Tuesday, October 14, 2014

NPE Public Education Nation
Testing and the CCSS

BY:  Dr. Rosa L. Rivera-McCutchen
Assistant Professor
Educational Leadership
CUNY Lehman College

In thinking about my remarks for today’s panel, I thought it useful to draw upon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail because it’s an incredibly powerful way of framing the role of school leadership in the face of testing and the Common Core, and the impact they have on economically disadvantaged students and students of color. In the letter, King responds to 8 white clergymen who were supportive of desegregation, but were critical of the methods Dr. King was employing in Birmingham.

The letter is meaningful in a number of historical ways, but it’s especially meaningful for me in the work I do as a researcher and as educator of future school leaders, because it really is powerful example of moral leadership in the face of not only troubling educational policy and also in thinking about well-intentioned resistance to the policies.

King wrote in the letter: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.”

To King’s first point: collecting facts to determine whether injustices exist.  Here, school leaders have to examine not just the intended goals of the policy; it is their responsibility to examine the application and the consequences of the policy.
So school leaders must ask themselves:

How do the standards and the high stakes tests help my students? What is the impact on the curriculum? On the teachers? And equally important, school leaders must ask, are they equitable and just for all students? 

After determining, as all of us here know, that the answers to these basic yet critical questions are quite troubling, we move to the next step in King’s framework: negotiation.  237

In the case of testing and the CC, it is clear that there have been numerous efforts to negotiate locally with the NYC Chancellors as well as with Commissioner John King and Secretary Arne Duncan. But when those negotiations become nothing more than stalling tactics and smoke in mirrors, as with the civil rights movement, school leaders must come to a point where they step away from the table and move closer towards direct action.

But prior to the direct action, comes the third step, which Dr. King called, “self-purification.” This is arguably one of the most  important steps in King’s framework for mounting a resistance. That’s because it demands that the resister, in this case the school leader, be reflective and consider the extent to which she or he has been complicit in perpetuating the oppression.  They have to be honest with themselves about the extent to which their continued support of flawed policies has contributed to the harm.  The school leader have to search inward to determine whether she or he is ready to face the consequences of resisting policies mandated from above, But beyond this, the school leaders particularly in communities that are more privileged have to look inward to determine whether their resistance will extend beyond their individual communities; whether they’re ready to engage in the kind equity work that will benefit ALL communities. 

And finally, that takes us to direct action: And here is where it’s easy for leaders, and really all of us, to lose sight of the bigger picture.  Events like today, the opt-out movement, and other related actions are critical, but they are empty and misguided if the root of the problems within our educational system are not directly addressed and redressed.  Along with helping parents and communities understand the impact of the flawed implementation and testing policies, school leaders have to engage in the kind of socio-political activism and advocacy work that seeks to improve the educational conditions of ALL school communities. 

While I think there is still a great deal of debate about the merit and value of the Common Core standards themselves, there is clearly more agreement that the implementation of the standards, most obviously the accountability components are deeply flawed.  We’re all here today to advance a counter narrative about this issue. But this conversation will be woefully inadequate if we don’t also examine power and privilege dynamics that in some ways are highlighted by the fact that this event being in a school in Carroll Gardens rather than in the Bronx.  Principals I work with in the Bronx are often skeptical of movements like the opt out strategy because of the how their school’s may be impacted, and their families often don’t have the same kind of political clout to shield the schools from the consequences that might result from resisting. 

In resisting policies, leaders have to carefully examine their own power and privilege and entitlement, and also that of their communities.   It’s a matter of asking where does resistance to these policies leave low-income communities and communities of color where folks don’t have the same kinds of social capital that they can lean on to get their kids into competitive schools and programs.  The truth is that without significant changes to how schools and communities are resourced, those kids will still be left out even if the tests and the standards went away today. 

As parents and school leaders, we typically start from a point of self-interest when it comes to resisting policies and practices we believe are harmful to our children. And that makes perfect sense.  But moral leadership demands that school leaders move themselves and their communities beyond self-interest to a shared responsibility for the educational outcomes and advancement of all communities. King’s letter reminds us of the moral obligation of all leaders to take positions that aren’t always popular or easyAnd that includes extending our privilege to challenge all aspects of the dominant paradigms of education that have typically benefited more privileged and predominantly white communities over communities of color and low-income communities.  And it means engaging in partnerships and long-term commitment with other school leaders working in those communities where the stakes are truly the highest.  It means galvanizing and coalescing privileged communities to see beyond their own kids

I want to close by sharing briefly a conversation I had with an official in my school district.  He disclosed that he personally believed the tests in grades 3-8 specifically were unreliable and that if it were him, he wouldn’t subject his kids to them.  It was clear that from his point of view the tests were not credible enough to be used to base meaningful educational decisions about the kids the district. He also spoke frankly about the resulting collateral damage that was directly linked to the implementation of the standards and the tests.  But when I started talking about a broader opt out movement, his tune changed.  He pointed out that the consequences for our community, the loss of resources, and the stigma of being labeled as failing would lead to an exodus of the more privileged families in our communities who could afford private schools. Still, while he didn’t explicitly tell me that we should opt our kids out, he encouraged us to do what we must to advocate for what was best for our kids.  This conversation highlighted two important themes that are germane to our conversation here today: first, this leader clearly failed to engage the self-purification or reflection that Dr. King described in his framework. This leader was not being critical about his complicity in perpetuating a deeply flawed policy that results in harmful outcomes for the kids in our district, particularly low-income kids and students of color. Secondly, the conversation highlights the complexities of the politics of the navigating the challenging outcomes of opting out in those communities that aren’t privileged in terms their race and class.

The Common core standards and the high stakes tests are supposedly aimed at improving the quality of education for all students and for closing the achievement gaps. The fundamental flaw of this theory of change is that it focuses on raising the standards without examining the institutional and structural barriers that negatively impact the educational outcomes of low-income students and Black and Brown kids in the first place. It ignores the opportunity and resource gaps that create and reproduce inequity among a significant proportion of our kids.  The challenge for school leaders, and all of us, mounting a resistance to these flawed policies then is to ensure that the resistance doesn’t reproduce those same inequities.

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