New Education Movement: High Stakes Test Boycott

In the last month we’ve seen some very exciting developments in the world of democratic education.

A decision by teachers in one public high school in Seattle to boycott a standardized test lit a fire that spread to teachers and students in other schools in Seattle. And now, it appears, the fire is spreading to cities across the country.

In just the last week, students in Portland kicked off their own testing boycott and a number of teacher and parent groups in Chicago announced the beginning of Chicago’s “Pencils Down” campaign against high-stakes standardized testing. Meanwhile, the youth-led organization I help coordinate, the Providence Student Union, is organizing a local campaign against RI’s new high-stakes testing graduation requirement, and is also working with a previously unaffiliated group of students at another Providence high school that had extemporaneously organized a small testing boycott of their own three weeks ago.

This is new.

When an idea begins popping up spontaneously across the country, you know something interesting–and possibly very powerful–is happening. Recently, we saw a flash of this at the beginning of the Tea Party backlash, and we saw it briefly again during Occupy. I’m talking about social movements, and I must say, what is happening in education right now is starting to feel more and more like it could, at least potentially, be the start of a new movement.

Much of my thinking about social movements has been shaped by the book The Long Haul, which is an autobiography of Myles Horton (by the way, if you are interested in organizing or education and have not read this book, I would say put it on the very top of your list and read it as soon as possible). Horton founded the Highlander Folk School, which helped train generations of leaders in the fight for social justice and was particularly prominent during the labor movement of the 1930s and ’40s and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Horton had a lot to say on social movements, and I just want to share this one extended passage from The Long Haul that I think could be useful in helping us analyze what may be happening in the world of education today.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Peete Seeger, Ralph Abernathy and Myles Horton’s daughter Charis at the Highlander Folk School in 1957

“It’s only in a movement that an idea is often made simple enough and direct enough that it can spread rapidly. Then your leadership multiplies very rapidly, because there’s something explosive going on. People see that other people not so different from themselves do things that they thought could never be done. They’re emboldened and challenged by that to step into the water, and once they get in the water, it’s as if they’ve never not been there

In a social movement we are clearly part of a collective struggle that encourages us to increase our demands. One of the dynamic aspects of a social movement as opposed to an organization is that quite often in the latter, you’ll bargain down to make concessions in order to survive. You have a limited goal, and you might say, ‘Well, we want to get ten street lights,’ and you’ll get together and figure that you won’t get ten, but you probably can get five. So you decide to tell them you want ten in order to get five. In a social movement, the demands escalate, because your success encourages and emboldens you to demand more. I became convinced that the seeds of the civil rights movement lay in the Montgomery bus boycott, because I’d seen the demands for fixed seating escalate to demands for blacks to be able to sit wherever they wanted. And then, when I saw the demands for blacks to be able to sit anywhere they wanted escalate into a demand for black drivers, I said, ‘This is the beginning of a social movement.’ The ante went up and finally escalated into demands that they do away with all public segregation.”

I don’t know if the anti-testing organizing we are beginning to see might be the start of a new movement. Statistically speaking, it probably isn’t–real social movements are not common things. But there is something happening here. Teachers, students, and parents are beginning to escalate their demands. They’re beginning to say, “No! American’s young people deserve creative teaching and learning, deserve relevant and engaging classwork, deserve to practice critical thinking skills. They have a right to a real education, and we’re going to fight for that right.” I have no idea what this spark might end up lighting, but needless to say, I’m excited, and if you’re a student, or a teacher, or a parent reading this, I challenge you to step into the water, because now’s the time.

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Aaron Regunberg is a community organizer in Providence and a state representative in House District 4.

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