In the spirit of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who argued that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” the 47,000-strong United Teachers Los Angeles has defied both the law and Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education orders on at least three occasions since the state budget crisis began to unfold and the district began stonewalling employees in negotiations. More than 80 percent of teachers in the nation’s second-largest school district struck illegally on June 6, 2008, for the first hour of school (students arrived late or were supervised on school yards by administrators.) Fifty parents and teachers occupied the LAUSD board room in March 2009, trying to disrupt the board’s vote to send pink slips to over 9,000 employees by shutting down their meeting. (As it turned out, board members snuck into a different room away from the public and took the vote anyway.) And this January, UTLA members began boycotting district-mandated “periodic assessments”—called benchmark assessments in many districts?in tandem with a boycott of after-school faculty meetings.
Immense solidarity, not to mention solid footing on moral high-ground, has saved teachers from much punishment. We sacrificed a paltry hour of pay for the one-hour strike, the board refused to arrest those of us illegally occupying their boardroom in March, and to the union’s knowledge, the district has not followed through on threats to write up any teachers for failing to turn in assessment data.
When Superintendent Cortines sent out a message to teachers warning that they would be punished for not turning in test data, UTLA hit back with a letter promising not to sign any contract that did not include a no-reprisal clause for participation in union-sanctioned actions. (See the letter at http://utla.net/system/files/duffy_response_20090127.pdf.) When Cortines wrote a letter to parents claiming that we were robbing children by not giving the tests, teachers refused to distribute it. Instead, the union printed letters for us to send home to parents explaining that we are boycotting tests because they “are not designed by teachers at our school who work with your child every day, the content is usually not aligned with [my] classroom lessons. Many of the tests have to be sent off-site to be scored, and the results often come back too late to help guide [my] lesson plans. These tests are produced by outside consultants and cost the school district millions of dollars without benefit to students.” (See the letter to parents at http://www.utla.net/system/files/Explanatory_Ltr_To_Parents.pdf.)
The boycotted tests are not required by federal No Child Left Behind mandates or state education codes. They are district mandates that press down on classrooms already saturated with other standardized tests. They are called “periodic,” because in secondary schools they are given quarterly in math, English, science, and social studies classes. They therefore act to enforce standardized pacing. They are written and scored by Princeton Review. (At the elementary level, teachers have boycotted McGraw Hill Open Court pacing plan tests.)
The school district disaggregates test data by teacher. While contractually they are prohibited from using this data for evaluating individual teachers, their system lays the basis for potential merit-pay schemes in the future (very much on the agenda under the Obama administration).
“There has been growing anger and resentment about the amount of time wasted by these tests,” said Joshua Pechthalt, AFT Vice President of UTLA, who pointed out that Los Angeles teachers were the first group of urban educators to take on such a large-scale boycott in the United States. UTLA published a report using the best testing literature and research to argue that these periodic assessments rob time from instruction, narrow teaching practices by giving teachers incentives to “teach to the tests” (which cover far too broad an amount material on each test as opposed to testable “chunks”), create frustration among students, and do not allow genuine teacher input into the content. (See the research at http://www.utla.net/system/files/Assessment_research.pdf.) For example, 7th-grade teacher Marc Gomez attended a “training” for teachers to learn about the tests. He pointed out a fundamental problem with the chronology of a test question about the Aztecs, but was told that it was too late to change because the tests had already gone to the printer, illustrating the fact that teachers have no place in shaping the assessments.
But with the district crying poverty, the periodic assessment boycott was not born solely of a philosophical opposition to these corporate-written tests’ attack on best educational practice. UTLA has argued that if one includes contracts with Princeton Review (at the secondary level) and McGraw Hill (elementary level) for writing, scoring, and printing the tests and materials as well as paid staff training time, these tests cost the district over $100 million a year. “We were sending a message to the district that there are better ways to spend that money, like lowering class size,” according to Pechthalt.
Rank-and-file classroom teachers, weighed down under mountains of paperwork and demoralized by tests that contradict the fundamentals of solid methodology, began to cry out for a collective stand on the tests. Gomez, who is the elected UTLA chapter chair (representative) at Muir Middle School in Los Angeles, had begun organizing around the issue of periodic assessments at his school months earlier. “You’ve got to look at it from a student-centered paradigm,” Gomez said. “This is about the fundamental issue of authentic assessment. You have to know your students and have the autonomy to tailor assessment to their needs.”
At a 500-strong chapter-chair meeting on January 11, wild applause broke out when a suggestion arose from the floor to boycott periodic assessments. Two weeks later, in the West area of UTLA, one of eight “areas” where chapter chairs meet monthly, teachers resoundingly passed a resolution to begin the boycotts immediately and to urge the whole membership to join in. In these ways, the boycott spread and became the official policy of the whole of UTLA.
Still, even in the most organized areas of the union, only about half the teachers have complied with the boycott. “There was a cascade of support for the boycott from some teachers, and that pushed us to do it. But we didn’t start with the kind of community campaign that we might have if we had had a longer-term vision. The support was uneven because a lot of parents and some teachers think of these tests as a means to achievement. We’ve learned some lessons and we need to come right back at it,” said Pechthalt. For example, there was no campaign on the part of teachers who know the practical, ideological, and methodological cases against standardized testing to educate other teachers and parents. Public forums, discussions, and workshops were not held to build support for the boycott and hook the campaign to parents’ desires for better schools for their children. Rather, the boycott was hastily called to escalate the pushback against stalled contract negotiations and budget cuts by a union leadership under pressure from fed-up teachers to step up the fight.
“We now know that a boycott has to be accompanied by a campaign of outreach to the community. But we’ve staked out a position on the tests, and we have to build from that position,” said Pechthalt. The materials posted by UTLA on its website were a first step in this direction. So was the case against periodic tests published in the UTLA newsletter, United Teacher, written by Elementary Vice President Julie Washington and Janet Davis and sent out to every teacher.
According to Pechthalt, “There’s a huge edifice of standardized testing sitting on top of educators. We’ve created a small crack, and now we need to figure out how to use that crack to break the whole thing open.”
In Los Angeles, and across the country, we need to ask the question, “Why doesn’t accountability start with them, the policy makers, not us, the teachers and students?” And we need to seek answers to the question of what kind of schools we want to teach and learn in?and how those schools would measure performance.
As of this May, the boycott continues. The district has agreed not to cut teachers’ health care and has made a tentative agreement on the contract in dispute. But as many as 5,000 teachers, counselors, and support staff are at risk of being laid off in this year’s round of budget cuts. We’re taking the fight for quality education and against budget cuts, layoffs, and higher class sizes to the next level. Each school board meeting in March and April has been protested by hundreds of angry students, parents, and teachers. And parents and teachers have organized dozens of public forums and protests in solidarity together all across the city.
In this recession, nothing short of the kind of tactics borrowed from the radical roots of the labor movement and the successful confrontations of the Civil Rights Movement will win decent schools for our students and teachers.