Teaching to Change the World

Teaching to Change the World

Rethinking Schools Note: Wayne Au is a Rethinking Schools editor and author. In 2014 he edited the second edition of Rethinking Multicultural Education and in 2012 he co-edited Pencils Down: Rethinking High Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public School.

In January 2013, teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School sparked an already-growing movement over standardized testing in the post-No Child Left Behind era.

They announced that they were boycotting the district-mandated Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP test, a move that was initially met with threats from the school’s administration. Almost immediately, support for the teachers started pouring in, from near and far, from other educators, schools, and districts, and from unions, parents, and students.

Wayne Au, a former high school teacher, graduate of Garfield and Evergreen, and professor of education at the University of Washington Bothell, was an early and influential backer. Au is the author of Unequal by Design: High Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality and co-editor of Pencils Down: Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools. Within days, he posted an insightful blog about the boycott on the website of Rethinking Schools, a social justice education journal he helps edit.

He also released—on Martin Luther King Day—a statement of solidarity he co-authored, which was signed by scores of education professionals across the country, including such prominent figures as Jonathan Kozol, who’s written extensively about public education; Diane Ravitch, a former assistant U.S. Secretary of Education; and Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The statement hailed the boycott as a “blow against the overuse and misuse of standardized tests” and expressed support for the “brave teachers” and opposition to “the growing standardized testing industrial complex.”

Four months later, after resistance had spread to other schools in the city, the district backed down, making the test optional if other assessments of student performance are used. To Au, the boycott “was a total success from several angles. Most importantly,” he said, “it became a flashpoint nationally—and even a little internationally—and it helped galvanize a growing, popular movement challenging regimes of high-stakes standardized testing.” Furthermore, he said he saw many “practicing teachers develop deeper and more complex understandings of the complications and problems surrounding high-stakes, standardized testing.” In the end, he said, the uprising demonstrated “the power of a broad-based, democratic, popular movement.”

Au is recognized nationally as a scholar of social justice in education. He’s written and spoken publicly about such issues as multiculturalism in education, the problems with using standardized testing to evaluate learning and teaching, and public funding of charter schools. And he’s not only voiced solidarity with activists in their struggles to better their schools, but also informed them with his prolific work.

His articles have been published in both academic journals and popular media outlets. He’s written two books and edited or co-edited six more, including the upcoming Mapping Corporate Education Reform, an analysis of the key actors influencing policy, which will be released next spring. He’s also contributed curriculum to several projects focused on social justice teaching, including The Zinn Education Project, Beyond Heroes and Holidays, and Putting Movement Back Into Civil Rights Teaching.

Au became a teacher to change the world. At an early age, he saw teaching as a powerful way to make a difference in the lives of others. “I knew I wanted be a teacher in ninth grade at Garfield,” he said. He also believes that the arena of public education—where he obtained his elementary-to-doctoral schooling—holds great promise in promoting equity and positive social change.

His fundamental commitment to social justice underscores everything he does, from teaching students and speaking at conferences and rallies to researching educational policy and organizing challenges to the status quo. “It’s part of who I am,” he said. “It drives the work.”

Au earned his bachelor’s and Master in Teaching degrees at Evergreen in 1994 and 1996, respectively. During his time at the college, he was an Upward Bound tutor to at-risk high school students preparing for college. Afterward, he was a social studies and language arts teacher at South Seattle Community College’s alternative Middle College High School. He then taught language arts and African history at Garfield, his alma mater, before relocating to California, where he worked at Berkeley High School, teaching social studies, language arts, ethnic studies, and Asian-American studies.

In Berkeley, he was active in the Education Not Incarceration Coalition, which opposed California’s plan to cut education funding while increasing monies to state prisons. Schools lost in the state’s final budget, and he was laid off, prompting him to pursue a career in higher education.

Au completed his Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2007. In 2012, he was honored with an Early Career Scholars Award from one of the American Educational Research Association’s special interest groups. A decade before, he received the Early Career Advocate for Justice Award from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which honors “individuals in teacher education who firmly support equity issues, who have linked their work with social justice and teacher education, and whose work shows evidence that it will have impact over time.”

At the University of Washington Bothell, where he chairs the school’s Diversity Council, he continues to practice his first love: teaching. This past summer, he taught a three-week bridge class to 22 incoming freshmen in the Academic Transition Program, which serves individuals with disadvantaged backgrounds. His lessons covered the links between poverty, educational attainment, and successful first-generation college students. This year, he’s teaching an undergraduate class, “Race, Culture, and Identity in the Classroom,” and three graduate-level courses, including one on multicultural education, “Teachers’ Self Understanding,” and another on education policy, “Theories of Organizational Change and School Reform.”

On the subject of school reform, Au urges “teachers, parents, and students to be activists. Instead of top-down reforms, I want a much more fully informed democracy around education policy. I want to see people get together, be strong, and be informed.”

The Garfield boycott didn’t end testing, but it was a seminal event in a larger grassroots movement. “In the broader struggle over how people understand education policy and practice, symbolic victories are critical to winning future fights,” says Au, who’s gearing up for battles ahead, including over Common Core testing and Initiative 1240, Washington’s Charter School Act.