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Friday, December 5, 2014
A Chicago Teacher Explains How Her School Fought Back Against Standardized Testing—And Won by Sarah Chambers
“…Boycotts do not just happen—they are organized. The testing boycott at my school was strategically planned with a multifaceted approach that included teacher, parent and student support. Although the planning and implementation of this strategy occurred in a one-month span, the agitation around over-testing and employee power in the school organizational structure was built over a couple of years…
“Previously within the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) and the social justice caucus within the union, CORE (Caucus of Rank and File Educators), we had discussed the many ways over-testing was damaging education but hadn’t spoken of concrete steps and strategies to combat these tests as teachers. We brought More Than a Score’s fliers on over-testing and opt-out letter templates to CORE’s monthly meeting. CORE’s testing committee also created a boycott checklist/timeline that included the steps necessary to lead to a successful boycott and massive opt-out of a test...
“During this CORE meeting, the members of the CORE testing committee presented a strategy to spread the opt-out movement to schools throughout the city. We explained that for a school to organize for a teacher boycott, they must simultaneously organize a school-wide student opt-out campaign. CORE members brought thousands of letters to their own schools and nearby schools that had a growing testing resistance movement…
“[P]arents were shocked by the number of tests and the amount of instructional time lost, which most schools rarely publicize. Parents asked many questions and were disturbed to learn the spring 2014 Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT), which would take away one to two weeks of instruction time, was already being phased out and was no longer even tied to the same high stakes of promotion and school leveling for which it had been originally created. Families quickly embraced the idea of opting out of this exam.
“The most effective strategy for educating parents on an issue is to have other parents, rather than teachers, discuss with them. Parents place the greatest trust in other parents, especially parent leaders, because they know that they have the same interests in mind. At our information session, we identified a number of parent leaders who were especially eager to take on the ISAT. Before long, these parents were leading their own information sessions.
“Soon, students began to lead meetings as well, educating their parents and peers about high-stakes testing and the opt-out process. We continued to have these sessions four to five times at various locations before and during the boycott. These sessions not only helped build toward the boycott but also continued through the boycott itself, helping to correct misinformation.
“In addition to group information sessions, one-on-one meetings were important for building support around the idea of a boycott with faculty. During these meetings, I spoke with teachers before and after school, during lunch and in passing about the opt-out movement nationally and locally, as well as the ‘big picture implications’ of over-testing, such as the firing/layoffs of quality experienced teachers, public school closures, and the agenda to privatize our school system. Sprinkled in these discussions was the word ‘boycott.’
“…Through our staff-wide personal email listserv, I sent articles on over-testing and issues with the Common Core State Standards and dates of informational sessions and panels led by organizations, such as More Than a Score, against excessive testing and guided parents and teachers on how to opt out children...
“Two weeks before the ISAT was supposed to be administered, I prepared a union meeting at Saucedo to launch a massive opt-out campaign. We made copies of the opt-out flyer and template for each Saucedo student from third through eighth grade. I knew the stakes were high for this effort—if CPS got wind of such a massive opt-out operation, they would try to swiftly shut down all opt outs at our school and across the city.
“At the union meeting, we had a discussion about the implications and logistics of a massive school-wide opt-out of the ISAT exam. One of the major obstacles to disseminating information about opting out is political. We took precautions to ensure that no teacher was passing out ‘political materials’ while on the clock. We were all to pass out the opt-out fliers and templates before or after school by picking up our class five minutes early or dropping them off five minutes late. The teachers told their students to return the opt-out letters to their homeroom teachers rather than to the administration so that the administration wouldn’t catch wind of the campaign.
“With the signed letters in their hands, teachers could make copies and turn them all in on the same day. This also protected the student in case the letter happened to be ‘lost’ by administration. Once the students received the letter templates, opting out spread like wildfire.
“Almost the entire student body did not want to take this tedious standardized test, so they urged their parents to opt them out. Within a week, we had around 50 percent of the students at our own school opting out of the ISAT exam. We set a date to turn all the opt-out letters in to the counselors. By then, the administration at Saucedo already knew about it. At that point, they were not opposed to students opting out because the CPS central office hadn’t threatened their careers and force-fed them lies about loss of school funding…
“The only way to launch this dialogue against over-testing and to strike a blow against the privatization agenda was to boycott the test. And that is exactly what we did… The key to having an effective boycott vote is to ensure that all staff in the testing grades actually attend the union meeting, which is a serious hurdle for many schools. The Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012 taught me that to achieve 100 percent attendance at a meeting of overworked educators, it helps to have multiple forms of advertising and announcements—and serve food. We advertised the union meeting through our whole staff email listserv, posted signs on the punch-out clock, placed notes in everyone’s mailboxes, and called all the teachers through our staff phone tree…
“At the union meeting, we had everyone sign in so we could easily see if there were missing staff. Team members found others not in attendance and brought them to the meeting. The meeting began with teachers and CTU organizers discussing the boycott—both the benefits and the possibility of severe consequences such as discipline or termination. We had a rich discussion of the pros and cons among the teachers right up until the vote.
“Before the boycott vote, we explained the paper ballot we would be using, with its three options: 1) Yes, I will teach rather than give the ISAT; 2) Yes, I will teach rather than give the ISAT if 75 percent of the staff votes yes; or 3) No, I will give the ISAT. Each staff member voted individually and submitted his or her ballot anonymously. We counted the ballots in front of the staff and 100 percent of the ballots were for boycotting the test!
“…The threats became more real at Saucedo when members of the administration went to every teacher one by one when they were alone in their rooms and told us, ‘You will lose your job if you boycott,’ ‘You will be replaced,’ or ‘You will be disciplined.’ Due to this intense pressure, we held meetings almost every day with multiple people from the union offices, such as CTU lawyers, organizers, the head of the grievance department, our field representative, the head of staff, and the officers, including CTU president Karen Lewis.
“Not content with bullying teachers, CPS soon began attacking our parents. Administration members called parents every day, hosted what we called ‘mis-information’ sessions, held one-on-one conferences with parents, and sent home letters to convince parents to opt their child back in to take the ISAT. The administration regurgitated lies that CPS fed them about our school losing funding, which could lead to losing our renowned band program.
“We combated these scare tactics by having parents, retirees, and other supporters pass out daily fliers with the correct information: ISAT scores are not connected to funding, Title 1 funding is not connected to ISAT scores, our music program is not connected to ISAT scores, ISAT has no bearing on selective enrollment entry, leveling of the school, or student grade promotion.
“Parents and teachers weren’t the only ones under siege; students were also bombarded. The CPS central office announced that all students, whether they were opted out or not, must be given the test booklet. These actions were intended to get students to reverse their (or their family’s) decision and take the test. To counteract these absurd rules, supporters passed out ‘students, know your rights’ cards that explained their right to refuse the exam. These cards proved to be extremely effective…
“The day before the ISAT was to be administered, we held a final boycott count by calling each teacher to ask them directly if they still chose to teach rather than give the test. A number of teachers dropped out, but twenty-five stayed strong. A group of non-tenured teachers—the most vulnerable educators among us, who could be terminated without cause—met with administration and stated that they refused to give the test to students who had opted out but would give the test to non-opt-out students. The administration agreed to their demands. This was a moment of extreme bravery for our non-tenure teachers because they could be ‘non-renewed’ with the click of a button and risked losing their jobs the following year…
“Where teachers had opt-out classrooms, they told me, they taught wonderful lessons of other resisters and activists in history, such as Gandhi and Rosa Parks. The students related these activists’ civil disobedience to our act of civil disobedience in boycotting the test. These students were engaged in learning instead of stressing over a standardized exam.
“Our act of civil disobedience did not spread to schools other than Drummond, but through our organizing efforts and press conferences, our message spread throughout the nation, our story even reaching National Public Radio and the Wall Street Journal. Our actions have spurred a significant number of discussions around Chicago and the nation about the detrimental effects of over-testing our students.
“These boycotts and the opt-out movement will only spread in the coming years. This year, I did not have to see a student pull out his eyelashes, anguished with the burden of a high-stakes exam. This is the first year that a student did not cry in my class from the stress of standardized testing.
“To all the teachers reading this, you won’t truly feel free as an educator until you stand up unconditionally for your students and boycott the test.”
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