New Face of Teacher Unionism, Eyes Fixed on Testing Mania

In 1946 more than 1,100 St. Paul teachers staged a five-week walkout for better pay and working conditions. It was the nation's first teacher strike. Over the next six decades, the sight of striking teachers walking a picket line became the indelible image symbolizing teacher might. Now a new face of teacher militancy is emerging.

In Seattle, a small but passionate group of educators is using the art of disruption 2.0 to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo. Over a month ago, teachers at Seattle's Garfield High School took a courageous step to stand up for their students by refusing to administer the flawed and irrelevant Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test. While the Garfield staff doesn't object to the mandated state test, they oppose the district-wide MAP for solid reasons. Aside from being poorly designed, MAP doesn't line up with state standards or district curriculum; it doesn't measure what students are actually learning in their classes; it's not an appropriate tool for assessing students or their teachers; and it wastes valuable class time.

I visited the Seattle Education Association in December and was impressed by the dedication and professionalism of the teachers I met. In staging the MAP test boycott, they are saying, "Enough is enough." And on Wednesday, Feb. 6, educators, parents and communities are urged to join them.

NEA's Seattle affiliate is staging a "national day of action" -- encouraging colleagues across the country to hold meetings, organize rallies and wear red -- to highlight the rising tide of discontent with the testing regime. All part of a growing movement and chorus of voices protesting high-stakes standardized testing.

Like educators across the country, Seattle's teachers passionately believe that tests can be used to advance student learning and help teachers improve. They know that tests can play a proper role in evaluating the effectiveness of teachers, but too much emphasis on multiple choice tests, at the expense of other factors, is harmful. Not surprisingly, Garfield students endorse the boycott. And the parent association also stands firmly behind the teachers, validating that the staff is acting in the best interests of children.

In boycotting a required test, the teachers at Garfield took a brave step, facing punishment that includes a 10-day suspension without pay. They also focused attention on a long-simmering national issue. A growing number of teacher evaluation systems are focused exclusively on using tests to measure student growth or achievement. Even worse, administrators and education officials nationwide are employing evaluation systems with little input from educators or teacher organizations. The risk, as we've seen in Seattle and elsewhere, is that reform is done to teachers rather than with them. They need to be key players in these discussions and decisions.

If we really want systems that help all students reach their full potential, we must allow educators, parents, students and communities to be a part of the process and have a stronger voice in the conversations around high-quality assessments that really do support student learning.

Educators are fed up with flawed accountability measures, and the new face of teacher unionism has its eyes fixed on changing the current culture of standardized testing mania. In a dramatic way, Seattle teachers and others are driving the national conversation on professional issues and school reform. Colleagues in classrooms across the country recognize the importance of this action and stand ready to support these educators in any way that we can. Solidarity.