Friday, April 20, 2012

Testing, Teachers and the UFT: An Historical View

"'They’re saying Mr. Avella made us do this,' said Johnny Cruz, 15, another boycott leader. 'They don’t think we have brains of our own, like we're robots. We students wanted to make this statement. The school is oppressing us too much with all these tests.'

"The afternoon of the protest, the principal ordered Avella out of the classroom, reassigned him to an empty room in the school and ordered him to have no further contact with students.


"A few days later, in a reprimand letter, Lopez accused Avella of initiating the boycott and taking 'actions [that] caused a riot at the school.'


"Avella denied that he urged the students to boycott tests. Yes, he holds liberal views and is critical of the school system’s increased emphasis on standardized tests, Avella said, but the students decided to organize the protest after weeks of complaining about all the diagnostic tests the school was making them take.


"'My students know they are welcome in my class to have open discussions,' Avella said. 'I teach them critical thinking.' 
--- June 2008

The parents on various listserves have been asking about teachers boycotting the tests and we all know that is death to a career. But if one were leaving anyway, it might be an interesting way to go out.

In May 2008, a non-tenured teacher went out just that way. First let me say these weren't the regular tests but some other kind of standardized test -- maybe a field test like they will be giving this June. And he didn't boycott the tests but let his kids openly discuss their disgust at having to sit through more tests that wouldn't count for anything. A bunch of kids emerged as leaders and led a student boycott of these tests in all 4 of the teacher's 8th grade classes. They just left the entire test booklet blank.

The teacher was rubber roomed and vilified in the school, IS 318 BRONX (not the same IS 318 Brooklyn, the chess championship school). (I seem to remember the principal around the same time also drove out the dedicated robotics coach who quit the NYC school system.)

It became a big story at the time and of course the UFT ran the other way. Thanks to Susan Ohanian for reminding me of the teacher's name and when this took place -- 4 years ago before GEM even existed.

Some of us in ICE were working with the Justice Not Just Tests committee of NYCORE and we got involved in this story, even petitioning Randi and Leo. I quickly compiled a bunch of stuff on the story.

Some hits from Susan's site on the story:
  1. Bronx 8th-graders boycott practice exam but teacher may get ax (Yahoo, Good News!
  2. Individual Acts of Resistance (Yahoo, Good News! )
  3. Individual Acts of Resistance (Resisters' Letters, 2008-05-22)
  4. Individual Acts of Resistance (Resisters' Letters, 2008-05-23)
  5. Rouge Forum Update (Outrage of the Day, 2008-05-28)
  6. Ask Chancellor Klein a Question and You'll Hear from the Strategic Response Group (Outrage of the Day, 2008-06-12)
  7. Leave No Corporate CEO Behind (Outrage of the Day, 2008-10-02)
  8. Living for Change: Teens Re-Invent Education (NCLB Atrocities, 2008-06-01)
 And here are a bunch of stories for your enjoyment in some rough chronological order

Ed Notes: May 27, 2008

Where is Leo Casey and Edwize on Test Boycott? 

Fred Klonsky at PreaPrez wants to know how the UFT has responded in supporting the teacher in the student testing boycott case? He writes:
One of their leaders, Leo Casey, seems to have no problem finding time to writing on EdWize, the UFT blog, long, very long theoretical critiques of G. William Domhoff’s analysis of the power elite. This is something I’m sure his rank-and-file members have been salivating to read. Yet not a word about Doug Avella and the students of I.S. 318X.
We're sure the UFT is doing what it always does in cases like these: provide a rep and inform the teacher of his rights, which as a probationary teacher are few. They will claim they are negotiating behind the scenes and therefore must remain quiet.

Students need support too

WHAT DID MR. AVELLA SAY AND WHEN DID HE SAY IT?

Coming soon: Waterboarding as a staple of DOE investigations

What about the public aspect of the situation? That a teacher discusses an issue with his classes, the kids take some action, and the teacher is immediately blamed and sent to the rubber room. Remember. The kids have supposedly taken 22 standardized tests this year and this was one of those practice types that ARIS, which is not working effectively, is supposed to deal with.

It seems the UFT should use its pulpit to shout about this case loud and clear. They may very well argue that publicity would hurt the teacher. I disagree. His best chances would seem to come from embarassing the DOE to the extreme over the use of Gestapo tactics against the kids and teacher.

“We’ve had a whole bunch of these diagnostic tests all year,” Tatiana Nelson, 13, one of the protest leaders, said Tuesday outside the school. “They don’t even count toward our grades. The school system’s just treating us like test dummies for the companies that make the exams.”

Sounds like no harm, no foul.

Sources tell us the children were threatened with No GRADUATION or PROM if they didn't comply and rat the teacher out and Avella's program is being covered by a substitute. Is it a good thing for the kids to lose a popular teacher at this point in the year? And what of the bigger lesson of threats and intimidation? Where's the outrage at the violation of these children by the system? Anyone out there in the regressive reform movement who are so concerned about achievment gaps in the abstract?

BRING AVELLA BACK TO HIS KIDS FOR THE REST OF THE YEAR FOR THE SAKE OF THE KIDS!

Where's the NY press which is always talking about how much money is being wasted by the rubber room? Do you get a clue why teachers need tenure? If Avella had tenure he would be in a much stronger position. In fact, when Joel Klein and the regressive ed reformers try to make the case for the elimination of tenure, respond with these two words: Doug Avella.

[2012 addendum -- today, even if Avella had tenure he would still get a 3020a dismissal hearing and would probably be fired.]
------

Here's my follow-up later that day:

May 27, 2008

Support for Doug Avella Builds

PLEASE WRITE TO CHANCELLOR KLEIN IN SUPPORT OF A TEACHER WHO TEACHES CRITICAL THINKING

To all those in favor of critical thought,


You have most likely heard about the situation in the Bronx at IS 318. On May 13 six classes of 8th graders staged a boycott in protest to being forced to take another standardized test, one of over two dozen this year. They boycotted one of the practice tests. An 8th grade social studies teacher, Douglas Avella, was falsely accused of instigating the students to boycott, and he is already in the rubber room and likely to lose his job entirely. Over the past week, a number of news articles and editorials have come out, including coverage from Juan Gonzalez and on WBAI's Democracy Now, and there has been a huge outpouring of concern and support for the teacher and the students. Recently, there have been a few other cases of testing boycotts in other U.S. cities, but this is the first one that we have heard about that was initiated by students. The students of I.S. 318 thought critically about their education, organized with each other, and then decided to take action. Their actions should be celebrated. The students and their teacher should be applauded and their message of urgency about the current state of high-stakes testing in our schools taken seriously.

We need to let the DOE know that we need more teachers like Douglas Avella. We need more educators who listen to their students, take their ideas and experiences seriously, and make it possible for them to respond thoughtfully and critically to their world. The students of I.S. 318 stood up for what they thought was right. They have been taught by a beloved teacher whose job is now in jeopardy. It is critical that we stand up right now and show our support for Doug Avella and his students. Please send an email to Chancellor Joel Klein at jklein@schools.nyc.gov.

Let him know that we demand the immediate re-instatement of Douglas Avella to his teaching position at IS 318 and the removal of any negative letters or ratings in his file in connection with the test boycott.

also, please cc your letter to UFT President Randi Weingarten at rweingarten@uft.org

Thank-you!

Sam Coleman and Geoffrey Enriquez,
on behalf of NYCORE
Priscilla Gonzalez and Donna Nevel, on behalf of Center for Immigrant Families
Jane Hirschmann, on behalf of Time Out From Testing
Sally Lee, on behalf of Teachers Unite
 

---------------------

And then this letter to the UFT:

 June 3, 2008

ASK THE UFT TO MAKE THE TESTING BOYCOTT A PRIORITY...

CONTINUE TO DEFEND ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND FREEDOM OF SPEECH
ASK THE UFT TO MAKE THE TESTING BOYCOTT A PRIORITY ISSUE

We ask that you continue to write e-mails to Chancellor Klein in support of a teacher who teaches critical thinking.
We are also asking the UFT to make this issue of academic freedom and freedom of speech a priority. Please e-mail UFT President Randi Weingarten rweingarten@uft.org and Vice President Leo Casey lcasey@uft.org asking the UFT to continue to defend teacher rights in this matter and to make this issue a priority for the UFT.
A sample letter is below:
Dear Leo Casey and Randi Weingarten,
As a member of the UFT, I ask that the teachers' union continue to be proactive in the struggle to defend the academic freedom of public school teacher Douglass Avella, who wanted his students to think critically about their education.

As an educator concerned with the abuse of standardized tests, I also support the 160 8th grade students who used their freedom of speech to boycott the practice test to demonstrate how excessive testing has taken away valuable learning time from the classroom.
Because of the large amount of support from teachers, educators, organizations, parents and students, I ask that our teachers' union make this issue of academic freedom and freedom of speech a priority.
Sincerely,

____________________
Teacher/UFT Member


Supported by:
Center for Immigrant Families,
NYCoRE, Teachers Unite, Time Out From Testing
----------
Here is Juan Gonzalez' in the Daily News with Susan's comment:
Bronx 8th-graders boycott practice exam but teacher may get ax
Susan Notes:

This is combined Good News for what the students did and Outrage for how the teacher is being treated.

What a remarkable feat. Let's hope this student insistence in taking back their learning will inspire some teachers to take back their teaching.


By Juan Gonzalez

Students at a South Bronx middle school have pulled off a stunning boycott against standardized testing.

More than 160 students in six different classes at Intermediate School 318 in the South Bronx - virtually the entire eighth grade - refused to take last Wednesday's three-hour practice exam for next month's statewide social studies test.

Instead, the students handed in blank exams.

Then they submitted signed petitions with a list of grievances to school Principal Maria Lopez and the Department of Education.

"We've had a whole bunch of these diagnostic tests all year," Tatiana Nelson, 13, one of the protest leaders, said Tuesday outside the school. "They don't even count toward our grades. The school system's just treating us like test dummies for the companies that make the exams."

According to the petition, they are sick and tired of the "constant, excessive and stressful testing" that causes them to "lose valuable instructional time with our teachers."

School administrators blamed the boycott on a 30-year-old probationary social studies teacher, Douglas Avella.

The afternoon of the protest, the principal ordered Avella out of the classroom, reassigned him to an empty room in the school and ordered him to have no further contact with students.

A few days later, in a reprimand letter, Lopez accused Avella of initiating the boycott and taking "actions [that] caused a riot at the school."

The students say their protest was entirely peaceful. In only one class, they say, was there some loud clapping after one exam proctor reacted angrily to their boycott.

This week, Lopez notified Avella in writing that he was to attend a meeting today for "your end of the year rating and my possible recommendation for the discontinuance of your probationary service."

"They're saying Mr. Avella made us do this," said Johnny Cruz, 15, another boycott leader. "They don't think we have brains of our own, like we're robots. We students wanted to make this statement. The school is oppressing us too much with all these tests."

Two days after the boycott, the students say, the principal held a meeting with all the students to find out how their protest was organized.

Avella on Tuesday denied that he urged the students to boycott tests.

Yes, he holds liberal views and is critical of the school system's increased emphasis on standardized tests, Avella said, but the students decided to organize the protest after weeks of complaining about all the diagnostic tests the school was making them take.

"My students know they are welcome in my class to have open discussions," Avella said. "I teach them critical thinking."

"Some teachers implied our graduation ceremony would be in danger, that we didn't have the right to protest against the test," said Tia Rivera, 14. "Well, we did it."

Lopez did not return calls for comment.

"This guy was far over the line in a lot of the ways he was running his classroom," said Department of Education spokesman David Cantor. "He was pulled because he was inappropriate with the kids. He was giving them messages that were inappropriate."

Several students defended Avella. They say he had made social studies an exciting subject for them.

"Now they've taken away the teacher we love only a few weeks before our real state exam for social studies," Tatiana Nelson said. "How does that help us?"
— Juan Gonzalez
New York Daily News
More from Susan:
Living for Change: Teens Re-Invent Education

Gary Doyle Comment: Dear Friends of Public Education:
The article below, written by Grace Lee Boggs, gives me hope. Grace describes a group of eighth graders who challenged the NCLB insanity. These students did what our so-called educational "leaders" across the country have failed to do.

By the way, Grace Lee Boggs is a Detroit-based activist, writer and speaker who has been challenging the system much longer than most people have been alive. Grace will be celebrating her 93rd birthday on June 27, 2008, and,according to a good friend who knows her, she is showing no signs of slowing down. I hope Grace is around for many more birthdays, as we desperately need more people like her.


By Grace Lee Boggs

On Thursday, May22, students at a South Bronx middle school pulled off a stunning boycott against the standardized testing mandated by Bush’s "No Child Left Behind" Act.

The May 22 New York Daily News carried Juan Gonzalez' story about the well-organized action and it was reprinted on Common Dreams.

"More than 160 students in six different classes at Intermediate School 318 in the South Bronx—virtually the entire eighth grade—refused to take last Wednesday’s three-hour practice exam for next month’s statewide social studies test.

Instead, the students handed in blank exams.

"Then they submitted signed petitions with a list of grievances to school Principal Maria Lopez and the Department of Education.

"The school system's just treating us like test dummies for the companies that make the exam,." said Tatiana Nelson, 13, one of the protest leaders.

"School administrators blamed the boycott on a 30-year-old probationary social studies teacher, Douglas Avella.

"'They’re saying Mr. Avella made us do this,' said Johnny Cruz, 15, another boycott leader. 'They don’t think we have brains of our own, like we're robots. We students wanted to make this statement. The school is oppressing us too much with all these tests.'

"The afternoon of the protest, the principal ordered Avella out of the classroom, reassigned him to an empty room in the school and ordered him to have no further contact with students.

"A few days later, in a reprimand letter, Lopez accused Avella of initiating the boycott and taking 'actions [that] caused a riot at the school.'

"Avella denied that he urged the students to boycott tests. Yes, he holds liberal views and is critical of the school system’s increased emphasis on standardized tests, Avella said, but the students decided to organize the protest after weeks of complaining about all the diagnostic tests the school was making them take.

"'My students know they are welcome in my class to have open discussions,' Avella said. 'I teach them critical thinking.'

"The students say their protest was entirely peaceful. In only one class, they say, was there some loud clapping after one exam proctor reacted angrily to their boycott."

"'Some teachers implied our graduation ceremony would be in danger, that we didn't have the right to protest against the test,' said Tia Rivera, 14. 'Well, we did it.'"

Comments by Common Dreams readers were overwhelmingly in support of the students and Avella.

"I hope the idea spreads from this school to others."

"The students and their teacher are an inspiration. May their example spread like a prairie fire across this dim and oppressive land. As a former teacher I know about the totalitarian strictures of standardized tests. Virtually every teacher I know hates them. The testing companies are making billions. It is a scam. Critical thinking is stifled, which is just fine with the powers that be. Teachers have tremendous power if they only had the courage to exercise it. A nation-wide strike against standardized tests would be a start. Standards, yes! Standardized testing, no!"

"He was teaching them to think for themselves. How will they be able to work at Mickey-Ds if they do that?"

"The testing serves to monitor young people—to track them into acceptable roles as adults or into the prison system."

"I hope the idea spreads from this school to others. It’s not like the kids aren’t going to hear about this and think about going on strike rather than taking a meaningless test."

"FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) was a test program that came from a company owned by Neal Bush (yes, former Gov. Jeb Bush and moron Pres. George Bush’s brother). How nice it was to have your brother JUMP on-board using taxpayer dollars to implement HIS companies program in the state school system!! "

"Everyone should read John Gatto, a teacher in NY who won the 'best teacher of the year' in both New York City and New York State."

"The whole No Child Left Beyond Act is just another way of robotizing education and kids. Think of the moron-in-chief who is its chief proponent. You can’t test creativity. You can’t test imagination. Like Einstein said 'Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.' It is time to revolt against this revolting trend in education to turn our kids into testing machines. And now kids are thinking for themselves. Praise to the eighth grade kids!"
— Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen
2008-06-01
http://tinyurl.com/5vuk77
--------------
And one more from Susan:
June 12, 2008

Ask Chancellor Klein a Question and You'll Hear from the Strategic Response Group

People who wrote New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein on behalf of Douglas Avella received a shocking reply from Elizabeth Sexton who identified herself as being an Associate with the Chancellor's Strategic Response Group
NYC Department of Education
52 Chambers St. | New York, NY 10007.


Sexton stated that she was responding on behalf of Chancellor Klein. In her strategic response, Sexton makes ugly, unsubstantiated allegations while at the same time referring to the privacy of Mr. Avella's file.

Visit the New York City Department of Education website, and you will learn that The DOE has set up a framework for ensuring that all questions sent to the central office are answered in a timely fashion.

The Chancellor’s Strategic Response Group answers about 200 letters and emails
sent to Chancellor Klein every week. We can only hope that they aren't all as nasty as this one.

How does one get to be a Strategic Responder? I couldn't locate Elizabeth Sexton online but one former Strategic Responder had a college degree in English, another in Political Science.

Question: Does the New York City Department of Education maintain a Rubber Room for unfit Strategic Responders?

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