Jesse Hagopian is a Classroom Warrior
One year after leading a boycott against the MAP assessment test in Seattle public high schools, the teacher continues to fight for the kids.
It became known as the Education Spring: One year ago, Jesse Hagopian and his fellow teachers at Garfield High School stood up to Seattle Public Schools and refused to administer the MAP, a standardized test considered by even its own creators to be inadequate for assessing high school students’ progress. After threatening to suspend insubordinate teachers, the district eventually relented, making the test optional at the high school level. The boycott’s success reverberated in school systems across the country, inspiring teachers who’d been beaten down by the glut of standardized tests ushered in by No Child Left Behind. And in the process Hagopian became a model for teachers who put kids first and grades second.
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I started teaching in 2001. I was in southeast Washington DC, one of the worst ghettos in the nation, and the school was literally falling apart. And at the same time our nation was mobilizing to launch a war on the Middle East, so in the snap of a finger we could come up with billions and billions of dollars to bomb people, but we couldn’t find money to fix the school in the shadow of the White House. That really woke me up. It opened my eyes to the priorities of this country, which blames teachers for the state of education but severely underresources them, and it made me realize we needed to be not just educators but educational advocates.
Our boycott was never about just ending one test. It was about fighting for quality assessment. Teachers at Garfield aren’t afraid of assessment. We’re not afraid of accountability. We want to serve underserved populations, and to do that you need accountability. We just don’t think the standardized tests provide the best form of assessment.
We’re taking about hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to rank and sort our young people, rather than giving them the reading coaches, the tutors, the smaller class sizes, the things that would actually improve their education and give them the skills that they need to succeed in life.
This district has a history of singling out rabblerousers. So for that reason I was afraid. But the idea that all of my rabblerousing could get someone else fired—like the testing coordinator, whose job is administering tests—was scarier than anything that could happen to me. That would not only ruin the life of a close colleague and good friend, but it would also ruin the idea that teachers could stand up for themselves and redefine education. If we had been disciplined and teachers lost their livelihoods, it would have put a chill on the grassroots education movement all over the country. So that was a terrifying prospect.
It was 2:06 in the afternoon on May 13, and I was at my desk when a ding went off on the computer, alerting me that I had an email. It was from the superintendent. It had a lot of different information in it, and buried there in the middle was a short sentence that said the MAP test would be optional for high schools for the 2013–14 school year. I had to read it out loud to really believe it. And when I announced it to the class, they erupted. It was a spontaneous celebration, with fist bumps and high fives. There was no regaining control.
I don’t believe in the Waiting for Superman myth, of the infallible teacher saving the kids. The idea that there’s this heroic, superman teacher who’s going to have a perfect formula for educating students is really used to punish the rest. It’s used to say, “If we just had this one model of educator, our schools would be great. We don’t need to invest in our schools. We don’t need to develop quality forms of assessment. We just need to fire the bad teachers and get this one perfect model.”
You know that great quote that education is the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a pail? Instead of trying to convince students that what I think is important, my job is to try to find out what’s important to them and help them become passionate about it, research it, and develop arguments and ideas around it. Our students are far more inventive, thoughtful, and passionate about things than our society gives them credit for.
We do a reenactment of the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention in 1848, in my class. The kids take the roles of black women and middle class women and working class women, and they have a big debate about “What should the demands of our movement be? Should it just be about voting, or should we bring in demands about minimum wage and issues that affect black women and race?” They do research about what the different groups were going through and issues they were facing at the time, and they rise and address their classmates. These kids invest themselves in a historical time period and draw lessons about how to organize movements today and reevaluate assumptions they had, and then I see them being asked on the AP exam to memorize a date and a time and a name. All the richness, all the things that bring my class to life for them, is completely ignored by that bubble test.
Do I ever think about giving up teaching? I think it’s crossed every single teacher’s mind since the No Child Left Behind Act came online. But I’ll tell you the greatest antidote for the despair that can creep into teachers facing the test-and-punish model is solidarity. There’s solidarity in the struggle to improve education. Our staff has been reborn and reenergized.