A People’s Curriculum for the Earth

By Tim Swinehart

APCE cover“We can’t hunt [because] the ice is receding. People are going hungry,” says one voice. “Us, too! It’s food. We can’t grow it in the desert,” says another. The speakers are my students, who have taken on the voices of different indigenous people during a role play on the impact of climate change. The exercise is included in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, a book I recently co-edited on teaching about the environmental crisis.

The students are representing First Peoples as far-ranging as the Yup’ik of Alaska, the Bambara of sub-Saharan Africa, and the Aymara of Bolivia. The list is diverse, but all of the populations share one thing: They all suffer from catastrophic climate disruptions. Rather than simply lecturing or having students read about these changes, I want students to bring them to life in the classroom. Their task? To share experiences and articulate demands for the rest of the world — especially for those who control fossil fuel reserves.



The effects of human-caused climate change already can be seen.

One aim of the lesson is to help students recognize that some of the world’s poorest people — and those least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions — are the first to suffer the consequences of a warming planet. This is a point that was made dramatically by Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical on the environment, in which the pontiff argues that those most threatened by climate change are the global poor — the billions of people around the world who are currently experiencing the worst effects of a rapidly changing climate. With them in mind, the pope called for an approach that “integrate(s) questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.” This “interdisciplinary” approach is one that educators also should embrace.

Our best curricular attempts to engage students come when we cross the boundaries of disciplines, in this case joining a scientific investigation of global warming with a social inquiry of how people are affected by a changing climate — and what we all can do about it.

‘Fix the problems…’

One lesson I’ve taught exemplifies these connections and is included in A People’s Curriculum for the Earth. It is “The Mystery of the 3 Scary Numbers,” written by co-editor Bill Bigelow, the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools. In this lesson, students receive clues and try to figure out the significance of the “three scary numbers”: 2-degrees Celsius, the temperature rise that, if exceeded, would likely trigger a point of climate noreturn; 565 gigatons of carbon, the amount of carbon that can be burned without pushing a 2-degree rise; and 2,795 gigatons of carbon, the amount of proven reserves of coal, oil, and gas that corporations and countries have ready to exploit and burn. During class, students mingle to discuss their clues, and slowly piece together the frightening significance of these numbers. It’s a math lesson, a science lesson, and a social studies lesson all rolled into one.

Afterward, in class discussion, students wrestle with the implications of this playful, but sobering, activity. Should fossil fuel companies be left to decide the fate of the Earth? If not, how should the rest of us respond?

Our classrooms are an important venue in the struggle for a livable planet. We have an opportunity to put the most important crisis facing humanity at the center of our curriculum — and to do it in a way that brings hope to our students, who have been told for much of their lives that it’s up to their generation to “fix the problems” being passed on to them. If we can bring to life the stories of indigenous groups, anti-fossil fuel activists, and communities around the world who are working toward a saner and more equitable social and ecological order, our students can begin to see themselves as part of a larger movement.

Teaching about climate change can be overwhelming. In fact, it probably should overwhelm us at times if we grasp the enormity of the issues in the way scientists suggest we should. But by teaching the crisis through imaginative curriculum, and telling the stories of the people most affected and the movements struggling for environmental and social justice, our students can also find the hope and collective strength to work toward a better future.

A Classroom Resource Guide: CLIMATE CHANGE

These are just a few of the resources compiled by NEA Healthy Futures to help educators teach about climate change. For more, visit nea.org/climatechange.


Tim Swinehart teaches at Lincoln High School in Portland, Ore., and is a member of the Portland Association of Teachers (NEA). He coedited A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis, available at rethinkingschools.org.

Originally published at www.nea.org.

Opting Out of the Education Reform Industry

By Wayne Au and Jesslyn Hollar

mr-067-10-2016-03-100x146This article is part of Monthly Review’s March issue, “Opt Out!”. Wayne Au is an associate professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington at Bothell and an editor at Rethinking Schools. Jesslyn Hollar is a doctoral student at the University of Washington and director of the Alternative Pathways to Teaching program at Central Washington University.

We believe the opportunity to build numerous multi-billion dollar education enterprises is finally real. The biggest investment opportunity is where there is a problem — the bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunity. There is no bigger problem in the global knowledge economy today than how to effectively educate our populace.

— GSV Advisors, 2012 1

Big business has long been enamored of public education. Whether shaping systems of schooling along the lines of factory production, dictating what children should learn, or cultivating private-public partnerships to gain access to government monies, corporations and their owners have insisted on being key players in the formation of education policy and practice in the United States. Analysts estimate the value of the K-12 education market at more than $700 billion dollars.2 Beyond their calls for students and workers to adapt to the global capitalist economy through increased competition and “accountability” in public schools, business leaders crave access to a publicly funded, potentially lucrative market — one of the last strongholds of the commons to be penetrated by neoliberalism.3

Business investors and entrepreneurs are already capitalizing on the increasingly privatized education market. GSV Capital is a growth investment company with a sizeable portfolio in education products, including education technology start-ups and online instructional programs. K12 Inc. is a for-profit, mostly online charter school start-up, which, despite operating “public” charter schools, as a publicly traded company, is beholden to the bottom-line demands of its investors and board members. MasteryConnect is just one of hundreds of new ed-tech companies aiding the rollout of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).4

Venture capitalists and start-ups are not the only groups cashing in on the privatization of public education. So too are established multinational corporations like Pearson and the Educational Testing Service, which control massive portions of the “education industry.” Pearson is paid to create tests, which it is then also paid to administer and grade. The company accordingly markets a slew of test “support tools” for consumers to purchase, including test preparation materials, test-aligned textbooks, mobile apps, and computer software. In an education industry dependent on market competition to increase profitability, there is no better tool to turn teaching and learning into products — ready to measure, compare, and sell — than the high-stakes standardized tests championed by the contemporary education reform movement.

A Nation At Risk: Standardized Tests as Metrics for Mediocrity

The current era of corporate education reform began with the 1983 publication of the Reagan administration’s report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform, prepared by a committee of prominent professors, politicians, teachers, and business executives.5 Not only did the report attack many of the equity-minded federal education reforms that preceded it, A Nation at Risk also manufactured a narrative of public education in crisis, steeped in the language of Cold War military paranoia: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war,” the authors wrote. “We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”6 The report also recommended test scores as an essential metric of student learning—the first major use of testing as a tool to convert teaching and learning into data to be measured, compared, and consumed.

The impact of A Nation at Risk was profound. Within a year of its publication, fifty-four state-level commissions on education were created, and twenty-six states raised graduation requirements. Three years later, thirty-five states had instituted comprehensive state education reforms that revolved around standardized testing and increased course loads for students. By 1994, forty-three states had statewide assessments for K-5, and by 2000, every state but Iowa administered at least one state-mandated test.7

Since the report appeared, major business leaders have been consistently and directly involved in U.S. federal education policy. During George H. W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s presidential terms, as high-stakes testing was being formally enshrined in state and federal education law, the business community maintained continued influence. Under Bush, David Kearns, the former chair of the Xerox Corporation, was hired by then Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander to develop national academic standards, and during the Clinton administration, corporate executives endorsed the creation of a National Skills Standards Board as part of the Goals 2000 legislation, and similarly supported the School-to-Work Opportunities Act.8

The influence of business on the education policy narrative has also trickled down into the language and structures of school life. As education historian Larry Cuban observes:

Other business influences also have become obvious. School boards renamed superintendents CEOs and their deputies “chief operating officers” and “chief academic officers.” Many urban school boards have inserted performance clauses in their superintendents’ contracts that pay bonuses when students’ test scores rise. Many districts have “outsourced” to private firms transportation, building maintenance, food services, security, purchasing, and, in some instances, entire schools. School policymakers and administrators (but rarely teachers) salt their vocabulary with such terms as “satisfying the customer,” “benchmarking,” and “marketing our services.” District administrators have imported from the private sector such business mainstays as marketing studies, strategic planning and “total quality management.”9

Groups like the Business Roundtable (BRT) further illustrate the increased influence of the interests of capital on federal education policy. The BRT was founded in 1972 as an association of corporate CEOs who took up the mission of analyzing and advising on issues affecting the U.S. economy. In 1989 a group of Roundtable CEOs from the largest 218 corporations met and decided how best to implement the National Education Goals developed by state governors, and by 1995, the BRT had established what they termed the “Nine Essential Components of a Successful Education System.” As might be expected, the BRT advocated high-stakes testing and national standards, and a careful look at the list reveals a notable coincidence: each of the Nine Essential Components were included in the design of No Child Left Behind.10

No Child Left Behind, Accountability, and Corporate Education Reform

In 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was passed into law with bipartisan support, and it was built almost entirely around the use of high-stakes testing to trigger school reform. NCLB required that all students be tested in grades three through eight, and once again in high school, in reading and math. The accountability measures imposed by NCLB implicitly rejected any argument that racial and economic achievement gaps were the result of broad societal inequities, such as the effects of poverty. Instead, schools and teachers became either saviors or scapegoats in the narrative of education reform.11

This federal policy paved the way for private wealth accumulation from public education funds. If schools did not show improvement on state tests, meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals for test score growth by race, economic class, special education, and English language proficiency, among other categories, they would face severe sanctions, ranging from the diversion of federal monies intended for tutoring, transportation, and other “supplemental services,” to a total loss of federal funding. Additionally, NCLB decreed that all students in all subgroups were expected to test at 100 percent proficiency by 2014, and schools with persistently low test scores would be subject to further sanctions, including reconstitution under new management.12

Corporate influence likewise shaped the logic of NCLB, which established a policy paradigm for schools, districts, students, teachers, and states to compete with each other within what was conceived as an educational marketplace. In this vision, failing schools would be shut down or reorganized, and successful schools would attract more students, now recast as consumers seeking the best product. As George W. Bush asserted in a presidential campaign speech delivered to a conservative think-tank, the Manhattan Institute:

Federal funds will no longer flow to failure. Schools that do not teach and will not change must have some final point of accountability. A moment of truth, when their Title 1 funds are divided up and given to parents, for tutoring or a charter school or some other hopeful option. In the best case, schools that are failing will rise to the challenge and regain the confidence of parents. In the worst case, we will offer scholarships to America’s neediest children.13

Thus, schools would become like any other business enterprise, where efficiency and competition rule. In this model, “bad” educational producers go out of business and are removed from the market, while “superior” educational producers survive and thrive—the same logic advanced by charter school advocates now. NCLB was significant not only because it codified the neoliberalization of federal education policy; it also opened the gates for commercial access to the public funds supporting public education, entrenching the already-dominant corporate power and influence over federal education policy.

Public Monies for the Private Good

As states rushed to comply with NCLB’s testing mandates, corporations reaped the rewards. The testing industry has become a premier example of the neoliberal project of creating private markets from public goods. As educational researcher Patricia Burch explains:

Test development firms have sought to use NCLB mandates to attract new business. Major suppliers of test development and preparation firms explicitly reference the No Child Left Behind Act on their Web pages, and several named the law as spurring revenue in their recent financial statements. In addition, they all have links to the Department of Education’s Web site on No Child Left Behind, and include in their marketing materials references to how their products can help districts comply with NCLB.14

The Education Sector, an independent education think tank, reported that during the 2005–2006 school year alone, the twenty-three states that had not yet fully implemented NCLB’s testing requirements would have had to administer 11.4 million new tests in reading and math to meet the federal mandate. This was in addition to the estimated 45 million K-12 tests already required under NCLB at the time.15

The testing market, likewise, reached incredible heights in the wake of NCLB. Sales of test-related printed materials rose from $211 million in 1992 to $592 million in 2003, and for-profit companies offering NCLB-related content and services to school districts saw revenues of nearly $1.62 billion in that same year.16 Eduventures, Inc. estimated that the total value of the tests, test-prep materials, and testing services in 2006 in the United States was $2.3 billion. This total included $517 million for all NCLB related test development, publishing, administering, analyzing, and reporting during the 2005-2006 school year alone. Eduventures also estimated that 90 percent of the revenues generated by statewide testing was collected by only a handful of companies including, Pearson Educational Measurement, CTB/McGraw-Hill, Harcourt Assessment Inc., Riverside Publishing (a subsidiary of Houghton Mifflin), and the Educational Testing Service.17

Race to the Top: Funding Neoliberal Education Reform

In 2009, as popular dissent and a divided Congress left the federal government unable to secure reauthorization of NCLB, the Obama administration developed the Race to the Top (RTTT) grant competition. The money for this grant came from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009—itself the result of the risky investments made by banks and investors that brought on the 2007–2009 financial crisis. With state budgets shrinking during the Great Recession, the $4.35 billion dollars attached to RTTT was a tantalizing carrot for state education departments. However, the grant came with strings attached, ones directly aligned with the corporate drive to privatize public education. RTTT explicitly rewarded applicants for implementing market-based education reforms, including high-stakes testing, support for charter schools, large data systems for evaluations, and restructuring plans for “failing” schools.18

RTTT also added support for two key policies that NCLB did not: using test score gains or losses to evaluate teacher effectiveness (sold as “models of value added measurement”), and a commitment to “common standards”—which in this case meant adoption of the Common Core State Standards, since no other national standards existed for states to use. Now, instead of just mandatory annual testing and punitive measures for struggling schools, cash-strapped states—who had little choice but to pursue the multi-billion-dollar grant money—were made to implement specific federally supported education reforms.19In the end, despite the Obama administration’s efforts to distance itself from NCLB, and the failure of NCLB’s testing mandates (in particular the mandated but statistically impossible 100 percent proficiency rates), the act’s design provided the policy blueprint that led to RTTT. The latter only further entrenched high-stakes testing, and extended nearly every other neoliberal measure of NCLB into state and federal education policy.

Neoliberalism, Bill Gates, and the Common Core

The story of the Common Core illustrates just how tightly the logic of neoliberalism has grown intertwined with federal education policy. From the start, the CCSS was developed with the support and influence of corporate interests. In April 2009, Achieve, Inc. was contracted by the National Governors Association to develop national standards in reading and math. Spearheaded by David Coleman, these workgroups were staffed almost entirely by employees of major testing companies like the ACT and the College Board, accountability and school-choice advocacies like America’s Choice, Student Achievement Partners, and the Hoover Institute, as well as employees of Achieve Inc. itself. Several members of the workgroups also had direct ties to Pearson.20 In all, twenty-four people—only one of whom was a K-12 teacher—drafted the initial standards, and while these were sent out for feedback, this original workgroup of twenty-four was given final power over the CCSS.21

Corporate interests were also involved in the development of assessments tied to the CCSS. Pearson has contracts with two new groups—the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers—to help develop and administer the tests and assist in their rollout.22 The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also played a concerted role in the development, adoption, and introduction of the CCSS, paying out $233 million in grants to the organizations involved, as well as to think tanks that produced reports supportive of the CCSS, and to strategists engaged in “public-policy philanthropy,” promoting the standards and pushing for their adoption at the state level.23 Federally, the influence of the Gates Foundation went far beyond mere money: then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hired a senior Gates Foundation official to be his chief of staff, a Gates Foundation program officer to head his office of innovation, and a former chief operation officer of the Gates-funded New Schools Venture Fund to lead the RTTT grant initiative.24

The Gates Foundation’s efforts proved extremely effective. The first public draft of the CCSS was released on March 10, 2010, and the “final recommendations” were released less than three months later. States seeking to compete for RTTT money were required to adopt the CCSS by August 2, 2010. By 2011, all but ten states had adopted the CCSS, and by 2013 all but five states were on board.25 Undergirding the Gates Foundation’s commitment to the CCSS was the neoliberal belief that free markets will cure public education’s problems. In 2009, in the run-up to the mass adoption of the CCSS, Bill Gates remarked: “When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well—and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better.”26

The CCSS are a huge financial windfall for testing companies, consultants, and other education corporations. The Fordham Institute estimated that the CCSS cost $12.1 billion from 2012 to 2015.27 The conservative Pioneer Institute and American Principles Project estimate a mid-range cost of $15.8 billion over seven years for the CCSS, with $1.2 billion spent on assessments, $5.3 billion on professional development, and $6.9 billion for tech infrastructure and support.28 According to the New York Times, in part due to the CCSS, venture capital investment in public education has increased 80 percent since 2005, to a total of $632 million in 2012, a figure that has no doubt increased since.29 Bill Gates and Microsoft have cashed in on this lucrative market: in February 2014, Microsoft announced it was partnering with Pearson to install Pearson’s Common Core materials onto Microsoft’s Surface tablet.30

The Future of Testing

It is critical to recognize that all of this profit-making from new standards and standards-aligned materials, as well as the more general perversion of public education into a competitive marketplace, relies on high-stakes standardized testing. The entire education reform industry depends on the data produced by these tests, because tests render children, teachers, administrators, schools, districts, institutions, and communities into numbers. In this rendering, social and historical conditions, complex issues of power and culture, even the life and spirit of people, are flattened into simple quantities for inspection, comparison, and ranking. In turn, test scores become a form of currency, used as the basis for decisions about educational “choice,” school closures, charter schools, and the evaluation of teachers and schools. Within the neoliberal educational framework, test scores become both the means and ends of education, alienating students and teachers from their labor while turning the test scores themselves into fetishized commodities that obscure the very people they purport to represent.31

ESSA: The Everything Stays the Same Act

As of this writing, NCLB has been declared deceased, and RTTT seems to have withered and vanished in the triumphant narrative surrounding NCLB’s demise. Now, victory has been declared in the next generation of U.S. federal education policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed into law by President Obama in December 2015. However, it will come as no surprise that despite growing nationwide resistance, the federal government has reaffirmed its commitment to annual high-stakes standardized testing and accountability measures, and to linking those scores to school funding. Coupled with the continued testing and accountability fetish are dangerous provisions that will serve to diminish the quality of the teaching workforce in favor of a competitive teacher preparation market, whose graduates’ worth will be measured by their ability to raise student test scores, and little else. So although federal education policy now operates under a new name, in the ESSA we still have the same testing, conceived within the same neoliberal framework.

All of which makes the Opt Out movement so critical. High-stakes tests provide the data that is the very fuel of the corporate education reform machine. By opting out of these tests, students, parents, and teachers have the power to take away the data. With the data seized and the machine deprived of its fuel, the corporate reformers cannot produce public education for private gain. This is why opting out is so threatening to the reform industry—and it should be.


  1. Michael T. Moe et al., “Revolution 2.0: How Education Innovation Is Going to Revitalize America and Transform the U.S. Economy,” GSV Asset Management, July 4, 2012, http://gsvadvisors.com.
  2. National Center for Educational Statistics, Digest of Educational Statistics, 2012,http://nces.gov.
  3. Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine,The Changing Politics of Education: Privatization and the Dispossessed Lives Left Behind (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2013).
  4. Lee Fang, “Venture Capitalists Are Poised to ‘Disrupt’ Everything About the Education Market,”The Nation, September 25, 2014.
  5. National Commission on Excellence in Education,A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1983), 65. The full report is available at http://datacenter.spps.org.
  6. Ibid., 5.
  7. Wayne Au,Unequal by Design: High-Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality (New York: Routledge, 2009).
  8. Larry Cuban,The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).
  9. Ibid., 63.
  10. Kathy Emery and Susan Ohanian,Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004).
  11. Au,Unequal by Design.
  12. Ibid.
  13. George W. Bush, “A Culture of Achievement,” speech delivered in New York City, October 5, 1999.
  14. Patricia Ellen Burch, “The New Educational Privatization: Educational Contracting and High Stakes Accountability,”Teachers College Record 108, no. 12 (2006): 2582–610.
  15. Thomas Toch,Margins of Error: The Education Testing Industry in the No Child Left Behind Era (Washington, D.C.: Education Sector, 2006).
  16. Burch, “The New Educational Privatization.”
  17. J. Mark Jackson and Eric Bassett,The State of the K-12 State Assessment Market (Boston: Eduventures, 2005).
  18. U.S. Department of Education,Race to the Top Program Executive Summary (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2009).
  19. Ibid.
  20. William J. Mathis, “The ‘Common Core’ Standards Initiative: An Effective Reform Tool?” Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, July 2010, http://greatlakescenter.org.
  21. Mercedes Schneider, “Those 24 Common Core 2009 Work Group Members,” deutsch29 blog, http://deutsch29.wordpress.org.
  22. Mercedes Schneider, “Incompetent Pearson ‘Wins’ PARCC Contract. Big Surprise,” deutsch29 blog, May 2, 2014.
  23. Lyndsey Layton, “How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution,”Washington Post, June 7, 2014.
  24. Michael Klonsky, “Power Philanthropy: Taking the Public Out of Public Education,” in Philip E. Kovacs, ed.,The Gates Foundation and the Future of U.S. “Public” Schools (New York: Routledge, 2011), 21–38.
  25. Mathis, “The ‘Common Core’ Standards Initiative.”
  26. Bill Gates, speech delivered to the National Conference of State Legislatures, July 21, 2009.
  27. Patrick Murphy and Elliot Regenstein with Keith McNamara,Putting a Price Tag on the Common Core: How Much Will Smart Implementation Cost? (Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Institute, 2012).
  28. Common Core State Standards Estimated Cost is $16 Billion for States,” Pioneer Institute, February 22, 2012, http://pioneerinstitute.org.
  29. Motoko Rich, “NewSchools Fund Attracts More Capital,”New York Times, April 30, 2013.
  30. Layton, “How Bill Gates Pulled Off the Swift Common Core Revolution.”
  31. Au,Unequal by Design.

Originally published at monthlyreview.org on March 1, 2016.

Six Reasons Why the Opt Out Movement is Good for Students and Parents of Color

By Jesse Hagopian, first published in The Progressive magazine

Corporate education reformers who seek to reduce teaching and learning to a single score are beginning to realize they are losing the public relations battle. Hundreds of thousands of families across the country are opting out in what has become largest revolt against high-stakes testing in U.S. history.

Because most of their arguments are increasingly discredited because of this uprising, they are desperately attempting to cling to one last defense of the need to subject our students to a multibillion-dollar testing industry.

Charles F. Coleman, Jr. supported this last ditch effort for the “testocracy” when he took up former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s argument that opposition to standardized testing was only from out of touch “white suburban moms.” Coleman has in the past written pieces in support of making black lives matter, but in this careless piece he dismissed the opt out movement as a privileged white effort:

Boycotting standardized tests may seem like a good idea, but hurts black learners most….White parents from well-funded and highly performing areas are participating in petulant, poorly conceived protests that are ultimately affecting inner-city blacks at schools that need the funding and measures of accountability to ensure any hope of progress in performance.

Here are six reasons why Coleman’s belief that opting out hurts students of color is fundamentally flawed and why his belief that accountability and academic success require high-stakes standardized testing is just plain old wrong.

1. Extreme over-testing disproportionately harms students of color.

Coleman admits in his essay, “there should be concerns raised over excessive testing and devoting too much classroom instruction to test prep.” But he doesn’t acknowledge how destructive excessive testing has become (especially for children of color) or credit the opt out movement for revealing the outsized role that testing is playing in education. No one — certainly not the media — would even be talking about the excessive testing in schools if it wasn’t for the opt out movement. And the amount of testing in the public schools today isn’t just excessive — it’s extreme. The average student today is subjected to 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation!

But the crux of the issue is that the highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color. Schools that serve more black and brown students have become test-prep factories rather than incubators of creativity and critical thinking. The corporate education reformers behind high stakes testing, like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family want their own kids to have the time and support to explore the arts, music, drama, athletics, debate and engage in a rich curriculum of problem solving and critical thinking. Rote memorization for the next standardized tests is good enough for the rest of us.

2. Communities of color are increasingly joining and leading the opt out movement.

While it’s true that currently the students opting out are disproportionately white, to portray opting out as a white people thing is to make invisible the important leadership role that people of color have played around the country. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, a black women, is one of the most important leaders in the country against corporate education reform, and she led the union in the “Let Us Teach!” campaign against high-stakes testing. The Black opt out rate reached 10 percent in Chicago last year. PTA co-chairs Đào X. Trần and Elexis Loubriel-Pujols at New York City’s Castlebridge Elementary School (comprising 72 percent students of color) led the opt out movement there. They gained national prominence and helped to ignite the opt out movement across the country in 2013 when more than 80 percent of families refused to allow their kids to take a standardized test. The school had to cancel the test altogether.

One of the largest student protests against high-stakes testing in U.S. history occurred last spring when many hundreds of students in New Mexico — at schools that served 90% Latino students — walked out of school and refused to take the new Common Core exams. In Ohio, a recent study shows that communities of color and low-income communities opt out at nearly the same rates as whiter and wealthier ones.

In my hometown, the Seattle/King County NAACP hosted a press conference last spring to encourage parents to opt out of the Common Core tests. As Seattle NAACP president Gerald Hankerson put it, “…the Opt Out movement is a vital component of the Black Lives Matter movement and other struggles for social justice in our region. Using standardized tests to label black people and immigrants ‘lesser,’ while systematically under-funding their schools, has a long and ugly history in this country.”

Or check out the brilliant podcast, “These Tests Will Go,” The Opt-Out Movement in Urban Philadelphia, which documents the uprising of African American parents determined to make their kids more than a test score and fighting for the programs their kids deserve.

3. The federal government hasn’t punished schools for opting out.

Coleman argues that if the number of students taking the required standardized tests drops below 95 percent, the government can cut funding to schools, and that will be most damaging to students of color. However,the federal government has never — not even once — cut funds to a school district for its high opt out numbers. While No Child Left Behind initially had a provision for penalties against large opt out numbers, which carried over to the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the “testocracy” seems to be too afraid to use this clause.

Moreover, the opt out movement holds the potential to actually increase the amount of school funding. The many millions of dollars wasted on ranking and sorting our children with standardized tests every year could be spent on tutoring programs, counseling services, art teachers, nurses, librarians, music programs, ethnic studies classes, and many services our children deserve.

4.Test-and-Punish policies are cruel and inequitable.

High-stakes tests are being used around the country to label children and schools as failing, to prevent kids from graduating, to fire teachers, and to close schools. Chicago Board of Education voted in 2013 to close some 49 of the city’s public schools — schools that served approximately 87 percent black students. In 71 percent of the schools had a majority of teachers and staff were African-Americans. The standardized tests the students take register racial and class bias, measure the lack of resources available to schools, and then provide cover for shutting them down.

A review by the National Research Council concluded high school graduation tests have done nothing to lift student achievement, but they have raised the dropout rate. African American, Latino, American Indian and low-income students are far more likely to be denied a diploma for not passing a test. High stakes tests often inaccurately assess English language learners — measuring their understating of English and the dominant culture rather than the subject they are being tested in. Boston University economics professor Kevin Lang’s 2013 study, “The School to Prison Pipeline Exposed,” links increases in the use of high-stakes standardized high school exit exams to increased incarceration rates.

5) Standardized testing was invented by white supremacists and maintains institutional racism today.

Once you know the history of standardized tests in public schools, you can never fall for Coleman’s absurd assertion that, “boycotting standardized tests may seem like a good idea, but hurts black learners most.” Standardized tests first entered American public schools in the 1920s, at the urging of eugenicists whose pseudoscience proclaimed that white males were naturally smarter. As Rethinking Schools editorialized, “high-stakes standardized tests have disguised class and race privilege as merit ever since. The consistent use of test scores to demonstrate first a ‘mental ability’ gap and now an ‘achievement’ gap exposes the intrinsic nature of these tests: They are built to maintain inequality, not to serve as an antidote to educational disparities.”

One of these early eugenicists was Carl Brigham, a professor at Princeton University and author of the white supremacist manifesto, A Study of American Intelligence. Brigham developed the Scholastic Aptitude Test, known as the SAT. Some of the most important early voices in opposition to intelligence testing — especially in service of ranking the races — came from leading African American intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Howard Long. Horace Mann Bond, in his work “Intelligence Tests and Propaganda,”noted in 1924 what today we call the “Zip Code Effect” — what standardized tests really measure is a student’s proximity to wealth and the dominant culture.

6. There are better ways than high stakes testing to improve education for children of color.

Coleman asserts that, “Standardized testing, albeit imperfect, remains one of the best ways to ensure that teachers, schools, and school districts are held accountable for making sure children are succeeding.” A huge body of evidence contradicts this statement, and points to the power of an inquiry based pedagogy, coupled with authentic forms of assessment. Take, for example, the New York Consortium Schools for Performance Based Assessment. These fully public schools have a waiver from state tests and instead use performance-based assessments. Students work with a faculty mentor to develop an idea, conduct research, and then defend a body of work to a panel of experts — including school administration, other teachers, and outside experts and practitioners in the field of study.

If the testocracy is right — if it’s true that high-stakes standardized testing is the key to improving accountability and performance — then these New York consortium schools that don’t give the state standardized test should be the very worst schools in New York City. However, comprehensives studies show Consortium Schools have higher graduation rates, better college attendance rates, and smaller gaps in outcomes between students of color and their white peers than the rest of New York’s public schools.

Conclusion: Hold the system accountable

Coleman’s arguments lamenting students of color score worse on the tests than their white peers — without acknowledging the ways in which systematic underfunding of schools, poverty, and institutional racism have disfigured our school system — end up pathologizing communities of color rather than supporting them. The U.S. school system is more segregated today than at any time since 1968. The majority of students attending public school in the U.S. today live in poverty. The school-to-prison-pipeline (including disproportionate suspension rates and the use of high-stakes testing) has contributed to the fact that there are now more black people behind bars, on probation, or on parole than were slaves on plantations in 1850. As education professor Pedro Noguera has said, “We’ve developed an accountability system that holds those with the most power the least accountable.”

Our task must be to build multiracial alliances in the opt out movement that can produce the kind of solidarity it will take to defeat a testing juggernaut that is particularly destructive to communities of color — while causing great damage to all of our schools. And while must begin by standing up to the multibillion dollar testing industry by opting out, we must also create a vision for an uprising that opts in to antiracist curriculum, ethnic studies programs, wrap around services to support the academic and social and emotional development of students, programs to recruit teachers of color, restorative justice programs that eliminate zero tolerance discipline practices, and beyond.

Now, back to writing that opt out letter for my son.

Jesse Hagopian is a Rethinking Schools editor and the Progressive Education Seattle Fellow. Jesse teaches history and is the co-adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School–the site of the historic boycott of the MAP test in 2013. Jesse is the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. You can follow Jesse on his blog, IAmAnEducator.com, or on Twitter: @jessedhagopian

Moé Yonamine Blog on Black Lives Matter

Hoodies Up! Black Lives Matter!

By Moé Yonamine


“I don’t understand why people talk about him like he’s a criminal. He was a 17 year-old kid,” Kiana said. Kiana was one of more than 100 students in my Mock Trial classes at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon. As the most diverse high school in the state, our students brought in stories and connections to the criminal justice system that could not—and should not— be ignored in critically analyzing the justice system.

Many of my students have expressed feeling excluded by the legal and criminal justice system in talking about what is truly “just.” From the first day of class, students made it known that they were hungry for the real education—one that was relevant to their lives, that empowered them with learning about fighters who looked like them, and that gave them tools to change systemic injustices that they have seen in their own lives. Learning about Trayvon Martin was an important example.

Many students who are now juniors and seniors, brought up Trayvon Martin’s name when offering examples of injustice in the criminal justice system. Even some of the youngest 9th-grade students could recall where they were as middle schoolers when they learned about George Zimmerman’s not-guilty verdict.

Students could see themselves in Trayvon or in someone they care about. The heartbreaking question that continued to surface was: If this can happen to Trayvon, what does it say about society’s love and value of our lives? We read, we wrote, and we shared about each other’s stories of a time they or someone they know or watched experienced racial injustice. Several students gave recent examples of being stopped or harassed as they wore their hoodie. Dave, a white freshman student chimed in compassionately, “But it’s not like everyone gets stopped,” he said. “I could probably walk around with a hoodie on all day long wherever I go and not get harassed. It’s just wrong.”

Through these first months of school, we continued to hear on the news about Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice. We watched Usher’s new music video, “Chains” and Janelle Monae and Wondaland’s recent performance in Portland of their song, “Hell You Talmabout,” that sings through a painful list of unarmed African Americans who have been killed nationally, and in the Portland area.

“Why don’t we know about any of these people?” asked Reanna. “What can we do? I just want to cry.” Over winter break, many watched the news, and learned that the police officers who shot and killed Tamir Rice would not face trial. At the chime of the bell to begin class on the first day back, Myia began, “I could not wait to come back to school and talk about this. What was so reasonable about shooting a 12-year-old kid?”

As a teacher, I want to create a community where students can feel embraced in their sense of justice and injustice, to be able to imagine a more just world, and to learn how to be agents in making change. We had to learn how to organize for action and it needed to start in our own neighborhood. I encouraged students to go back to the questions that we started the year with as we began to educate ourselves on the criminal justice system and the prison system: What is the problem? What is the solution? Whose voices are included? Whose voices are missing?

Our Mock Trial classes watched a speech by Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, who spoke at Maranatha Church in Portland last April asking the community to remember her son on his birthday with a special message to youth to be a part of taking action to creating a more just community. The students quickly reflected that their voices as youth from their North Portland neighborhood were missing. Our neighborhood is comprised of immigrants and refugee peoples with historically underrepresented African American and Latino groups, as well as low-income white families. Students were inspired to target February 5th, Trayvon Martin’s birthday, as a day of action to address systemic racism and racial profiling.

The students busily designed not just one project, but six projects leading to their day of action: creating fliers calling on a school-wide wearing of hoods, drafting letters to teachers and administrators, developing a student survey to ask about peer experiences, reaching out to the media about the day of action, and organizing a panel of prominent fighters from the African American community. Students in my three classes composed this letter:

Dear Teachers,

When we learned about Trayvon Martin, a lot of us were very impacted by his story. He was 17 years old from Miami. He, like us, had many dreams; one of which was to attend the University of Miami to study aviation and become a pilot. He was known for wearing his hoodie all year round even on the hottest summer days and was wearing a hoodie on his last day. What got to us also was the way that he was described in the trial and in a lot of the media as if he was “suspicious” or bad because he, as a young Black man, walked around wearing a hoodie. This is something that many of us can relate with and we want it to stop.

We put on a trial back in the fall and learned a lot about what happened on that last day. We also have been paying attention to reactions from around the country and learned about how “Black Lives Matter” began as a response by one of the founders in hearing about the verdict of George Zimmerman. Even since that verdict, we still keep hearing stories like Trayvon’s and we want to take a stand… We ask you, our teachers, to stand with us by wearing your hood. We also ask you to support your students in keeping their hoods on during class. It is a silent statement but a loud statement we hope to make together. He could have been someone we know or someone we care about.

Having our school united on this day with our hoods up will send a message that Black Lives Matter and our lives matter here. Our school may be the first one to have a school-wide Hoodies-Up Day in Portland and can lead our community by making this an annual reminder. We hope to inspire our neighborhood to take action by taking this stand against racism and racial profiling. If there is one thing we have taken away from this organizing for this day, it is that we will be active participators in making history and not passive bystanders watching it all happen.

Their statement was read over the intercom the morning of the Hoodies-Up day this past Friday. As students and staff flooded the halls in hoods, students boldly sought solidarity in their stand to end systemic racism and racial profiling.

In the afternoon, the students were met with a dynamic presentation on “Justice Is…” by educators, activists and community organizers: Julian Hipkins of Washington, DC’s Teaching for Change (via skype), Nyanga Uuka and Llondyn Elliott of the Portland Urban League, Kayse Jama of the Center for Intercultural Organizing, CJ Robbins of the City of Portland’s Office of Equity and Human Rights and Black Male Advancement, and Renée Mitchell, a prominent slam poet of Spit/WRITE who teaches journalism and storytelling at Roosevelt. Panelists spoke passionately about their own experiences with racial injustice, sharing stories of taking action individually and collectively, while commending this day of action and students’ courage.

As more than 120 students leaned in hungry to take in the panelists’ every word, a sophomore student of mine, Miley, leaned over to me and said, “This is just the beginning.” She smiled proudly, adding: “We’re never going to forget this day.”

To the media, the students had a strong message. “A hoodie doesn’t define me,” said TJ, signaling his resistance to the prejudice and discrimination he sees around him. “Know the person under the hood,” echoed Carter, demanding the world to see the humanity in the child that Trayvon was. Roosevelt’s Mock Trial students hope that this will be the first of many events where they as youth will be central in the vision and action for the changes they want in our community and society.

Roosevelt students

Roosevelt Black Lives Matter Panel–View more photos from the day of action on Portland Public Schools flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/41430185@N08/albums/72157664399122315

Moé Yonamine teaches at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon. She is a Rethinking Schools editor.

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Abolish Columbus Day

Help Rethinking Schools Abolish Columbus Day

Dear Rethinking Schools friends,

Christopher Columbus was the first European to send enslaved people from the Americas to Europe, as well as the first to promote the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. And yet we still honor him with a national holiday? Please donate now to help Rethinking Schools teach a new generation of students the truth about Columbus and the people who were here first.

Almost 25 years ago, Rethinking Schools published our first booklet, Rethinking Columbus. We believed there were teachers besides us who would be eager for an alternative to the rah-rah Columbus-discovered-America textbook fare. We had no idea just how eager teachers were: Rethinking Columbus sold a thousand copies a day, seven days a week, for the first three months the booklet was in print. And, thanks to Native American organizations, teacher unions, social justice education groups, and progressive teacher education programs, Rethinking Columbus has gone on to become a resource in classrooms throughout the country.

Recently, we’ve been gratified to see the explosion of activism with cities and school districts voting to abolish Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day: Albuquerque, N. M.; Seattle and Olympia, Wash.; St. Paul, Minn.; Anadarko, Okla.; Portland, Ore.;  . . . and the list continues to grow.

Rethinking Schools—in conjunction with the Zinn Education Project, which we coordinate with Teaching for Change—plans a major push this year to undermine Columbus Day and to build support for Indigenous Peoples Day. As Rethinking Schools editor Bill Bigelow wrote in “Time to Abolish Columbus Day,” his most recent Zinn Education Project column: “If Indigenous peoples’ lives mattered in our society, and if Black people’s lives mattered in our society, it would be inconceivable that we would honor the father of the slave trade with a national holiday.”

Who we celebrate helps determine the lives and experiences that are most valued in our society. By working to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, we hope to eliminate the silence around the history and current reality of Indigenous People as a testament to the importance of Indigenous lives. Rethinking Schools relies on supporters like you to help us continue this important work. Please donate today to  help us continue to teach the truth and to help make our world more equal and more just.