Education policy critics march in D.C.

Editor’s note: This Education Week article is one result of a partnership between EdNews Colorado and the weekly education journal, allowing us to provide in-depth stories from a national perspective.

By Nirvi Shah, Education Week

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Teachers and their supporters gathered near the White House on Saturday afternoon to chant, cheer and march for a variety of changes they hope to see in public schools — most notably, a 180-degree shift away from standards- and testing-based accountability.

People march to the White House during the Save Our Schools rally on July 30. Photo/EdWeek

Aside from that message, those who attended the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action in the scalding sun preached everything from boosting support for teachers’ unions to booting U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, to getting more federal money for low-income schoolchildren. Student poverty was repeatedly cited as the most pressing problem in public schools.

The more than two hours of speeches and hourlong march, along with other related events, were organized by teachers and teacher-educators who say they are fed up with test-driven accountability for schools—and, increasingly, for teachers. Speakers ranged from such prominent education authors as Jonathan Kozol and Diane Ravitch to the actor Matt Damon.

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Organizers estimated the size of the crowd at 5,000, but a rough count by Education Week put it closer to 3,000. Before the event, organizers had said they were expecting 5,000 to 10,000 people.

The gathering, according to the organizers, was aimed at sending a message to national and state policymakers about its participants’ disgust with those policies and to highlight their own principles for improving public education. Members have created a series of position papers outlining the loosely organized group’s views on high-stakes testing, equitable school funding, unions and collective bargaining, and changes to curriculum.

For the most part, those aren’t formal policy prescriptions, and no stronger positions emerged from the rally Saturday. However, policy proposals aren’t necessarily among the organizers’ goals.

“What we’re talking about is creating the right conditions, not prescriptive policies,” said Sabrina Stevens Shupe, a former teacher in Denver who has turned full-time activist and was one of the event’s leaders. “There’s no one silver bullet that’s going to save anything,” she added, referring to attempts to craft education reforms over the past 30 years.

Patrick McCarthy, an 11th grade English teacher from Woodstock, Va., said he is tired of devoting weeks of the school year to preparing students for standardized tests. If he had his way, students would instead spend that time writing more, and improving their writing and critical-thinking skills.

“I’m so tired of hearing teachers are the bad guys,” said Mr. McCarthy, who will start his 17th year as a teacher later this year.

The July 30 event appeared to foster a feeling of solidarity among teachers from across the country who say they have felt under attack. Teachers from Central Falls, R.I., where a move for wholesale replacement of the district high school’s staff drew headlines last year, and from Wisconsin, where a new state law curbed collective bargaining rights for most public employees, made a point of attending. However, not everyone present could pretend to be likeminded on every issue.

Raquel Maya, a graduate student studying elementary education at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, said she understands the arguments against merit pay for teachers—a policy measure that many teachers oppose. Her mother is a longtime elementary school teacher who Ms. Maya said has lost some of her passion.

“But you do need accountability” for student achievement, and testing provides that, she said.

A young attendee at the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action on July 30. Photo/EdWeek

The four-day Save Our Schools gathering also attracted hundreds of teachers and parents to American University on July 28-29 for a series of workshops and seminars about fostering activism and engaging parents, among other topics.

Some of the organizers’ methods during their stay in Washington have been unorthodox. On Wednesday, for example, they created an art installation of 50 dolls, each inside its own cardboard box to represent teachers’ feeling of being boxed in, and placed it outside the U.S. Department of Education headquarters. The move earned them an invitation to speak with Secretary Duncan and members of his staff.

However, the organizers rebuffed an overture from the White House. Although they have denounced the No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama administration’s continued emphasis on high-stakes testing, organizers declined an invitation to meet on Friday with Roberto Rodriguez, a White House education adviser. Organizers cited a busy schedule and instead urged members of the administration to observe and join the march.

Kelle Stewart, a 1st grade teacher from Portsmouth, Va., said she attended in part because five years of teaching exclusively in Title I schools had led her to believe the money spent on testing could be put to better use. In addition, she said that not enough teachers and parents are a part of the debate about education reform, and that the Save Our Schools movement is an opportunity to correct that.

“As teachers, this is a chance for us to model appropriate behavior and how to disagree with each other respectfully,” she said. “We want to encourage healthy debate—it only makes for a richer discussion. That’s a democratic guiding principle, and we have a chance to reiterate that to our students.”

She said had it been her choice, the event organizers would have taken up the White House on its meeting invitation.

“We have to compromise,” she said. “We have to work together.”

The movement has also been the subject of criticism, most notably from the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group for charter schools and other forms of school choice. The center took issue with the SOS group’s call for additional federal money for schools but less prescriptive accountability and testing requirements.

The SOS coalition “advocates for the status quo, and reform to them is about money, control, and no high-stakes tests or accountability,” Jeanne Allen, the center’s president, said in a statement. “SOS is about deforming education, not reforming it. They put up the guise that this is for the families and students, but in truth, these groups want to restrict and remove any power parents have in their child’s education.”

Testing Targeted

On Saturday, another art installation set up at the rally involved several tombstones, each inscribed with a message noting the deaths of imagination, creativity, joy, freedom, and critical thinking, among others. The cause of death for all of them? They were killed by high-stakes testing, in the opinion of the organizers.

Attendees cheer speakers at the Save Our Schools rally and march. Photo/EdWeek

Mr. Damon, the actor and Academy Award-winning screenwriter, told the crowd that his strengths and talents couldn’t be measured by any test, and that his mother, an early-education professor, had made sure he didn’t take any standardized exams.

“My mom went to the principal and said: ‘It’s stupid. It won’t tell you anything. It will just make him nervous,’ ” he told the star-struck audience. His imagination and love of acting came from the way he was taught, he said.

“None of these qualities that make me who I am can be tested,” Mr. Damon said, then went on to pay tribute to the crowd.

“There are millions of us behind you. Our appreciation for you is deeply felt,” he said. “We love you, and we will always have your back.”

The event also drew the endorsements of others in the entertainment world, including the actor Richard Dreyfuss and the comedian Jon Stewart. Mr. Stewart, who recorded a video aired during Saturday’s rally, joked that he couldn’t attend in person because a dog ate his car.

Events around the country were organized in state capitals to coincide with the march in Washington for those who supported the cause but couldn’t travel so far. Still, marchers in person Saturday included teachers and supporters from at least as far away as California, Idaho, and Texas.

The marchers sported megaphones and signs as they stopped traffic, at one point drawing cheers from protestors who were denouncing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The SOS crowd carried a collection of signs that read “Wisconsin is the canary in the coal mine,” “Build Schools Not Bombs,” and “A Charter School is Not Superman”—the last a dig at the 2010 documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” which many educators have criticized as denigrating regular public schools.

“High-stakes has got to go! Hey-hey! Ho-ho!” some of the crowd chanted.

Support From Unions

The Save Our Schools movement began with a small group of teachers, including former Connecticut teacher Jesse Turner, now the director of the Literacy Center at Central Connecticut State University, who walked from Connecticut to the nation’s capital last August to protest the No Child Left Behind law and the Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s signature school improvement competition.

The Save Our Schools efforts predated actions by state legislatures across the country this spring to curb teachers’ collective bargaining powers and tenure, said Bess Altwerger, a member of the movement’s organizing committee, who hosted a reception for Mr. Turner last summer. The attacks on unions and collective bargaining further galvanized the group, however, and eventually both national teachers’ unions threw their support behind the Save Our Schools effort.

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have donated about $25,000 each to the effort, although most of the rest of the donations have come from one-time gifts provided through the Save Our Schools website, according to organizers. Conference organizers estimated that they’d raised over $125,000 in all. After this weekend, they will have to begin fundraising efforts anew to keep their work going.

Another large donation came from Ms. Ravitch, the education historian, who said she contributed $20,000 she won for the 2011 Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize. Ms. Ravitch, who co-writes an opinion blog for Education Week; Mr. Kozol, a former teacher who has written extensively about educational inequities; and the educator and school reformer Deborah Meier, who blogs with Ms. Ravitch, were among those who spoke at the July 30 rally as well as during the conference at American University.

The SOS group will wrap up its gathering with a closed-door meeting Sunday, at which participants will try to determine how to keep the momentum from the rally going. Movement organizers haven’t disclosed the meeting’s location, and it is not open to the press.

Elaine Mulligan, a former special education teacher who is now working on a federally funded technical-assistance project in special education, attended even though she is unsure whether the event will have any long-term effect.

But it’s a start, she said, noting that she brought a friend who doesn’t pay attention to education issues.

“I don’t think it will work. I think it’s incremental, and I have to do what I can,” she said. “Maybe [my friend] will tell someone, and maybe they’ll tell someone. I hope that everybody does the same thing.”

Note: Several people who blog for or have worked for Education Week are involved in the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action. Education Week Teacher opinion bloggers Nancy Flanagan and Anthony Cody are on the organizing committee. Endorsers of the event include Education Week opinion bloggers Peter DeWitt, Diane Ravitch, and Deborah Meier; former reporter James Crawford; and Ronald A. Wolk, the founding editor of Education Week and the chair emeritus of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit corporation that publishes it. Education Week and Education Week Teacher are not affiliated with the movement and take no editorial positions about it.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.