordinate to me. Therefore, I don’t want to model that behavior for them. I choose, instead, to use other avenues I have to make an individual stand against testing that I believe is unfair and damaging.

Now, if I can join with others to make a united stand (reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement), then I feel more justified in speaking out against my superiors. Does this make sense?

Ellen, another middle school teacher, replied to Cindi:

I guess I believe that my students would see me not as defiant, but as someone who is clear on her boundaries and beliefs and willing to take the consequences for that protest. In history, we study (and admire) all sorts of folks who stand up and say “Enough, this is wrong!” These same people pay dearly—you always do when you push against the status quo.

If Carl Chew really, truly believes that testing (and its by-products) causes harm to students, then I admire him for doing what he believes is right.

Mary is a high school teacher:

Carl Chew makes me feel ashamed of myself. I am saddened that teachers are not organized around demanding their teaching time back for their students. We are meek. Going along with testing mandates and telling your students that we must sometimes do what we don’t like is a cop-out. One I am also guilty of—but it is an excuse nonetheless.

What a good teacher does is show students how to think, how to reason, how to solve problems, how to express their humanity. These skills do not make for willing subjects, but they do create the energy, will and drive to re-imagine a better life for all. Filling in bubble sheets with rote answers makes a nation of spiritless sheep. That is what is at stake.

Maybe I don’t have the right kind of courage, maybe I’ve reasoned my way to complacency because I thought it would be more important to stay in teaching and influence my small group of students rather than make large-scale waves.

Cindy, who teaches in the D.C. suburbs, wrote:

For some time now, I have commented to others that “I used to be a better teacher than I am now.” This year, especially, we have bubble tested and online tested students constantly. These are not brief summative assessments; they are tests that take most students 50-70 minutes to complete. We are supposed to be making data-driven decisions based on the results of these tests. And guess what—the same students who did poorly in September are for the most part doing poorly now.

Sam, in my honors class, contributes brilliant insights during literature discussions, can tell you anything you want to know about World War II, asks for help whenever he needs it, and always is ready and willing to assist classmates in any way he can. But he has had trouble all year with multiple choice tests, usually scoring in the 60’s. In working with him one on one, I realized early on that he was over-thinking every question. He has extensive background knowledge. He reads all the time. So we have worked to minimize how much time he spends thinking about each question. Did I do Sam a favor by teaching him not to think? He was a much better student before he learned how to “take” multiple choice tests.

Anthony offered this further comment:

I think we’ve hit on one of the reasons teachers have had a hard time resisting NCLB. We are representatives of authority in our classrooms, and a large part of our job is to literally embody authority and train our students to respond respectfully to authority. We learn all sorts of behavior management techniques which, at their very core, have the presumption that the person in charge knows best, and is acting in the best interest of the group, and every member of the group.

So what does it take to confront the system successfully?

1. Clarity among those taking the action regarding what is wrong, and what should be done to change it.

2. Broad public support, and particularly a strong alliance with parents, because authority will attack those taking the action.

3. Organization! There needs to be a way to communicate across the group so that clarity of purpose is achieved, and action is coordinated.

4. A plan of action that confronts authority in a creative, nonviolent manner, drawing attention to its unjustness, bringing it to a halt.

If you have these four things, you have the ingredients for a successful collective action. Up to this point, our unions have offered tepid resistance, after initially going along with NCLB. But we need to continue to work on developing clarity within our profession, so our fellow teachers are prepared to take a righteous stand.

That means we have to transcend the identification with authority we instinctively feel. Parents will respond when we inform them, using our hard-won professional expertise, of exactly what damage is being done, and what must be done to fix it.

Kathie told her own story of resistance:

I am following this thread on civil disobedience carefully because I’m still sorting through what I think. I do know that at times each of us reaches a crossroad on some issue or another. Six years ago I made the difficult decision to leave my former school because I could no longer tolerate the administrative incompetence. Knowing that I was burning bridges behind me, I spoke candidly to the local district director and the coordinator of my content area about many of my concerns. The only acknowledgment I received was, “Well, we all know [the principal] is a loose cannon.”

So, six years later, I still live with the consequences of having alienated two superiors who didn’t like hearing what I had to say on behalf of my fellow teachers. And I’m OK with that. Like the teacher in Washington State who walked out on testing, I felt I needed to draw a line in the sand at a certain point. Not everyone will agree with either one of us, but I suspect he felt this was a decision he had to make, as did I.

Solo voices don’t necessarily travel very far. However, in the 21st century, an incident like this teacher’s refusal to give a test, which in prior generations might’ve been a small article in a local newspaper, may travel around the globe.

David wondered at what point teachers might be ready to take the step toward civil disobedience.

Were I to consider my current situation, my school hasn’t tripped any wires that bring state consequences yet, and I don’t believe the harm being done to students at my school is clear enough or even agreed upon enough that I would feel comfortable starting up some civil disobedience, alone or with a small group. The potentially negative impact on everyone is not worth the risk, at this time. If conditions at my school deteriorated or if the political landscape gets worse rather than better, then I’d be looking to articulate a clear moral imperative and try to build a collective action.

Marsha pushed back from a different direction:

So is it the test itself that we should protest or is it how we have adapted our classroom instruction to conform to the test? I guess I’m more upset with how we have changed the way we teach students.

What if our civil disobedience was to not adopt the teaching methods that we are told we must use to meet the demands of the testing? What if our civil disobedience was to teach the curriculum with age- and content-appropriate methods? My assumption is that most districts still have solid curricula. What they have changed is what they say we must do, not the curriculum we must teach. I feel like a protest on behalf of best teaching practices is very achievable in the short run.

A teacher in the Deep South asked:

Could all of this damage around NCLB, teaching to the test, labeling failing schools, and so forth, even have been possible if there were a clear and widely accepted standard of excellence within our profession? If we had the ability and the guts to enforce ethics and standards of practice on ourselves and our peers? It would be so much harder for the political forces to disrupt good schools and good teaching if we (the education profession) were the arbiters of quality and success in education.

Our lack of consistency and unity on these foundational points of our professional work leaves us open to manipulation and abuse on our jobs. Standing up against something isn’t nearly as hard as standing up for something. I would be more supportive of organizing against NCLB and its collateral damage if that were the first step in an organized push for teachers to take charge of and responsibility for our profession. Now that would be radical.

As the discussion wound down, Cindi offered comments written by Courage to Teach author Parker Palmer:

Many TLN members have so eloquently written about standing up for what is right. In a recent article in the Journal of Staff Development (Spring 2008), Parker Palmer had this to say about “having the courage to lead with soul.” The journey of change I’m talking about requires courage on the part of educators. It requires the courage of being champions for children in a way that may risk your reputation and even put your job on the line. To find that courage, we need to go to a deeper place in ourselves than data points and theories can take us, or than cheerleading for quick fixes can evoke.

Every movement I’ve studied is sparked by isolated individuals discovering their most fundamental commitments and convictions and deciding to live ‘divided no more'—deciding that they will no longer behave on the outside in a way that contradicts values and convictions they hold deeply on the inside—and then finding or creating communities, peer communities, collegial communities to support them in that witness.

—Compiled by John Norton


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