Frustrated Educators Aim to Build Grassroots Movement

June 14, 2011 12 min read
Says Kaye Thompson Peters, an English teacher from St. Paul, Minn., "I think it's time someone said the emperor has no clothes. You need to stand up and you need to fight back, and that's where we are right now."
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Thousands of educators, parent activists, and others are expected to convene in the heat and humidity of Washington in late July for a march protesting the current thrust of education policy in the United States, especially the strong emphasis on test-based accountability.

Organizers say the effort aims to galvanize and give voice to those who believe policymakers, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and state governors, have gone astray in their remedies for improving American schools. Leaders of the march—current and former educators among them—say they’re determined to build a grassroots movement that has staying power beyond the gathering this summer and “restores” a central role for educators, parents, and communities in policy decisions.

How widespread such sentiments are in the K-12 workforce is hard to quantify. The nation has more than 3 million public school teachers, and they’re a diverse bunch. And a lot of teachers may not pay much attention to national policy debates.

But march organizers and supporters suggest that many teachers have become increasingly frustrated with the test-driven accountability framework at the heart of the U.S. education system and look with alarm at the wave of teacher-evaluation measures being enacted in some states, pegged in part to student scores on standardized tests.

Such views are shared by Pat Graff, a 34-year teaching veteran who co-chairs the English department at La Cueva High School in Albuquerque, N.M., and is her school’s testing coordinator.

“I think it’s going down the wrong track fast,” Ms. Graff said of the main policy direction she sees. “It ramped up with No Child Left Behind and the push for accountability and [adequate yearly progress]. And then they just keep adding tests. ... Teachers lose the opportunity to teach anything beyond how to fill in the bubbles.”

Meanwhile, she said, teachers “feel like the scapegoat ... for everything that’s wrong with society.”

Nancy Flanagan, a former classroom teacher of 30-plus years who writes an opinion blog hosted on the Teacher section of the Education Week website, said frustration with the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s pressure to boost test scores in reading and mathematics has mushroomed among teachers.

“A lot of people were waiting it out,” said Ms. Flanagan, a member of the organizing committee for the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action. “States were complying. Teachers were unhappy. Huge amounts of money were going to the wrong things.”

She added: “When [President Barack] Obama was elected, I think it came as a huge shock to people that he was not only going to continue the policies, but exacerbate them.”

By exacerbate, she pointed, for example, to incentives in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative for states to link teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Tony Bennett, Indiana’s state schools superintendent and himself a former teacher and school administrator, voiced skepticism, however, about the aims of the Save Our Schools march, dubbed SOS. “Does it stand for Save Our Schools or Save Our Status Quo?” he said. “They seem to articulate very well everything they’re against.”

Mr. Bennett, a Republican, defended the need for test-based accountability, suggesting it’s vital to ensure students are no longer shuffled through school without adequate preparation, even as he said plenty of work remains in improving assessments. He also said that on the issue of teacher evaluation, test scores are only part of the equation, despite what he calls “fearmongering” from critics who suggest that’s all there is to it.

“We are embarking on a journey in education in this country that is a dramatic shift from what we’ve done in the past,” Mr. Bennett said, “but it’s the right shift.”

Building a Network

Organizers of the Save Our Schools march say they expect 5,000 to 10,000 people to attend the Washington gathering on July 30. Ms. Flanagan, the Michigan teacher of the year in 1993, said the size of the rally isn’t the point.

“The point is to start momentum toward a sea change, to bring together—physically and virtually—a network of people who want change,” she said.

Social media have been key drivers of the march, with organizers using blogs, an SOS Facebook page, and Twitter to promote it.

The four “guiding principles” for the march are: equitable funding for all public school communities; an end to high-stakes testing used for the purpose of student, teacher, and school evaluation; curriculum developed for and by local school communities; and teacher, family, and community leadership in forming public education policies.

Anthony Cody, one of the lead organizers and a former classroom teacher who is now a science-content coach for teachers in the Oakland, Calif., district, said concern about the uses of standardized tests is at the heart of the matter.

Sabrina Stevens Shupe, in downtown Denver, says she's alarmed to see how testing-based accountability continues to increase. "We were very excited that, 'Oh, we're going to get Obama in office,' ...and we get this bait and switch with Arne Duncan and Race to the Top," says Shupe, a Save Our Schools organizer and former Denver teacher.

“That’s really the core thing driving this movement: The understanding that learning is complex, and that it is not captured in a test score; it is not captured in most of the data that is worshiped at the district, state, and federal levels,” said Mr. Cody, who, like Ms. Flanagan, writes a teacher-oriented opinion blog at edweek.org. “We want to be held accountable for things that matter, and we’ve seen test scores create a system of accountability that has a very poor relationship to what really matters for students.”

A lot of the Save Our Schools leadership, he said, is drawn from people who have been active “teacher leaders.” Several of them, including Mr. Cody and Ms. Flanagan, hold national-board certification.

Confirmed speakers for the rally include education historian Diane Ravitch, who co-authors a blog hosted by edweek.org; the education author and activist Jonathan Kozol; and Superintendent John Kuhn of the Perrin-Whitt district in north-central Texas.

A two-day conference is scheduled before the march and a “congress” the day after to discuss next steps.

Among the organizations to endorse the Save Our Schools march are: the International Reading Association, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Council of Teachers of English, the nonprofit group Parents Across America, and the Virginia School Boards Association. Also, more than 30 state and local teachers’ unions, plus the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, have signaled their support.

Organizers say the effort originated with individuals, not unions.

“We are very happy they are on board, but they are not driving the bus,” Mr. Cody said.

“What our union liked about this was these are rank-and-file folks from across the country,” said aft President Randi Weingarten, even as she cautioned that the union may disagree on some “nuances” of the SOS principles. “There is a frustration about the politics and the policy. And a lot of it is about voice, and the lack of voice.”

Interpreting Obama

Debates on the use of standardized tests have been swirling for years. It’s no secret that many educators and researchers have long been leery of giving them too much weight in gauging student learning and meting out consequences for schools, students, and teachers.

In fact, a major report just issued by the National Research Council raised questions about the value of tying consequences for schools, teachers, and students to test results. The evidence examined “is not encouraging about the ability of incentive programs to reliably produce meaningful increases in student achievement,” it said.

Says Benjamin Van Dusen, a former science teacher and Albert Einstein Fellow, "I'm not opposed to having standardized tests and having them be important. ...I think we need better tests, more authentic assessment."

Some observers and advocates suggest that a variety of factors have combined to ratchet up frustration. For one, more and more public schools are facing sanctions under the NCLB law, as the levels of proficiency required have climbed.Also, the recession has led to cutbacks in aid to schools, with impacts on teacher pay, benefits, and class sizes. And several states recently passed laws to scale back teachers’ collective bargaining rights.

Then there’s the Obama administration. Some educators and activists who campaigned for Mr. Obama in 2008 say they believed he was intent on making a significant shift in direction on education from the Bush administration, in part to counterbalance the weight of standardized testing in schools. Now, they feel that is not happening.

Stephen H. Lazar, a teacher at the Bronx Lab School in New York City who plans to attend the SOS march, said he’s been disappointed with Mr. Obama: “The president’s education agenda is a symptom of the ‘reform’ movement that has managed to capture the national narrative around education.” (“In War of Words, ‘Reform’ a Potent Weapon,” March 2, 2011.)

“We were very excited that, ‘Oh, we’re going to get Obama in office, and the ridiculous things about No Child Left Behind will go away,’ ” said Sabrina Stevens Shupe, a former teacher in Denver who co-authors a blog called Failing Schools and is on the SOS organizing panel. “And he comes in there, and we get this bait and switch with Arne Duncan and Race to the Top.”

But Andrew J. Rotherham, a partner and co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting firm in Washington and a former education aide to President Bill Clinton, suggests that those who are upset with President Obama may not have been studying his education plans closely during the 2008 campaign.

“It is hard to make a case that the president has somehow pivoted or made a bait and switch,” he said. “Either it was a Rorschach test, or they weren’t paying attention.”

The U.S. Department of Education did not accommodate a request to speak with Secretary Duncan or another official for this story. But in an email, department spokesman Justin Hamilton wrote: “We believe that teachers are America’s unsung heroes. And while there are different opinions on the best ways to boost student achievement, we all agree that reforms are needed.”

Mr. Duncan issued an “open letter” to teachers in May, timed to Teacher Appreciation Week, in which he seemed to take pains to offer an olive branch. He noted and echoed some of the concerns expressed by teachers, such as that the NCLB law has prompted schools to “teach to the test” and has led to a narrowing of the curriculum.

“And you are frustrated when teachers alone are blamed for educational failures that have roots in broken families, unsafe communities, misguided reforms, and underfunded school systems,” he wrote in the letter, published on the Education Week and Education Department websites.

Mr. Duncan pledged to work with teachers to improve the law and strengthen the teaching profession. “I hear you, I value you, I respect you,” he wrote.

But the letter sparked an online backlash, including from some SOS organizers. A common thread was the contention that Mr. Duncan’s conciliatory words were belied by his department’s agenda, especially with the Race to the Top.

“Your actions have spoken so loudly to America’s teachers that we can’t hear your words,” one commenter wrote.

The $4 billion grant competition has sparked controversy for, among other measures, pushing states to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, create or expand their charter school sectors, and choose from a set of prescriptive models for turning around the lowest-performing schools, measured mainly by test scores.

Even though the Obama administration has not backed away from using tests to drive accountability, it is pursuing efforts to change them. With $360 million in additional Race to the Top money, it is backing work by states to design new testing systems that it says will measure student growth—rather than capture a snapshot of achievement—supply real-time feedback to teachers to guide instruction, and include performance-based items to gauge more types of learning.

Gauging Teacher Views

Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, also sees a disconnect between the administration’s rhetoric and policy.

For example, he said that even as the administration has called for wrap-around supports beyond schools—in areas like health and social services—to help children succeed academically, the president’s blueprint for overhauling the NCLB law “holds schools accountable for identical results, whether or not they have these [supports]. It’s completely incoherent.”

Recent survey data provide some clues as to how educators feel about testing and education policy.

Only about one-quarter of public school teachers believe their states’ standardized tests provide “good” or “excellent” information about school quality, according to a 2009 survey co-sponsored by the journal Education Next and the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University. More than two-thirds of teachers responding said they “somewhat” or “completely” opposed basing a teacher’s salary in part on his or her students’ academic progress on state tests.

Most of the 40,000 teachers who responded to a 2009 online questionaire sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Scholastic said that state standardized tests are far less important in gauging student achievement than formative, ongoing assessments in class, class participation, and performance on class assignments.

Benjamin Van Dusen, who taught high school science for five years and is now working on a doctorate in education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that while he believes standardized tests need to be better and “more authentic,” he sympathizes with policymakers who desire measurable results.

“I’m not opposed to the idea of having standardized tests and having them be important,” said Mr. Van Dusen, who last year was an Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator fellow.

As for teacher evaluations, Mr. Van Dusen said he doesn’t object to using tests as part of the equation.

“We need to figure out who is not an effective teacher,” he said, “and get them out of there, and figure out who is good and keep them.”

Other Voices

Meanwhile, a new nonprofit group in New York City, Educators 4 Excellence, seeks to give teachers more voice in policy debates, but its agenda parts company in some ways with the Save Our Schools march. For example, the group backs tying teacher pay in part to test scores. It also calls for ending “last hired, first fired” teacher-layoffs policies. Morethan 2,600 New York teachers have backed the group’s “declaration” of beliefs, said Sydney J. Morris, the co-founder and a former teacher.

Her group receives financial backing from the Gates Foundation and other philanthropies. (Gates has been a funder of Education Week’s nonprofit parent corporation.)

For her part, Kaye Thompson Peters, an English teacher at Central High School in St. Paul, Minn., and an active union member, said she hopes to attend the Save Our Schools march. She’s had enough of what she sees as an overemphasis on standardized testing and suggests it impedes good teaching.

“It’s time someone said the emperor has no clothes,” she said. “You need to stand up and you need to fight back.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Frustration at Heart of Washington Rally


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