An Open Challenge to Michelle Rhee and the Corporate Education Zombies

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Common Dreams

An Open Challenge to Michelle Rhee and the Corporate Education Zombies

Boycotting standardized testing in Seattle was a stand for students and a better education

Maybe I shouldn’t have stood up and said, “Welcome to Seattle,” while wearing my Garfield High School hoodie when Michelle Rhee took the stage at a recent Town Hall event in Seattle.

Rhee, the prominent corporate education reform advocate, former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor, and CEO of the ironically-named “Students First” organization, now has Seattle in her crosshairs. In her March 5th op-ed for the Seattle Times, Rhee berated teachers at Garfield and other Seattle schools for their boycott of the district required MAP test. 

She began her piece: “Seattle public school students should pay attention. They’re getting a front-row, real-world lesson in how the actions of adults can distract from what’s best for students.” But don’t get your hopes up—this wasn’t a long overdue acknowledgment of the events surrounding the testing scandal when she was commanding the DC public schools. 

With only a little investigation of the news of the MAP test boycott, Rhee would have found that the Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) and the Associated Student Body Government (ASB) at Garfield High School—the school where the test boycott of the test began on January 10th—had voted unanimously to support teachers in the boycott of the MAP test. 

When the Seattle School District attempted to go around the teacher boycott of the MAP by forcing the school administration to pull kids out of class and march them off to the library to take the computerized test, hundreds of students showed letters from their parents opting them out, while many of the rest simply refused to participate on their own.  Of the 810 tests scheduled at Garfield, only 184 valid tests were recorded.

In the end, the boycott of the winter round of the MAP primarily reflected the will of students and parents, who agreed with teachers that student time was better spent learning in the classroom, and that library computers were better used for student research and writing rather than testing.  Had she acknowledged this, Michelle Rhee would have had some difficult questions to answer. 

If students vote unanimously to boycott a test, is it still okay to put their demands and interests first, or does putting students first mean ignoring their democratic decision making?   

If the parent organization at a school votes unanimously to support the teachers in boycotting a flawed test, is it okay for the parents to guide their children, or should students disregard their parents and instead follow an astro turf organization called “Students First”? 

What happens when students, parents and teachers around the nation join together in common cause and protest for a meaningful education rather than the overuse of standardized tests? Is it okay to put “students first” when they agree with their teachers about what constitutes a quality education?

Rhee's inability to ask these critical thinking questions is a demonstration of the very cognitive problems that can arise from an over reliance on standardized testing. 

The boycott of the MAP test has spread to five schools in Seattle with a dozen other schools actively supporting it.  In Portland, students have initiated their own historic boycott of the standardized OAKS tests. In Providence, R.I., 50 high school students staged a "zombie protest" against high-stakes testing, marching to the state Department of Education, chanting "No education, No life." The New York State Principals Association recently issued a scathing letter, signed by 1,536 of its members, denouncing rampant state testing as a negative influence on the educational and emotional health of students. In Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr has called for a three-year moratorium on standardized testing. More than 500 school boards in Texas have passed resolutions demanding a reduced focus on standardized tests and on February 23, an estimated 10,000 parents, students and teachers from around Texas marched up Congress Avenue to the state Capitol in Austin to oppose the overuse of testing.

This nationwide solidarity against standardized testing represents a high stakes test for Rhee, and perhaps the anxiety is interfering with her ability to think clearly.  Rhee wrote in her Seattle Times op-ed, “We know standardized testing works. For example, look at the District of Columbia, where I was school chancellor.” 

It’s almost impossible to believe, but she really did write those words.

Yes, let us take look at the standardized testing in D.C. when Rhee was chancellor. In a scandal now known as “Erasure-gate,” massive test cheating was uncovered by USA Today, along with the failure of then-schools chancellor Michelle Rhee to investigate.  As USA today wrote,

“In just two years, Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus went from a school deemed in need of improvement to a place that the District of Columbia Public Schools called one of its ‘shining stars.’ …. A USA TODAY investigation, based on documents and data secured under D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act, found that for the past three school years most of Noyes' classrooms had extraordinarily high numbers of erasures on standardized tests. The consistent pattern was that wrong answers were erased and changed to right ones.  Noyes is one of 103 public schools here that have had erasure rates that surpassed D.C. averages at least once since 2008. That's more than half of D.C. schools.” 

Rhee went on to write in her Seattle Times op-ed, “Astronomically high dropout rates and subpar math and reading-proficiency levels in lower-income, inner-city schools ought to jolt us as especially immoral." 

When Rhee refers to “inner-city” schools, she’s attempting to discuss Black students and other students of color. Yet she is scared to use the word “racism” because that would open up a conversation about the relationships between race, poverty and school performance. Rhee laments the educational outcomes of students living in poverty without ever questioning the causes of poverty. Perhaps that’s because her sponsors are the corporations and super-rich who profit from under-paying the poor for their labor, and whose policies perpetuate poverty. She is right about one thing--it’s appalling that low-income students have the worst outcomes in our schools.  You won’t hear her say anything, however, about how corporate profits should be taxed to reinvest in our schools, or the fact that our nation prioritized finding trillions of dollars to recapitalize the same banks that sabotaged the global economy.

Moreover, Rhee has no understanding of the history of standardized testing or its contribution to the reproduction of inequality.  As University of Washington education professor Wayne Au has written, “Looking back to its origins in the Eugenics moment, standardized testing provided…ideological cover for the social, economic and education inequalities the test themselves help maintain.”  The stability of testing outcomes along racial lines, from the days of Eugenics until today, demonstrates standardized testing has always been a better measure of a student’s zip code than of aptitude. Wealthier and whiter districts score better on tests. These children have books in the home, parents with time to read to them, private tutoring, access to test-prep agencies, healthy food, health insurance, and similar advantages.  Standardized testing has from the very beginning been a tool to rank and sort people, not to remove the barriers needed to achieve equality. 

The Seattle boycott of the MAP test opened up our understanding of how the test exacerbates inequality:

  • English Language Learners and special education students are the populations pulled out of class most often to take the MAP. On average, each test taker loses 320 minutes of instructional time.
  • MAP tests are administered on computers.  Our computer labs are commandeered for weeks for test taking.  Students can’t access the computers they need for research projects, which especially hurts students without computers at home—predominently low income and students of color.
  • The Seattle NAACP supported the boycott because the MAP is used to track students into the city’s Advanced Placement Program—a program overwhelming made up of white students.  
  • The Superintendent’s Special Education Advisory and Advocacy Committee for the Seattle Public Schools supported the boycott, too, saying, “…our children are regularly denied their accommodations for the MAP. How does MAP testing somehow take precedence over the necessary accommodations on the IEP?”

Rhee says the MAP boycott is a play by teachers to avoid accountability.  Teachers and their unions, though, are simply fighting for the same kind of schools that the wealthy enjoy. Elite private schools do not inundate their students with standardized tests. What they do offer are great enrichment programs in physical education, drama, art, music, and field trips. They enjoy low student-teacher ratios, and a curriculum that stimulates students' interests and creativity. 

If Rhee truly believes in the innate value of standardized tests, she should protest the fact that expensive private schools have been boycotting the MAP test for a long time.

Can you imagine Rhee (the self proclaimed “radical”) standing outside Lakeside, Bill Gates’ high school alma mater, chanting “1-2-3-4 your child IS a score! 5-6-7-8, standardized testing is really great!”? 

Lakeside doesn’t march their students off to the library to take the MAP three times a year. Still, it’s a pretty good school. The student/teacher ratio is 9 to 1. Average class size is 16. The library has some 20,000 volumes, and is open until 6:00 pm. There’s a sports facility with a hydrotherapy spa.  The service learning program has taken students to India, Peru, and China, and the School Year Abroad program enrolls students in their junior year to such programs as Mountain School, the Rocky Mountain Semester, the Maine Coast Semester.

Washington State ranks first among states in the number of standardized tests our K-12 public school students take.  Besides the district’s MAP test (administered up to three times per year), the state mandates five additional standardized tests (but not for private school students).  Our state spends more than $100 million on standardized tests, yet ranks 42nd in the nation in per pupil spending and its class sizes are among the largest in the country. These are the intolerable conditions that provoked educators in Seattle to put their livelihoods on the line and boycott the test.

The destination at which Seattle’s students, parents and teachers want to arrive is not on the MAP.  Our desired destination is graduating students who demonstrate creativity, social responsibility, critical thinking, leadership, and civic courage.  Seattle’s teachers are not afraid of assessment, but many of us know that to reach those goals, we will need to venture off the well-worn and narrow path of selecting from answer choices A, B, C, or D.

Michelle Rhee, I’m afraid you are lost.  Come debate me in public, and I can help you find your way.

Jesse Hagopian

Jesse Hagopian teaches history and is the Black Student Union adviser at Garfield High School, the site of the historic boycott of the MAP standardized test.  Jesse is the editor and contributing author to the forthcoming book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing (Haymarket Books, 2014). Jesse an associate editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, a founding member of Social Equality Educators (SEE), and recipient of the 2013 “Secondary School Teacher of Year” award from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences. Follow Jesse on his blog at www.iamaneducator.com or on Twitter: @jessedhagopian

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