Carl Chew, Teacher Hero

I read about Carl Chew several weeks ago.  He is an elementary teacher in Washington who refused to give his state’s standardized test, the WASL.  Below is an interview with him that spells out his position.  I wish parents would listen to what Carl has to say and opt their children out of taking all standardized tests.  We really must end this nonsense.  Standardized tests should never be used as the sole measure of student, teacher, and school effectiveness.  At the moment, the only positive thing that has happened as a result of our current standardized testing craze is that the makers of standardized tests are making money hand over fist, despite the fact that their very ethics standards claim their tests should not be used as the lone indicator of student progress or school achievement.

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An Interview with Carl Chew: On Civil Disobedience
Michael F. Shaughnessy
Senior Columnist EducationNews.org
Eastern New Mexico University

1) Carl, I have recently learned that you refused to administer some standardized tests to some of your students. Tell us what happened and what led up to this decision.

I have been teaching for 8 years, during which I’ve had to administer a high stakes test a number of times.The first time was to my thirty 4th and 5th graders in 2002.These were all children of color—African American, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Thai.They worked so hard for me that year.I talked up the test and their abilities so they would have the inspiration to take and pass it.When the results came back about half of them had “failed.”They were miserable and so was I.I didn’t see them as failures, but these tests and the outcomes have very powerful psychological effects on children.Many of these students missed passing by just a few points, and in fact their scores were well within the margin of error printed right on the report, yet they and I still were considered failures by the school district and state.

Later, I had to deal with their parents, many of whom were angry or feeling guilty.They wanted to know why their children hadn’t passed.I didn’t have any good answers for them.I had tried my best, in fact, better than my best.Their children had worked hard to master the core curriculum at our school.

Later, I began to research the history of testing and school reform, and began to reflect on our state’s test, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning or WASL.I realized that the test itself was the problem, not the parents, teachers, or students.

In 2004 I wrote a short essay, “Before the Big Test,” in which I analyzed some of the major reasons I thought the WASL was bad for kids.I sent it around to teachers and educators, and received very positive feedback.

Year after year I either gave or was forced to support the test.Every time I would say to myself, this will be the last time I do this to children.Teachers I knew felt threatened and devalued by the heavy hand of NCLB which the WASL is meant to satisfy.Of concern to parents was the mental state of their children, many of whom were having trouble sleeping, eating, and keeping it together.Administrators, once supporters and friends of the teachers in our building, became increasingly alienated from us because of the pressure they were feeling from higher up to produce results.

This year I left my room to go to the library to collect my test booklets.When I got there I saw that the booklets, about 2,800 of them (there are 1300 students in our middle school) were laid out in alphabetical order and I was supposed to go around and pick out my students tests.The thought of doing this was just enough to jog my mind, and I remembered all my strong feelings from past years.I turned and left for my room without the booklets and decided I had given in for too many years.

This year I decided I would refuse to administer the test.I knew to be successful I would have to embrace ideals of non-violence and civil disobedience—I would need to stay calm, focused, and clear; I would need to accept the consequences of my action; and I would need to forgive those who did not agree with me.

I wrote a brief e-mail to the administration and teachers which said I would not be giving the WASL and asking for their understanding.Over the next few days the principal and grade level administrators tried to persuade me to change my mind.We had some excellent discussions, but I held my ground.I was given a disciplinary letter which stated I was guilty of insubordination and that if I actually refused to give the WASL there would be serious consequences for my career as a teacher.

About this time, on advice from my 14 year-old daughter, I got in touch with test resisters around the US—Susan Ohanian, Juanita Doyon, Don Perl, and Yvonne Siu-Runyan.I already knew Juanita Doyon because I had volunteered a few years earlier for her campaign to become WA State Superintendent of Public Instruction on a “No WASL” platform.She was delighted to hear from me, gave me much needed moral support, and helped me get in touch with the other resisters mentioned above whose kindness and insights were instrumental in helping me weather the storm which was beginning to swirl around me.

On April 15, the first day of testing, I took attendance in my homeroom and drew my students’ attention to the message on my blackboard—”I have something important to do and you will most likely have a guest teacher.Please treat them with respect.Do your best on the WASL.”

The guest teacher arrived at my room and I left to meet with the principal and middle school academic officer in the hall.They gave me the address of the Seattle Schools’ Science Materials Center where I would work for a few days until they “figured out what to do with me.”

2) Did any other teachers refused to administer this test or were you the only one?

At that moment I knew of only one other teacher in the US who had refused to give a state mandated test, Don Perl in Colorado.No one had ever refused in Washington.It was definitely a shock to everyone who heard what I was doing, though it would remain out of the press for another 5 days.Since that time, another teacher, Doug Ward in North Carolina has refused to give his state’s high stakes test and was suspended.

3) What kind of administrative action was taken against you?

On April 19, I met with a district attorney and gave a deposition.They asked me what outcome I would like and I replied that I would prefer to return to school and be assigned non-WASL duties during testing times.The next day I received a letter from the superintendent stating that I would be suspended for two weeks without pay.The letter further stated that I would have to give the WASL in 2009 or be terminated.

4) What are your main arguments against the entire No Child Left Behind philosophy, if you will ?

NCLB is the latest fad reform and is aggressively punitive.  Schools, administrators, and teachers work under the threat of severe consequences if the law’s mandate for student success is not met.  Teachers and administrators can be replaced, students can transfer to other schools (thus affecting funding of the school they are leaving), and ultimately schools can be given or sold to private companies to operate.  Teachers are no different than anyone else, and working with an ax hanging over our heads is not a pleasant experience.

For 50 years powerful people in high places with little or no real knowledge of education praxis have concocted poorly thought-out reforms to fix what they describe as our “broken and failing” schools. Their reforms have been based on a kind of business model where what is good for one child is good for all children.  All these reforms have failed because children cannot and will not be squeezed into one standardized box.

5) Many other individuals have engaged in acts of civil disobedience. Was there any one person that you have emulated?

I was a high school student during the Civil Rights Movement.At the time I was in awe of what I was seeing.I am White and I can remember distinctly hearing most of the White people I knew saying things like, “Blacks deserve equal rights, but this isn’t the right time yet.”Quickly I came to see that holding beliefs and acting on them are two different things for many people.

As I matured I began to understand the extraordinary lessons Dr. King and other civil rights leaders had taught us.One of best was, stand up and be counted because the time is always right.

6) I suppose that states will continue to administer these tests in spite of the negative consequences. How will you continue to oppose these tests?

Actually, I think we have turned the corner on this current wave of school reform and testing.I believe NCLB will be changed significantly or abandoned.This summer in Washington about 16,000 seniors who finished high school and passed all the required classes will not graduate because they failed one or more parts of the WASL.This sounds like class action lawsuit time to me.

Parents in my state have the right to opt their children out of every WASL except the one required for high school graduation.The state keeps this a big secret, the right to opt out, because those children are given scores of “0” which are added to their school’s overall total bringing the school’s average down. The question in my mind is, how many parents would have to opt their kids out to make the results meaningless to NCLB?

If enough parents understand that opting their children out can actually end this testing nonsense, I think the WASL will disappear quickly from our schools.I plan on getting the word out to parents all over the state.I will be working closely with Juanita Doyon of PEN, the Parent Empowerment Network.

7) What plans do you have for the summer or for the future?

I like to garden.I love growing flowers from seeds I collect while walking and hiking during the summer.I also look forward to polishing my curriculum and adding some new ideas and skills to my teaching.

8) What do you see as the most problematic issues regarding these standardized tests?

Standardized tests are a symptom of an educational system and society turned on its head.For years education has been managed from the top down.  Teachers, students, and parents have been devalued and marginalized.  It is time to begin managing education from the bottom up.  Communities and parents know what they want and what is best for their children.

Administrators and teachers need to partner with parents and communities to tailor learning to the specific needs of each student and the desires of their parents.  Some schools are going to need very high ratios of teachers to students—very small class sizes.  Some schools will need more language specialists and special ed instructors than other schools.  All schools will need to offer students a wide and well rounded set of exciting opportunities in all subjects including the arts, physical education, and technical training.

And yes, all schools will need to be funded by legislatures and local governments at about twice the level they are now.  Since many of the problems that hold students back can be traced directly to societal problems like racism, poverty, mental and physical illness, and the lack of real opportunity, we all need to accept a collective responsibility to strive to end or correct those problems.

9) I recall when I went to school ( yes, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth) that school was often fun- we went on field trips, to museums, there were spelling bees, celebrations of various events, poetry readings. Now it seems it is grill and drill for the test to see who is best. What has happened to education?

Lots of those fun things still happen at school, because many of the best teachers have done what Jonathan Kozol suggests—they’ve become quiet subversives.

These teachers know that kids learn math better when they play a musical instrument.They know that science and visual art go hand in hand and they design or modify curriculum to give their students those quality learning experiences.These teachers know that rapping a report in front of the class can give a student a self esteem boost which lasts weeks if not a lifetime.

10) Any last words to try to reach a few million people?

Parents, if you don’t like the effects of high stakes testing on your children and their schools, opt them out.You have real power to end this expensive and meaningless intrusion into the education of your children.

Below is a statement from Carl Chew :

Before the Big Test

© 2004 Carl Chew

The Friday before the week of the Big Test my school district sends a flyer home with each child.  The message: eat right, get plenty of sleep, and do your best.

The Big Test is designed to be definitive. It signals the students, teachers, schools, parents, districts, states, and the federal government how everyone is doing.  To be so definitive it follows that the Big Test is perfectly conceived, administered fairly, and that the students have eaten right, had plenty of sleep, and done their best.

Notice that the flyer did not say, the Big Test has been shown to accurately assess children whether or not they eat right, get enough sleep, or do their best.  In fact, the message clearly is, children who do not eat right, who do not get enough sleep, and who do not try their hardest may not do as well.

Students who pass the Big Test are rightly proud of themselves, and become more confident. They know how important and definitive the Big Test is.

If enough students pass, the teachers, school, parents, district, state, and federal government don’t have too many bones to pick.  Everyone gets a passing grade.  Everyone feels just like the upbeat students—proud and confident.  I’ve talked with some teachers and parents who even feel that they are a little bit better than students, teachers, and families at another school that didn’t fare so well on the Big Test, though in reality maybe their kids were just able to eat right, get more sleep, and try harder.

What about the students who do not pass?  The test is just as definitive for them, maybe more so.  Are they going to feel proud?  Become more confident?    Imagine what they have to look forward to—parents and bureaucrats, some of them angry, all wondering what went wrong, who to blame, how to make it right.  It’s a lot weight to carry around, especially if it was because you didn’t or couldn’t eat right, get enough sleep, or try your hardest.

They don’t call the Big Test “high stakes testing” for nothing.  When not enough students pass, there are consequences, lots of them, more than enough to go around.

It’s teachers who feel the brunt of just about everyone’s pain.  How would you feel if your school lost money because your students didn’t do well enough on the Big Test?  How would you feel about being sent out of your classroom for retraining?  How would you respond when a parent angrily accuses you of being the reason their child didn’t pass?  And, how will you survive when our federal No Child Left Behind law mandates that other schools take your students if they want to leave, or replaces you, or gives your school to a private company to run?  It might feel like you are just about everyone’s whipping boy.

I don’t know if it ever was that principals and teachers felt a special bond.  It seems like that would be good for education.  It doesn’t feel that way now though.  Principals of failing schools are under the gun to produce big results.  They are cajoled and threatened by their districts, made to balance budgets for their schools with impossibly meager funding, and worked to their bony fingers.  It’s clear that principals who are threatened and cajoled will out of survival threaten and cajole those who they control.  They might try to cook the books, or fake the scores—you’ve read the headlines.  You can only feel sorry for them.  They are between a rock, their problem schools, and a hard place, the district and the government. The pressure and frustration can easily overwhelm a principal, unless they have a good therapist.

Parents of children who have failed the Big Test have few options. They can feel guilty— are they just bad parents?  They can be scared—is there something wrong with their children?  They can get angry—it’s the teacher’s fault!  What about becoming frustrated—is there anything that can actually be done to correct the situation?  The Big Test is so definitive that it’s difficult for a parent to imagine their child’s “failure” might simply have been due to poor eating, not enough sleep, or lack of trying.

I know by now you see the flaw I am aiming at—if all it takes for a child to mess up on the Big Test is their eating habits, sleep schedule, or will to give it their all, the Big Test may not be as definitive as advertised.

In fact, I think if we look closely we may discover that the Big Test fosters other, serious social consequences.

For instance, if a group of children have a healthier diet than another group of children, and because of that do better on the Big Test, and their community begins to think they are somehow better than other communities that didn’t fare so well, doesn’t that start to feel like prejudice?

If one group of children can’t get to bed at a reasonable hour because they are taking care of their brothers and sisters while their parent works a second job, and because they are tired they don’t do as well on the Big Test, and because of doing poorly they loose confidence in themselves, doesn’t failing the Big Test do them a disservice which could result in a lifetime of struggle?

If we lose a generation of perfectly good students, teachers, and principals because the stress of educating under the gun of the Big Test has become too overwhelming and negative, aren’t we taking some pretty big steps backwards?

To read this essay properly you also need to eat right, get plenty of sleep, and above all else, try your hardest.  How many of us adults can say we do that?  I frankly have a struggle sleeping before a Big Test, and when I wake up I am usually not inclined to eat a very good breakfast, and if I think the test is unfair my negative attitude will definitely affect the outcome.  I have a difficult time understanding how we can hold children to a standard higher than we are willing or able to hold ourselves to.

And of course, matters can be more complex than they appear. Here are a few more tips our school flyer might alert students and parents to:

· Make sure you speak the same language or dialect that the test is written in.

· Make sure you have no diagnosed or undiagnosed physical or mental problems.

· Make sure your parents are speaking to each other, not abusive, not alcoholics or drug addicted, and not getting a divorce.

· Make sure you don’t have a cold or the flu.

· Make sure no one bullies you on the playground.

· Make sure your parents, siblings, peers, and teacher do all they can to heighten your sense of self esteem and self worth.

· Make sure your parent or school cafeteria knows that a good breakfast includes all the food groups, not just a highly sugared cereal.

· Make sure you have enough role models who have achieved success through education.

· Make sure that other students won’t be disruptive during the Big Test.

· Make sure the test assesses things your parents and community find culturally valuable and relevant.

· Make sure your teacher doesn’t belittle or demean the test.

· Make sure the test readers and scorers eat right, get plenty of sleep, try their hardest, are being treated well by their employers, and value students with poor handwriting skills, creative grammatical syntax, or unusual ideas.

· Make sure reporting errors aren’t made by the testing companies or their computers.

I bet you can think of a few more tips too.

I am a teacher who loves working with children.  I love helping them learn, comforting them, buying them supplies when they have none, playing with them when there’s time, and making school a safe place where they feel valued.  But, I refuse to be complicit in supporting the Big Test and the ill wind it spawns in the lives of our students, schools, and communities.

Carl Chew

Published May 28, 2008

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