On May Day 2014, a group of teachers at the International High School at Prospect Heights (IHSPH) in Brooklyn stood outside their school building and informed gathered reporters that they would not be administering the New York City English Language Arts (ELA) Performance Assessment Exam scheduled to take place that day. The test, which is part of a new teacher evaluation system imposed by the state last year, exists solely to rate teacher performance; unlike, for example the Regents Exam, which dates back to 1866 and determines whether students graduate. Thirty people — nearly all of the teachers and staff at the small public school — signed a statement declaring they would not participate.
The date was a coincidence — May Day, the internationally recognized workers’ day, happened to be the day the test was scheduled — but it could not have been better for the teachers’ action. Amid growing unrest among teachers, parents and students over high-stakes testing and the new Common Core educational standards, these teachers’ action is another step in challenging what new Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni (whose recent victory I cover in a forthcoming piece) calls “predatory education reform,” driven by private companies that aim to run schools like corporations and pocket the profits.
“This is taking back the whole conversation around education,” Rosie Frascella, a 12th grade English teacher at IHSPH, tells In These Times. That conversation has been dominated by heated rhetoric from “reformers” and anti-union elected officials about “bad” or “lazy” teachers, but Frascella and her colleagues challenged that idea by putting themselves on the line to do what they believed was right. “I’d rather take a zero, you can fail me in my evaluations but you are not going to hurt my students. You can say I’m a bad teacher but I’m standing up for my students and what I know is right for them.”
After their press conference, the teachers proceeded into the building, where, according to Emily Giles, who teaches ninth- and 10th-grade science at IHSPH, they taught class as they would have any other day. Although 50 percent of the students had already been opted out of taking the test by their parents, Giles says administrators still attempted to give the test to a small handful — with little success.
“By that point, kids got wind of the fact that other kids didn’t have to take it. There were two rooms of testing happening; one room was empty within half an hour,” she says. “Kids just went in, put their name on the test and walked out.”
Giles points out that the abandoned testing gave teachers the chance to do just that — teach. “The school was just functioning, like it wasn’t even happening, which is how it should feel. When kids finish or opt themselves out, they go back to an educational setting where they’re actually using their time to do something meaningful,” she says.
A crying shame
The ELA Performance Assessment Exam has provoked student, teacher and parent anger from its first appearance in New York City schools this past October. According to Frascella, students were “traumatized” by the test, which requires them to read two short texts and write an essay in English. That’s not so horrifying for native English speakers, but the students at IHSPH, like other International schools across New York City, are almost all English language learners. To attend the International school, a student has to have lived in the United States for four years or less; according to Frascella, students from more than 30 different countries who speak more than 20 languages are currently enrolled at IHSPH. The school works on a collaborative model — Frascella explains that new students are partnered with an older student who speaks their language to help them translate and make it through the day.
But there’s no collaboration allowed on standardized tests. Instead, Frascella says, confronted with material they couldn’t read (the tests are written at a ninth- and 10th-grade reading level), students put their heads down. Some cried.
“These exams, overall, what they do is they hurt our community,” she says. “They stress our students out, they make them cry. They make them get upset in class because they feel like failures, even though they work so hard.”
Students at IHSPH complete portfolios in a variety of subjects on which they are graded; like other English language learners, they have to take the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test. And like all other New York public school students, they also have to pass Regents Exams. That’s already, teachers argue, far too much testing. In the letter that the IHSPH teachers sent to Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, they ask her to remove this test and replace it with an assessment that was created by educators.
When the teachers realized that it was coming time for the ELA Performance Assessment Exam to be administered again (it is given twice a year), they began talking amongst themselves about how to handle it. Many parents, fueled by their children’s bad experiences with the fall test, chose to opt their students out entirely. One parent, Teresa Edwards-Lasose, said, “The test is meaningless. [My child] doesn’t read and write enough English yet to do the test and it doesn’t count for his grades. Why should he take it?”
Chancellor Fariña told principals that they had to respect the rights of parents to opt out, as nearly 30,000 parents have across the state. But the teachers felt they had to do more.
For Giles, the testing battle is “a clear moment where the rights and concerns of parents and teachers, everything intersects, we agree with each other, we’re fighting for the same thing.”
As teachers at a small International school, she says, IHSPH teachers occupy a somewhat privileged position — though their students are uniquely harmed by the exam, they have a tight-knit staff and it’s easier to organize. “That means that we have a responsibility to be the people who are willing to stick our necks out a little bit,” she says.
Originally, just four instructors were in favor of not giving the test. The more they talked, though, the more people joined in, and eventually they drafted their letter to the chancellor. They discussed the risks they would be taking — that their evaluations would suffer, that the principal and the Department of Education might discipline them – and decided that it was important to go forward with the refusal.
“It’s not just about this assessment,” Frascella says. “It’s about the larger vision against high-stakes testing. It was an opportunity to really have our voices heard in the hopes that the new administration would listen to us.”
At the press conference on May Day morning, Giles says, she felt good. Then during the school day, things felt even better. Support poured in at their website, where parents and educators from around the country left messages. Someone even sent a fruit basket to the school.
Support wasn’t universal, though. The United Federation of Teachers, the union to which the IHSPH teachers belong, issued a statement saying that while it believes “that our schools have been the victims of a testing culture that has focused far too much attention on test prep and too little on strategies that will actually lead to student learning,” that “[T]his protest is not a union-sponsored event.”
Giles, who along with Frascella and two other teachers at IHSPH, belongs to a reform caucus within the union called the Movement of Rank-and-file Educators (MORE), was disappointed in this response. Still, she sees their action as an important rank-and-file organizing project that drew the staff closer together. And as Frascella notes, “In this movement to save our schools we need to create as many opportunities for teachers, for parents, and students to feel that their voice actually matters and that they actually have power.”
The bigger picture
This year’s struggle over the ELA Performance Assessment also takes place against the backdrop of a new contract between the UFT and New York City that 100,000 teachers are set to vote on soon. Passed through the UFT’s delegate assembly on May 7, the new contract spans nine years. Five of those are retroactive, covering the years for which the union has had no contract with the city. Though the contract includes retroactive pay raises, they’re spread out across that nine-year period — which comes out to about 2 percent a year.
More importantly, according to Frascella and Giles, the contract doesn’t appear to change the teacher evaluation process away from the heavy focus on testing. MORE has begun a “Vote No” campaign on the contract; in their press release, teacher, chapter leader and MORE member Kit Wainer writes, “UFT members never got to vote on ‘Advance’ (the new teacher evaluation system) or the resulting high stakes tests, but we will all vote on our contract this year, so it is important that each UFT member makes an informed vote. The contract is not just about our ‘bread-and-butter’ issues. It is a legal document that dictates working conditions in our schools.”
Teachers at IHSPH already use what they call the “solidarity method” for the 20 percent of teacher evaluation that is done at the school level (another 20 percent comes automatically from state tests, and the rest from observations by administrators) — they are all graded on the Regents exams for all of the students, meaning that each teacher at the school receives the same ranking. “My community of educators, we don’t want to be competitive,” Frascella says. “As a school we tried to align our assessments to be as equal as possible so that our scores would be as close as possible because we didn’t want to be divided and ranked.”
Fariña and the man who appointed her, new mayor Bill de Blasio, have both expressed reservations about high-stakes testing. De Blasio told this reporter before his election that “We should use the standardized tests to the most minimal level possible.” Yet as with his attempt to push back on charter schools, he runs into the issue of the state requirements, and Governor Cuomo has shown himself to be firmly on the side of the predatory reform crowd.
Still, for a union and a city Department of Education who ostensibly agree on important points, that the proposed contract does little to change a test-based evaluation system is frustrating.
For now, Giles says, the IHSPH teachers have not been disciplined and are looking forward to expanding on the momentum they’ve built. She expects the test refusal to be discussed at the next Parent Teacher Association meeting, and wants to talk about what they can do next fall when the test comes around again. She’s hoping that the other 15 International schools across New York will take action as well; teachers at IHSPH had been in contact with teachers at other Internationals before the action, though none of them managed to coordinate refusal. Other possibilities include putting out a petition against the test that would not obligate teachers to refuse to give it, in hopes that a larger number would sign on.
The teachers at IHSPH took the step of refusing the test in a climate where they were warned against alienating “allies” like Fariña and de Blasio, but they went forward anyway. Even so, the circumstances are very different now than they were under Bloomberg. “I think the question is, how do we work together?” Frascella says. “We may not have the money that the Right has, or the reformers or privateers have, but we have very good organizers, we have very smart people, and we have a lot of people on our side, so how do we use that both to hold de Blasio accountable and to support him in keeping the promises that he makes?”
“Actions, collective actions, they hold people accountable. And they inform the public,” she adds.
Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The New Republic and New Labor Forum. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous book is Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.