Teachers Test the Seattle School District

By • on February 1, 2013 9:54 pm

When new Seattle School Superintendent Jose Banda was introduced last spring, a new era beckoned. No more of the cronyism that marked his predecessor’s regime; or the financial obtuseness that marred her predecessor; nor the willful obtuseness and contempt toward the concerns of parents, teachers, staff, and students that has been a fixture of Seattle School District leadership since before its current high school seniors were born. With Banda, we were told thst things would be different this time.

Now Banda and his team are facing their first real crisis, and it’s like the Old Guard never left the building. (That would be the “Glass Palace,” the showy Sodo administrative building erected a few years ago while many of the city’s aging schools went begging for repairs.)

On January 10, a couple dozen Garfield High School teachers stood behind a podium and announced that the school’s teachers had voted – unanimously – not to give the district’s required Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test to their students. The school’s dean of testing backed them up. So did the student government. So did many of the school’s staff.

While the district was slow to respond, the district’s other schools have not been. Three weeks on, the boycott has not just continued but expanded, drawing national attention. Teachers at Orca K-8, the Center School, and the Chief Sealth International High School, as well as the Seattle Substitutes Association, have joined the boycott. Letters of support have come in from a number of other disrict schools, including Salmon Bay, Thornton Creek, Schmitz Park, and Sanislo elementary schools, and Ballard, Roosevelt, Franklin, and West Seattle high schools. Schools and teachers from around the country have voiced support, including one Florida school that sent Garfield teachers a pizza in appreciation. The action – believed to be the first of its kind in the country by an entire school’s faculty – has drawn national attention and support from educators and anti-testing activists.

Garfield’s teachers – and the newly formed “Scrap the MAP” group drawn from all the participation schools – have taken pains to emphasize that they’re not against testing in general. (Some individual teachers are, but that’s not meant to be the focus of their protest.) They support, for example, the new statewide tests that replaced the widely-loathed WASLs. Their issue is specifically the MAP, which SSD gives three times a year in addition to the state tests, ostensibly to track student progress during the academic year. The MAP test was instituted four years ago by former Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson; one of the scandals that undid her regime was the disclosure that she also sat on the board of the company, the Northwest Education Association (NWEA), that sells the tests to the district, a gross conflict of interest and ethics violation that pretty well typifies the insiders’ club cronyism that has run (and profited from) Seattle schools for most of the last two decades.

But the dubious origins of the MAP contract are the least of the test’s problems. These include:

* Test questions are not at all tied to the district or state-mandated curricula and at times wildly grade-inappropriate – and affect students negatively (“I must be stupid”) when they’re confronted with test questions they can’t reasonably be expected to know in their grade;

* Because of this, teachers don’t use the results, and students, knowing that it counts nothing for their grades, don’t take the test seriously – yet the results are used in SSD’s evaluations of teacher performance;

* Test results are allegedly strongly skewed against minority, immigrant, ESL, poor, and disabled students;

* The tests take away substantially from classroom time, and tie up access to schools’ library computers for weeks on end, three times a year, leaving students unable to use them for actual classroom work (librarians have also supported the boycott);

* And, the NWEA’s own materials caution that expected student gains over the course of a year are within the MAP’s margin of error, and explicitly recommends not tying teacher evaluations to the results.

In short, the test is a complete waste of time and money, and counter-productive besides.

These are not new concerns; they’ve been raised by teachers and parents repeatedly over the test’s history here, at the school board’s 2010 renewal of the MAP contract (still under Goodloe-Johnson) and privately since. So the district’s responses to the boycott have ranged from underwhelming to idiotic. Underwhelming: the district announced it “needs time to work out a solution” to issues that have been raised since the test’s inception four years ago. Idiotic: it also had letters sent out by administrators to remind teachers that they can be suspended for up to ten days without pay for refusing to give the test.

The teachers have pointedly backed down from these threats, and say they’re willing to serve such suspensions for the cause of better education for their students.

(Right. Go ahead. Suspend a school’s entire faculty – which the district’s substitute teachers are backing – and just try to hold classes. Explain to parents and the public how a boycott that’s protesting a test because it takes away from classroom time is going to be solved by shutting down classes for all of a school’s students. That’ll fix things.)

For years, on countless issues, the downtown leadership of the Seattle School District – and far too many of its board members – have been arrogant, complacent, and oblivious to actual classroom needs. The pitiful salaries of board members expected, in a half-time job, to oversee a billion-dollar enterprise that is the region’s largest school district for the astonishing annual sum of a cap of $4,800 in per diem expenses, is simply ridiculous. The upshot is that people who run for the board and the job of overseeing and guiding SSD – usually spending far more money than their annual “salary” just to get elected – are independently wealthy or have a financial interest in schools or district contractors. They are almost never, ever actual educators, and it shows.

Seattle has an operations and capital levy on Feb. 12, and some people will vote “no” simply to punish the school district (and, by extension, its students) for how it is managed. But Banda is new, an outsider, and is capable – with encouragement – of doing the right thing, here and elsewhere. And there are elections in November of this year for three of the board’s seven positions. Progressive candidates – especially educators who know what the end result of idiotic policies like the MAP test look like in a classroom – are desperately needed.

Meanwhile, a growing group of teachers, possibly at risk to their careers, is taking an unprecedented stand because they want Seattle schools to work better. The fact that they even feel they have to take such a step to make their point heard says volumes about just how little has changed so far at the Glass Palace.

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