litmus tests

As NYSUT endorses testing opt-outs, city union holds back

PHOTO: Justin Weiner
A rally against high-stakes testing at Brooklyn New School and the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in 2015.

It wasn’t long before Karen Magee, the feisty leader of the state teachers union, steered the conversation on a radio program this week about the budget brawl in Albany to testing.

New York State United Teachers, along with its national and New York City counterparts, has made no secret of its problems with standardized tests. The required annual exams, which New York students will take this month, stress out children, warp instruction, and fuel unfair teacher evaluations, the unions say.

But as a rising number of parents decide to register their opposition to the tests by keeping their children from taking them, the unions have stopped short of endorsing the boycotts, saying only that parents should have a right to “opt out.” On Monday, Magee vaulted over that invisible line.

“I am saying that I would urge parents at this point in time to opt out of testing,” Magee said on the show Capitol Pressroom. (“Wow,” host Susan Arbetter replied.)

Last year, tens of thousands of students across New York sat out the state exams, as did more than 1,900 in the city — a tiny fraction of the 410,000 students who took the tests, but a 450 percent increase over the previous year. In addition to their loathing of standardized tests and how they can dictate what is taught in schools, many of the boycotters are also driven by their opposition to the Common Core standards that the tests measure and the teacher evaluations that rely on their results.

All that has forced union leaders, who back the standards and the need for student assessments but worry about over-testing and unreliable evaluation systems, to take increasingly nuanced stances on testing. The city’s United Federation of Teachers has managed to juggle those positions while at the same time mobilizing parents and teachers who are hostile to high-stakes testing, all without endorsing test refusal.

The union has been able to do that since members who openly back the opt-out movement are still in the minority. But with Magee’s comments coming as advocates predict record opt-out numbers this month, union leaders face new pressure to embrace exam boycotters.

“It’s really frustrating for those who are fighting the good fight to be turned down” by the unions, said Nancy Cauthen, a parent member of the city opt-out group Change the Stakes. “It seems like a little too much energy goes into maintaining their seat at the table,” she added, “rather than worrying about their membership and kids.”

Magee, who won control of NYSUT last year by pledging to take a harder line against state education policy, made her comments this week as state lawmakers battled Governor Andrew Cuomo over his plan to increase the weight of tests in teacher evaluations. In an interview with Chalkbeat, she said the union decided to encourage parents to opt out because of a “groundswell” of support for the movement among teachers and parents.

But in separate comments Monday, she suggested that a massive number of boycotters could undermine the evaluation system. “Statistically, if you take out enough, it has no merit or value whatsoever,” she told reporters. Her comments drew rebukes from a top state education official and Cuomo, who called them a “political tactic.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, of which NYSUT and the UFT are both affiliates, quickly jumped in. She posted online that she would boycott New York’s tests if she had children in the public schools, and that she understood “why @NYSUT and parents are calling for an opt-out.”

Laura Scott
PHOTO: Sarah Darville
UFT President Michael Mulgrew and AFT President Randi Weingarten attended a rally against Gov. Cuomo’s education policies at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn last month.

The influential historian and education blogger Diane Ravitch was quick to praise Weingarten for “personally endorsing” the opt-out movement. Other observers were more skeptical, asking if the AFT would now direct resources to the cause.

In an interview, Weingarten offered a nuanced take on testing, but stopped short of backing Magee’s decision to encourage test refusal. She said parents should have the right to opt out their children from the tests, and that teachers should have the right to “give parents both the pros and cons” of skipping the exams.

But she added that teachers are not necessarily protected if they refuse to administer mandated exams. And she said her union would not “run a campaign” advising parents to boycott the tests, as Magee implied she plans to do.

“There’s a difference between supporting a parent’s right to opt out and playing a leading role,” Weingarten said.

Unlike Weingarten, UFT President Michael Mulgrew did not rush to respond to Magee’s opt-out remarks. In an interview, he noted that he has previously said he backs parents’ right to boycott the exams and that his union is affiliated with NYSUT.

“That’s what the state president has said,” he said, referring to Magee’s comments. “We support our state union.”

Mulgrew represents a different membership than Magee, whose members hail from suburban and upstate districts with far higher opt-out percentages and some school boards that endorse test refusal. He also works closely with city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who takes a middle-of-the-road stance on testing similar to his. (Fariña told principals in a memo Tuesday to “reiterate the value” of tests to parents and students, but also to respect their decision to opt out.)

UFT President Michael Mulgrew and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have both called for a reduced emphasis on testing but avoided endorsing the test opt-out movement.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
UFT President Michael Mulgrew and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have both called for a reduced emphasis on testing but avoided endorsing the test opt-out movement.

Still, some city teachers have partnered with opt-out groups, discussed the movement with interested parents and sometimes encouraged them to join, and even pledged not to administer the tests. As they do, they are looking to their union leaders for support. Lauren Cohen, a fifth-grade teacher at opt-out-friendly P.S. 321 in Park Slope, said Magee’s comments this week made her wonder if the UFT would follow suit.

“Does this mean I can say what I really feel now and the union will protect me?” said Cohen, who is a member of the union’s Movement of Rank and File Educators, or MORE, caucus. 

Cohen introduced a MORE-sponsored resolution at a UFT meeting last week calling on the union to back parents who boycott the tests, to protect teachers who speak out against testing and “conscientious objectors” who refuse to give the exams, and to distribute opt-out materials. The measure did not get enough votes to be brought before the full membership, which some attributed to resistance from the union leadership.

Mike Schirtzer, a MORE member who helped write the resolution, said the union should conduct polls and host forums to gauge how many members support test refusal. Schirtzer, who teaches at Leon Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, said he believes the number is larger than the leadership may realize.

“There is a huge groundswell of teachers getting behind opt out,” he said.

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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.