Saint Carl, Civil Disobedience and Irresponsible Discord

I guess I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a few minutes to write about Carl Chew, the Washington State middle school teacher who refused to give his state’s standardized test and was suspended for his actions, right?

After all, he’s being touted (and touting himself, I might add) as education’s very own Paul Revere.  Over the course of the past 12 hours, I’ve had no less than four different teachers declare that Chew is their hero.  “He’s brave enough to take a stand,” the story line goes, “And it’s a stand that you aren’t willing to take.”

The way teachers talk, you’d think this guy was on the fast track to Sainthood or something.  Move over John Paul.  Chew’s now first in line.  He worked miracles and we’ve got proof.

Can you tell that I’m not a member of the “Chew for President” Brigade?

And while my thinking is still incomplete on this one, here’s where I currently stand:

I think that refusing to give the state test is a pretty arrogant and egocentric thing to do.  It seems to scream, “Testing is bad. My opinion is the only one that matters.  You can’t possibly know as much as I do about what’s right and what’s wrong for kids—-even if you have raised them since the day they were born.  I AM TEACHER, HEAR ME ROAR!”

The problem is that we’re not independent agents who can make decisions divorced from the broader communities that we serve.  Taxpayers invest a heaping load of cash into public schools—which by default ought to give them a bit of say so over what happens in our buildings, don’t you think?

Whether we like it or not, we’re public employees—-and public employees have a responsibility to work with, rather than against, the public’s wishes.  In most places, elected officials determine the curriculum and elected officials determine the methods we use to assess that curriculum.  To willfully ignore the methods selected by elected officials essentially says that we don’t respect the values of the communities that we serve.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m no fan of testing at all.  Need proof?  Check out this post, written just two weeks ago.  In many ways, testing has destroyed what I do in my classroom each year, changed the dynamic of teaching and learning completely, and has done far more damage that it has done good.

But it is a system selected and believed in by the people who pay my check.  And (in theory) it’s based on the values and beliefs of a group of people that go far beyond me.  For those reasons, I choose to honor and respect the system even though I don’t totally believe in it.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t work to see the system changed.  As much as anyone, I work to make my thinking on testing transparent, knowing that I’ve got a credible perspective that can inform the conversation.

The difference between my approach and the less-tempered-radicals like Chew is that I am readily willing to admit that I only have one perspective on this issue, and while it’s especially valid considering my proximity to the classroom and my first hand experience with the impact testing has had on teaching and learning, it’s still only one perspective.

Why can’t teachers understand that the best decisions are those that are made when a variety of perspectives are considered and respected as plans are developed and implemented?  And why can’t we believe that someone beyond us might just have something valuable to add to the conversation about our kids?

Eventually, I believe our community will come to consensus about what effective assessment looks like.  Chances are, that system will be more sophisticated than the test-driven system we’re currently addicted to.  I guess my opinion comes from the belief that everyone—not just teachers—cares about what’s good for our kids.

And I believe that a system developed together breeds consensus—something sorely missing from conversations about education….and something made less likely when teachers like Chew show disregard for the values of the communities that they serve.

Needless to say, I’m waiting to be torched.

9 thoughts on “Saint Carl, Civil Disobedience and Irresponsible Discord

  1. Carly Albee

    I am convinced that there are “team players” and “individual sportsmen” in the education industry. Team players say, “I’m on a team of educators, students, parents, legislators…etc. who are all working together to make education great. How can I help my teammates do better?” Then there are the individual sportsmen (no offense to you swimmers or cross-country runners) who play the game all by themselves. Carl seems like the kind of guy who thinks he’s in it all by himself. He probably thought, “If I don’t do this, how will we ever make education better?” He definitely got the “All-State Record” on this one…but really, is this the best way to move the entire team towards greatness?

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Nate wrote:
    The term radical, to me, insinuates someone who is standing up and directly challenging a system that, they believe to be flawed. It seems to me that such challenge will require more than writing to a limited audience.
    Hey Nate—
    Let me start with a compliment: I appreciate your work to challenge my thinking. I’m very much driven by questions as opposed to answers….and your questions are forcing me to articulate.
    Believe it or not, that’s exactly what I was attempting to do with this post—-except the system that I’m trying to directly challenge is one populated by teachers!
    Our profession only falls at the bottom of every heirarchy because we’ve grown content with ourselves and because we push against any external criticism levelled our way.
    We also don’t police ourselves at all. Think about the crummy teachers in your building. Everyone turns a blind eye to their failures. In fact, we’re more likely to defend their failures than we are to criticize them.
    That reality is one that has to change before we’ll regain credibility….The sad truth is we’re our own worst enemies and we’ve brought much of the damage that you describe on ourselves.
    As far as your book club goes, I’m pretty sure I’d love to join! I haven’t got time to check the link out right now (Gotta get to the Home Depot), but I will later this afternoon and drop you a line.
    Cool stuff…

  3. Nate Barton

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the system is “…some nebulous, dark entity that is manipulating schools from behind a dark curtain somewhere.” I recognize the notion that our community has selected those that represent the major decisions for the direction of education.
    Additionally, I am a believer that people are where they are for a reason that may be beyond our understanding. However, I do believe that some of our thoroughly experienced representatives may sometimes lose touch with that which is happening now. That they may have a mindset of, “I was there, I’ve been in the trenches.” Many have lost touch with the current world that we are living in.
    I would also go so far as to say that teachers, in general, are not granted the level of respect that we deserve. If I am considered to be “highly qualified” then why am I not trusted to assess the children that I serve. I should at the very least be allowed to protest a test score for a child that may have had an extenuating circumstance affect their testing for that given day. Instead my year, essentially, boils down to the work that one child completes in one day.
    I disagree with your assessment of my understanding of “the system”. Furthermore, I believe that your definition requires some honing. While I agree with the makeup of your constituents, I feel strongly that there is a weighted hierarchy within said system. My concern is that teachers and parents are at the bottom of said hierarchy. Teachers bottommost of all. There is a major flaw here because we are the machine that moves the world forward. We are the innovators who are directly affected by the subtlest changes in the expectations that we increasingly burden our children with.
    I cringed when I read your post script that referred to my “sarcasm”. I suppose it was, at its heart, sarcastic, but I do believe that your radicalism is truly tempered. I have been a follower of your blog for the past several months, and I must admit that your thoughts and direction within your own classroom have directly influenced my direction within my space. This week myself and a colleague are going to introduce our staff to the potentials of blogging in our classrooms. It seems that you are a strong proponent of change. The term radical, to me, insinuates someone who is standing up and directly challenging a system that, they believe to be flawed. It seems to me that such challenge will require more than writing to a limited audience.
    I have begun a book club at my school for the book that I previously recommended to you. We are going to be blogging about it. I would like to extend an invitation to you to join our club.
    I believe that we must go beyond written words in a digital space. I believe that you challenge your students to do something about major issues in our world. Perhaps it is not my place, but I am extending that challenge to you.

  4. Jeremy

    This quote from the news article struck me: “‘Every year, I said to myself this is the last time I’m going to do this,’ said Chew, 60, who has been teaching for about eight years and said he has seen kids struggle through the test with few positive results to show for the time and effort expended over two weeks each spring.”
    As a former ESL teacher, I would like more information about what he meant here. Because I see a big difference in refusing to give tests on principle (which is what you’re objecting to here) and refusing to give tests that are invalid on their face, such as regular grade-level tests given to low-level ESL students or certain special ed. students – who have a 100% failure rate (obviously) on these kinds of tests. So I’d like to find out who exactly he teaches. His school website indicates he is a 6th grade science teacher. I don’t know about the demographics of his classroom. If it was truly a waste of time to give these kids a test, I applaud his efforts.
    Here are some more comments from Mr. Chew on the issue –

  5. Bill Ferriter

    Nate wrote:
    I don’t know that I would agree with Chew’s take on affecting change, but I do believe that change will most likely not come from within the current system
    You know, Nate, here’s where I’m struggling right now: Your statement assumes that “the system” is some nebulous, dark entity that is manipulating schools from behind a dark curtain somewhere.
    When I think of “the system,” I see a network of people that includes parents, business leaders, teachers, community advocates, retirees—all of whom have equal opportunity to select leaders that have clearly delinated plans for education.
    While I don’t currently agree with the choices that are being made by “the system” (my definition), I’m open to the idea that I am only one small part of that group decision making process—-and I respect “the system” (my definition) to consider that their perspectives should be valued and considered.
    Doesn’t considering “the system” (your definition) as a manipulative group of black hats with bad intentions insinuate that voters and community leaders are incompetent?
    PS…Perhaps your sarcasm about my status as a Tempered Radical comes from the fact that I’m questioning teachers in this post?
    Did you automatically assume that because I’m a teacher, I wouldn’t dare question the inherent flaws in our own profession?
    In some ways, the most radical writing I do comes when I push our profession to think about the flaws in our own positions—which includes the assumption that teachers automatically “know more” about kids than the communities that we serve.

  6. Nate Barton

    I have come to understand that you truly are a tempered radical. I would like to recommend that you peruse the following book by Ken Robinson: Out of our Minds.
    This book was originally published in 2001 and I believe that it illustrates the fierce urgency of now. I don’t know that I would agree with Chew’s take on affecting change, but I do believe that change will most likely not come from within the current system.

  7. Bill Ferriter

    You know, Dina and Joe, I definitely have a soft spot for civil disobedience—-to be honest, I’m pretty good at all forms of disobedience—so the thought of standing up for more sensible assessment resonates with me.
    But the conspiracy theorists in our profession are driving me nuts! So many of our colleagues talk about the evil plans made by the Bush administration in collusion with testing companies….you know the story line.
    And while that might just be true, Bush—and the entire legislative branch!—got elected by someone. The way I figure, someone has to agree with their decisions!
    One of my TLN colleagues—Renee Moore who writes over at Teach Moore—said something that seemed to strike me as true the other day:
    She argues that the testing movement in it’s current form is essentially punishment for our failures to hold ourselves accountable for the better part of a century.
    During that time, we were willing to turn a blind eye on the disparities between the education of students of wealth and students of poverty. As long as those who had “social juice” were happy with schools, all was fine with the world.
    That’s a huge professional failure that caused us to lose credibility and control over assessment decisions. People just plain don’t trust us to tell the truth about our own performance anymore.
    Hence, the tendency to use testing as a cudgel!
    Does any of this thinking resonate with y’all?

  8. Dina

    Love this perspective, Bill, and I get your caution against arrogance. Yet I must consider this too: our best and brightest in history, our least arrogant, our ethical shining stars, at one point or another, simply sat down and said in the face of injustice, with gentleness and love: “No.”
    When are we going to do that, too?

  9. Joe

    Bill, couldn’t agree more. Having said that, I sense that many educators have a feeling of numbness when giving these exams. I know that I sure do. Literally yesterday I saw a young teacher reduced to tears because one of her special education students couldn’t pass a test that was written well above their reading level. At what point are we inflicting real damage to our students?
    Last night Dina and I went to a forum with some of the former NYS teachers of the year. It was sparsely attended, even though they were talking about what this whole testing movement is doing to critical thinking and authentic learning. Their thinking was very much in line with yours, but I am not getting the sense that many teachers really expect things to change. I’ve always felt that part of the problem was that educators roll over too easily and have allowed this to happen. With that in mind, a little civil disobedience doesn’t seem so bad from time to time.
    Still, one person doesn’t make a movement, and that’s what we really need right now.
    Oh, and I’m still thinking about our technology conversation. I’ll write more eventually.

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