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Finding Common Cause on the Common Core

Owen Davis Apr 9, 2014

 

Last week, as schools from Montauk to Buffalo hunkered down for three straight days of state testing, more than 30,000 New York students pushed their pencils aside. They’re part of a national movement boycotting tests in opposition to accountability policies that narrow the scope of schooling to what appears on annual multiple-choice exams.

Around a thousand New York City students opted out, thanks to the organizing efforts of grassroots parent groups like Change the Stakes. This spring the group helped rouse parents not just at progressive campuses like the Brooklyn New School, but in traditional public schools like PS 446 in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn and PS 140 in the Bronx.

At PS 446, over 80 percent of tested students opted out of the exams. “We felt like this benefitted our kids more than anything else,” says Latoshia Wheeler, a PS 446 parent and opt-out organizer. “They’re wasting a lot of money and resources that they could put back into the school.”

This latest round of testing covered English Language Arts. At the end of the month, following another period of outreach and mobilization, math exams begin. With this year’s expanded organizing, CTS and its allies pulled together an educational justice movement that joins the over-testing concerns of parents everywhere with opposition to free-market school reforms that predominantly impact communities of color. “It’s definitely not a suburban white mom thing,” says Wheeler, who opted her 3rd-grade son out of this year’s exams. “We all see the problems these tests are causing.”

In last week’s story for The Indypendent, I examined the educational politics that animates the opt-out community as well as the cultural politics in which the movement operates. In doing so I leaned on an increasingly dubious perception that test resistance is a movement of “white suburban moms” – as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan obtusely suggested last fall.

Duncan seemed to have a particular, hardly representative scapegoat in mind. In conservative swaths of the country, the conversation over standards and testing is dominated by the jabbering of Tea-Party conservatives who cast the onset of Common Core standards as something between a federal overreach and a Communist conspiracy.

But that crowd has little bearing in places like New York City. The movement here reflects the diversity of the city itself. Still, I suggested that “the progressive flank of the movement skews white,” and that “schools with opt-out activity, though diverse, also skew white.” It turns out there were a couple issues with this: one was a simple matter of fact, the other a more pernicious issue of representation.

First, I just missed part of the story. The cross-section of schools with organized opt-outs was racially and geographically diverse. (I became aware of the opt-outs at schools in Brownsville, Harlem and the Bronx only after filing the piece.) As CTS member Nancy Cauthen told me, "Parents regardless of background are seeing the damaging effects of high stakes tests."

In the neighborhood of PS 446, where nearly 95 percent of students are black or Latino, parents had already raised concerns about the overuse of standardized tests. In past years schools in the same building as PS 446 had been closed on the basis of test scores, and parents like Latoshia Wheeler felt that resources devoted to testing further undercut already-scant spending on arts and sports programs.

Previously, parents in the community had been told their children might be held back if they refused tests. But this year that learned they had a right to opt out. “A lot of us in this area didn’t know we had the right to do that,” says Wheeler. With outreach this year from CTS, though, things changed. “Once found out we had the right, we acted on it.”

PS 446 administrators respected the parents’ wishes. Scores of students opted out, and none will face punishment or retribution.

But there’s a second problem in saying that the movement “skews white” – namely, when is it appropriate to use designations like “skew white,” or “largely black and Latino,” etc?

When institutional actors push policies that disproportionately impact a certain community, it makes sense to outline relevant demographics. When authorities close schools en masse on the basis of test scores, we should emphasize that the students losing out are overwhelmingly black and Latino. There are exceptions within each school, of course, but the mechanisms of institutional racism function on the aggregate.

But in the case of individuals acting outside of traditional power structures, it’s not helpful to paint with a broad demographic brush. To do so discounts the agency of the individuals that make up the collective. It implies motivations or politics that may actually run contrary to those of the folks involved.


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The Common Core and Its Discontents by Owen Davis

 

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