The Nation

An Important Lesson From Right-Wing Science Dude

Tom Tomorrow

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Writing, Prestige and Other Things That Don’t Pay the Rent


(Reuters/Mark Blinch)

“Does journalism fit into capitalism?” That is “the question of the hour,” according to Manjula Martin, a freelance writer and editor, whom I interviewed last week. Martin has carved out a space for discussing the economic landscape for writers through her online database, Who Pays Writers?, and the digital magazine, Scratch, that she co-founded with Jane Friedman.

Who Pays Writers was born out of an online conversation between Martin and other writers who were commenting on publications that ask for donations or run advertisements, but don’t pay contributors. Martin herself had been frustrated recently by an experience in which she had gone through all the work of pitching an article, only to find out that the publication expected writers to work for free. “I was being very flippant, but I said, do we need a list?” she recalls.

The response was positive, and Martin set up a Tumblr, providing freelancers a space to self-report the rates they’ve received from publications ranging from The New Yorker and USA Today to Marie Clare and Pet Business. The site now contains thousands of reports, most depressingly meager, each a snapshot of the state of the industry from the point of view of freelancers. Over all, Martin says, writers can expect to earn about $100–250 for online articles at the big publications (The Atlantic, Salon, The Nation). The rates are higher for print, where many publications still pay by the word, and lower for book reviews and literary journals. (Martin emphasized that the data she collects is self-reported by writers and is not verified by publications. Salon declined to comment for this article. I reached out to The Atlantic for comment, but did not hear back before publication.)

Scratch came next. “Everyone really loved Who Pays Writers,” Martin says, “but people wanted more context.” The magazine provides that context, going deeper into the publishing economy with round-table discussions between editors, advice on negotiation techniques and contracts language, and first-person accounts of the freelancing life from successful writers. In the spirit of Martin’s commitment to transparency, each issue concludes with an accounting of the relationships between the writers and editors, the demographics of the writers and the amount of money each contributor was paid. (Full disclosure: Martin has commissioned me to write an essay for the next issue of Scratch for $200.)

For Martin, transparency is the first step to improving the situation of freelance writers. Fifteen dollars per hour has become a rallying cry for service workers, but what is a fair standard for writers? “We don’t even have a basic sort of understanding of what standards would be like for a freelance workforce, let alone what pay rates would be like,” she says. “I think we need that base first.” She points to a need for her freelance “co-workers” to be more educated: “Not understanding how the finances of our industry work—who is that bad for? It’s probably not as bad for the people cutting the checks as it is for the people receiving the checks.”

And it is bad for the people receiving the checks. The answer to Martin’s question about journalism existing in capitalism is, of course, that journalism does exist in capitalism, and capitalism is kicking journalists’ asses. The same goes for editors, and for many publications.

Last week, the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project released its annual report on the state of the news media, which examines the continuing struggles of news outlets to hit upon a sustainable (let alone profitable) model for generating revenue. Pew’s report quantified the rapid growth of jobs in digital reporting, but also noted the continuing decline of jobs in print media. While job growth is good news for writers, the new hiring does not replace all the jobs that have been lost in the massive layoffs that have been occurring for a decade in print. Many print publications are also unionized, and very few of the writers at born-digital outlets are organized (the staff of Truthout is one of the few exceptions to this rule).  This translates into less job security, and individual instead of collective contracts for writers, making it harder to prevent the kind of downward competition that drives standards lower.

In another sign of capitalism’s effect on journalism, Digiday reported last week that Entertainment Weekly, which is owned by Time Inc., will be establishing a “contributor network” where bloggers will be “compensated in the form of prestige, access to the brand’s editors and a huge potential readership audience.” Presitge, of course, is worth even less than dogecoin when it comes to paying rent, and just one week later, Hollywood Reporter broke the news that Entertainment Weekly is laying off longtime critics and writers Owen Gleiberan, Nick Catucci and Annie Barret. If you don’t see the connection between these two moves, you’re not paying attention.

Meanwhile, media observer and journalist Jim Romenesko reported last week that the Northeast Ohio Media Group, which operates Cleveland.com, is instituting a “zero–tolerance policy for typos,” and its content chief has suggested that reporters enlist their spouses in helping them avoid mistakes. A frustrated reporter wrote to Romenesko that such a move was predictable because there are no copy editors on the digital side of the news operation, and “an entire layer of editors” has been laid off. As labor historian Jacob Remes put it on Twitter, what’s really happening here could be headlined, “Publisher demands labor that used to be done by paid copy editors be done by unpaid wives.”

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Earlier this month, writer Yasmin Nair shook up leftist academic circles in an essay arguing that “those who write for free or very little simply because they can afford to are scabs.” Nair’s statement provoked much debate among writers who are trying to navigate an industry that increasingly demands unpaid work and has been successful in getting its way. Many objected to Nair’s definition of “scab,” which seems to me both beside the point and unresolvable. (I worked for a labor union for four years and witnessed many discussions between organizers and workers with far more experience about the true definition of a scab. Some of us called anyone who crossed a picket line—worker or customer—a scab. Others reserved it for replacement workers during a strike. Some contend that it really applies only to union members who work during strikes. When in doubt, don’t cross a picket line.)

For Martin, the debate hits home. “I worry about that on a very personal level,” she says. “Every time I write something for free, somebody else gets paid less or offered less. I think that’s true, and I don’t think anyone is disputing that in this argument.” But she understands why people do it, and instead of having writers focus on one another, she wants to point the conversation back to understanding the economic system and arming writers with information. “To me the data is just the first step,” she says. “It’s always interesting to me when people really just want the numbers. But the numbers have stories around them and the stories around them are the important thing. Hopefully a group of workers who are at heart story tellers can figure out a way to talk about it.”


Read Next: Michelle Chen outlines the problems with the tipped minimum wage.

Chris Hayes on Paternity Leave: ‘Take Some Time With Your Frickin’ Kid’

Chris Hayes

New York Mets second baseman David Murphy was harshly criticized in the sports media this week. His crime? Murphy missed two games for the birth of his first child. The issue was humorously addresed on All in With Chris Hayes by guest host Joy Reid, joined via telephone by Hayes, who was himself on paternity leave. The irony of the situation was not lost on him. "There's actually a nice, tight analogy here between cable news and baseball," he said. "They play 162 games, OK? He's going to miss three games, which is, by the way, in the collective bargaining agreement that the union negotiated." Hayes had no sympathy for the "neanderthalish" views of sportscasters like Boomer Esiason and Mike Francesa. "Take some time with your frickin’ kid and take some time with the partner in your life who brought the kid into the world" he said. "That actually is part of being a man."
Dustin Christensen

Brown Students and Workers Unite to Convince the University to Boycott an Exploitative Hotel

Renaissance protest

Santa Brito and her coworkers picket outside the Providence Renaissance Hotel. (Photo courtesy of Unite Here Local 217)

Santa Brito, a housekeeper at the Renaissance Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island, was cleaning rooms the day her water broke. “I was afraid,” she said. “I kept working throughout my pregnancy because people said the company was very aggressive.” Raquel Cruz, also a housekeeper, told The Nation that managers at the Renaissance refused to give her and other pregnant women light duty, even when their doctors ordered it. “At thirty to thirty-five weeks, they still want you to do the same job, the same number of rooms. And you have to keep working because otherwise you lose your job.” A week after giving birth, Brito called the hotel. “They told me they didn’t know when I could come back to work.… They told me they couldn’t guarantee my job.” A week later she was fired.

In 2011, the Renaissance gained some unwanted notoriety when Joey DeFrancesco quit his job at the hotel with the help of his bandmates in the What Cheer? Brigade. A video of Joey’s raucous exit has 4.3 million views on YouTube. “They were stealing our tip money, paying us poverty wages, making us work double or triple shifts,” DeFrancesco told The Nation. “When I quit, I didn’t want to go quietly.” Last March, in response to this ongoing cycle of abuse, 75 percent of Renaissance workers signed a petition demanding a fair process to join a union. Since then, they’ve held informational pickets outside the hotel almost every Wednesday. The Renaissance—owned by the Procaccianti Group—has responded with an intense anti-union campaign. Raquel’s husband, Marino Cruz, who also works at the Renaissance, says that as soon as the workers went public with their demands, the managers “started attacking the leaders. Giving them more work. And looking for excuses to fire them.”

On December 4, the workers escalated their campaign by declaring a boycott. “Our bodies suffer from the work yet we live on the edge of poverty,” the workers’ statement read. “We ask all people of good conscience not to patronize the Renaissance Hotel until we are able to work and live with dignity.” The Unitarian Universalist Association, which had intended to have its convention at the Renaissance, canceled 847 reservations. Local politicians voiced their support. And last week, thanks to the combined efforts of students and hotel workers, the Brown University Community Council (BUCC) voted to discourage the Brown community from patronizing the Renaissance.

Since the fall, members of Brown’s Student Labor Alliance (SLA) had been marching with Renaissance workers on the picket lines, providing a welcome burst of energy to the weekly demonstrations. But when the boycott started, students hatched a plan to use Brown’s clout in the Providence hospitality industry—the university brings thousands of parents, alumni and visiting scholars to the city each year—to support the workers’ effort. “We have certain leverage at Brown to transform the everyday lives of working people in our community,” says Mariela Martinez, a senior SLA member who goes by the name Mar, “We have to use it.”

Moving fast, SLA members drafted a resolution in support of the boycott and secured a spot for the issue on the agenda at the next BUCC meeting in February. They invited workers from the Renaissance to attend and share their stories. It’s part of SLA’s job, Martinez says, to force the administration to confront the lived experiences of people who they might otherwise see as nothing more than the service they provide. “It’s really easy to be stuck in an office on College Hill, and not be touched by these stories,” she told The Nation. “What student labor alliance does is bring the human aspect of the workers’ lives and stories to the forefront.”

Since Procaccianti bought the hotel in late 2012, those stories have only gotten worse. For months, workers complained to managers that new cleaning chemicals were burning and irritating their hands and faces. Nothing was done. Then an OSHA investigation revealed that the hotel had been using faulty spray bottles with mismatched tops and providing poor hand protection. Noxious chemicals were spilling all over workers’ skin. When I spoke with Raquel Cruz, she showed me burn marks still visible on her hands. Her husband Marino said coworkers exposed to the chemicals were still getting rashes and nosebleeds. The hotel was fined $8000 for the OSHA violations.

At the meeting in February, the students presented their case for a resolution in support of the boycott—citing a similar measure passed in 2011 during a labor dispute at a unionized hotel. Santa Brito, who has become one of the fiercest leaders in the hotel since getting her job back (with the help of the Department of Labor), told her story. She lifted her sleeves to show the burn marks on her forearms. She talked about her child. But either because the students had gotten on the agenda too late and had already used up their time; or because the councilmembers, unable to understand Brito’s rapid Dominican Spanish, couldn’t adequately gauge the gravity of what she was saying; or because of something else, more tragic and obvious than either of those, the facilitator of the meeting—President Christina Paxson herself—interrupted Brito and said they would have to table the matter for another time. The meeting ended without a vote.

Many SLA members were outraged. They felt as though the council had deliberately marginalized Brito and her story. But they were also galvanized. “You have to go through the official channels,” Martinez explained, “Not because you believe they will work, but because when they don’t work, it shows how corrupt the system is.” That moment “when Santa was cut off,” Martinez said, “was a concrete demonstration of how workers’ stories are brushed to the side at Brown.” Over the course of the next month, SLA went outside the “official channels,” passing out hundreds of leaflets at Brown’s extravagant 250th Anniversary events, getting media coverage on campus and raising awareness. They collected hundreds of petition signatures and met with individual members of the BUCC to win their support.

In early March, there was another BUCC meeting. SLA packed the room with supporters. Once again, workers came and shared their stories, adding to the ever-growing list of grievances against the Procaccianti Group. (A pending NLRB complaint contends that the hotel’s anti-union tactics violate the NLRA.) And this time, after some nitpicking over the language, the council voted almost unanimously in support of the resolution, which “encourages the Brown community to take all appropriate measures to avoid holding any events at the Renaissance during the current labor dispute.”

The resolution does not use the words “union” or “boycott.” Marisa Quinn, Brown’s vice president for public affairs, told The Nation that the resolution merely requires the university to “provide information” so that “visitors can make individual choices regarding hotel options.” She affirmed, however, that Brown’s events services and purchasing department “will refrain from using the hotel” until the dispute is resolved. Quinn, the only person on the council who did not support the resolution, says she “would have preferred to wait until after the NLRB review” to take action.

Still, the resolution is a victory. And the workers are grateful. “The students have supported us an incredible mount,” said Marino Cruz. “They’ve really had our backs, and we’re ready to support them in whatever fight comes.” This idea of reciprocity, of fighting each other’s fights was something I heard again and again from workers at the Renaissance. It’s a labor movement thing (an injury to one…), but it has a different resonance when applied to the relationship of solidarity between low-wage service industry workers and students at an Ivy League college.

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Martinez, who comes from a working-class family in South-Central Los Angeles, was sheepish when I told her about all the gratitude expressed by Marino and Raquel Cruz. “Whenever they say stuff like that, we say, ‘No it’s actually all of you that inspire us, we’re doing the little bits that we can, but the reason we do this is that we’re already so astonished by the work that you are doing.’” Martinez feels this especially strongly about the Renaissance workers. “They are facing real intimidation on a daily basis.… We’re just going to class and going to meetings. We’re not in any real danger.”

But Marino Cruz doesn’t see it that way, “They may go to a wealthy university and live different lives than us, but they have noble hearts, they have pure hearts. They are fighters, just like us.”

For his part, DeFrancesco has sought to use his erstwhile YouTube fame to amplify the message of the Renaissance workers, maintaining a website where service workers across the country can share their stories of abuse and resistance. “The organizing my co-workers continue to do is obviously way braver and far more important than the viral stunt I pulled,” he told The Nation, “Fighting—not quitting—is what actually wins better working conditions.”


Read Next: {Young}ist reclaims the millennial narrative.

Gore Vidal: At 10, I Wanted to be Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney in Beverly Hills, California, in 2012. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Mickey Rooney, who died April 6, had many fans, including 10-year-old Gore Vidal. “What I really wanted to be,” Vidal wrote in his memoir Point to Point Navigation, “was a movie star: specifically, I wanted to be Mickey Rooney.” The inspiration? Not the “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” musicals Rooney made for MGM with Judy Garland—it was his role as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt and released in 1935, when Rooney was 14. “I wanted to play Puck, as he had,” Vidal recalled.

Gore took his first step toward becoming a movie star in a 1936 newsreel, when he took off and landed a plane—under the supervision of his father, the director of Air Commerce for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The idea was to show that anybody could fly a plane, even a kid. So Gore took off and landed for the cameras—and then faced the newsreel interviewer. But he had trouble speaking; “I resembled not Mickey Rooney but Peter Lorre in M,” he recalled. “My screen test had failed.”

Nevertheless Mickey Rooney’s Puck changed Gore Vidal’s life. “Bewitched” by the performance, he recalled, “I read the play, guessing at half the words; then, addicted to this strange new language, I managed to read most of Shakespeare before I was sixteen.” Vidal became a writer instead of a movie star, and the rest is history.

Even today Rooney’s Puck remains striking. David Thomson wrote in his Biographical Dictionary of Film that the performance remains “one of cinema’s most arresting pieces of magic.”

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I ran into Mickey Rooney on a LA–New York flight shortly after Gore Vidal’s memoir was published. He looked old and tired. I asked him if he had seen what Gore Vidal wrote about him in his new memoir. He said “no,” and made it clear that he was irritated at the unwanted interruption. I told him how inspired the young Gore had been by Mickey’s Puck. Rooney paused, and then smiled his famous smile. “Gore Vidal—wow!” he said.

He thanked me, and I went back to my seat.


Read Next: Jon Wiener commemorates the life and work of Gore Vidal.

Is America Uncomfortable With Black Rage?

Mychal Denzel Smith

“How do we express a rage about the lack of progress while also acknowledging that our circumstances are not that of our forebearers?” asks MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry of a panel that includes Nation.com blogger and Nation Institute fellow Mychal Denzel Smith. Smith, whose recent Nation.com post, “The Function of Black Rage” is used as a focal point for the segment, responds, “We do just that.” While it is a good thing black people in America are no longer slaves, says Smith, “we have so much more to do,” pointing to issues like mass incarceration and food insecurity that often go unacknowledged as “racism, that are the products of white supremacy.”
—Corinne Grinapol

An Appreciative Goodbye

Jessica Valenti

The Nation has always been special to me—when I was growing up, my parents always had a copy on the coffee table, and Katha’s column was some of the first feminist writing I ever read. Being exposed to The Nation from a young age had a real impact on my politics and worldview, and it’s continued to be a place where I’ve learned and grown.

It’s been an honor to write for The Nation, and its incredible editors and writers have been smart, supportive and inspiring. So it’s with a lot of sadness that I say goodbye. Starting April 21, I’ll be writing a daily column at The Guardian.

I am so proud of the work that I’ve done while here—my pieces on topics from rape and domestic violence to abortion politics and pop culture. I’m especially grateful that my editors Emily Douglas and Richard Kim helped me to hone my arguments and strengthen my writing. I’m leaving here a much better writer than I came in, and that’s thanks to them. I am also grateful to The Nation community, online and off, for their passion and support—thank you for reading my work, and for challenging me to be better.

I hope you’ll both follow my writing at its new home and continue to support the wonderful and important work that The Nation does. I know I’ll always have a copy on my coffee table for my daughter to see as she gets older.

Thanks for everything—and goodbye!

A Diplomatic Resolution to the Crisis Over Ukraine Is Still Possible

Crimea, March 17, 2014

A rally participant waves a Russian flag in front of a statue of Lenin in Crimea, March 17, 2014. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Last month the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a series of proposals for mediating the international confrontation over Ukraine. Controversially, the Russian plan includes the creation of a negotiating group that would exclude the government in Kiev. Russia also wants Ukraine to adopt a federal model of government with vast regional autonomy, as well as to commit to never joining NATO. Longtime Nation contributor Stephen Cohen joins Pacifica Radio’s Beneath The Surface with Suzi Weissman to discuss Russia’s “diplomatic overture,” which Western diplomats and media have largely disregarded. “I think the Russians are right about this,” says Cohen. “You need to have a constitution and a state that reflects the reality of the two Ukraines.”

—David Kortava

Why Are Teachers and Students Opting Out of Standardized Testing?

Second-grade student reads in preparation for a test. (AP Photo/ Jose F. Moreno)

Second-grade student reads in preparation for a test. (AP Photo/ Jose F. Moreno)

After years of drilling, assessing and scoring youth to exhaustion, more than 25,000 kids in New York have defied the educational establishment in a test of wills. The “opt out” movement has exploded in schools across the state and other regions of the country, as students, parents and teachers resist the standardized testing regime that has fueled a free-market assault on public education.

Some New York teachers have placed themselves at the vanguard of test resisters, alongside student and parent activists, and are now using their professional leverage to deepen the battle lines in the ideological conflict over education reform.

The rebellion stirring in city classrooms was presented recently to New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in an open letter from a group of “Teachers of Conscience” at the Earth School, an elementary school in Manhattan. Accompanied by a philosophical position paper detailing principles of a progressive education, the teachers declared their opposition to English language exams for third-to-eight graders:

We can no longer, in good conscience, push aside months of instruction to compete in a city-wide ritual of meaningless and academically bankrupt test preparation. We have seen clearly how these reforms undermine teachers’ love for their profession and undermine students’ intrinsic love of learning.

And there’s something to hate for everyone in these standardized tests. Students become miserable and bored with constant test-prep; parents and caregivers grow frustrated with curricula that seem to be failing their children (inspiring them to organize likeminded families to facilitate their children’s test resistance); and teachers have raged against the imposition of formulaic, stress-inducing reading and math drills on their classes. The latest batch of English tests left educators and students feeling “outraged,” “defeated” and “devalued,” according to reviews on an online teacher forum. (At several schools, including the Earth School, the majority of students refused the exams.)

In economically and racially stratified school systems like New York’s, the testing blitzkrieg and the data obsession that fuels it has become a cudgel for neoliberal policymakers to pressure schools to operate more like corporate enterprises than as community institutions.

Jia Lee, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at the Earth School and mother of an opt-outer, says the test-resistance in her community crystallized organically as parents began talking to each other about how testing was affecting their children. Because the exams had been imposed with “very little engagement and decision-making on the bottom,” Lee tells The Nation, families have pushed back by organizing themselves. The grassroots, parent-led opt-out initiatives build on the community mobilizations that have snowballed since the Bush administration launched No Child Left Behind. The protests and petitions recently culminated in a City Council resolution opposing high-stakes testing, backed by teacher unions and national education and civil rights groups. By putting down their pencils, students aren’t just jamming the test machinery but all it symbolizes—namely, the dominance of commercial testing protocols pushed by big brands like Pearson, and robotic curricula aimed at making kids “globally competitive.”

Organized non-compliance, Lee says, enables community members to “deny the data, starve the data beast. Because… these high stakes tests are like the central nervous system to this entire operation.”

Alongside the Earth School faculty, educators at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning high school in Forest Hills, Queens, has issued a public statement lamenting the emotional and intellectual cost of of the test regime (see also Peter Rothberg’s note on PS 129’s opt-out campaign):

One teacher at our school asked her seventh-graders how they felt about the tests. The word “scared” came up multiple times, as did the word “hate.” “I feel nervous,” said one, “because you think you’re not going to pass.” Another protested, “I don’t think tests show our learning, and they don’t show our growth.” A third stated, “It makes it more possible to fail.”

For many city schools, failure is the new normal; the 2013 tests—which followed a new format and were widely criticized for being unfair, slopppily managed and riddled with confusing errors—resulted in “failing” grades for more than two-thirds of students.

The dismal data stream fed into the Bloomberg administration’s campaign to shutter many “low performing” schools, often in underserved communities of color. Even when not threatened with closure, the storm of negative numbers can undermine a school community, factoring into funding cuts, eroding children’s morale, and potentially affecting grade promotion and teachers’ job security.

When a school’s fate hinges on such narrow measures of achievement, educators are also hindered from exploring alternative forms of academic assessment, such as multidiscipinary long-term projects, rather than driving what the Teachers of Conscience call “the inept data-factories of education corporations.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Chancellor Fariña have cautiously signaled willingness to ease up on testing requirements. Moreover, the roll-out of the new Common Core standards might come with an initial grace period, so low scores will for now not be a major factor in grading or teachers’ professional evaluations—an acute issue in talks with teachers’ unions. Still, the movement is surging ahead of officialdom. The opt-out activists now represent a coalition of both affluent and working-class school communities, and progressive educators are demanding that schools employ an equally diverse array of programs and assessment tools to foster a more holistic academic experience.

For Lee, all this number crunching is the antithesis of a progressive education. Kids do need some basic academic skills, Lee says, but in the context of a well-rounded pedogagy, “[for] educators who believe strongly in…. developing the whole child—you see these tests as trying to turn the child into some kind of number based on artificially set standards.… that, to me, goes against the very reasons why we go into this profession.”

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Teachers are arguably taking a bigger risk than students in refusing to administer the tests. Officials in New York and Chicago have generally stated that student and faculty are allowed to opt out of exams, but reports of retaliation have surfaced. Earlier this year, the Chicago Teachers Union and community members who have opted out of the Illinois State Achievement Test have reportedly experienced bullying and intimidation by school authorities, and even threats of delicensing against participating teachers.

In New York, according to Chalkbeat NY, the anti-test advocacy group Change the Stakes received reports of at least fifty parents being admonished or threatened with penalties over opting out.

The reports of retaliation speak to the toxic mentality creeping through the school system. Instead of classrooms serving as an incubator for childhood curiosity and imagination, the “reformed” public school today is starting to resemble, well, any other workplace, where workers are dragged through an oppressive daily grind, girded by boredom, mistrust and ultimately, institutional disillusionment.

The families and educators who have opted out might be taking a militant stance, but with the integrity of public education under threat, no high-stakes data points can trump the defense of the open mind.

“I hope more teachers feel empowered to take a stand,” says Lee. “And I know of teachers who are just ready. They’re just done.”

Or rather: now they’re ready for the real test.

Read Next: Brooklyn teachers are pushing back against high-stakes testing, reports Peter Rothberg.